A drag performance last week at a diversity event attended by Columbia middle schoolers was “high-brow and innocent,” not the salacious sexual display alleged by Missouri Republicans, the marketing director for the group behind the performance said Sunday.
At the annual Columbia Values Diversity Breakfast, timed to be near the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, three members of the drag performance group Nclusion Plus put on a musical show as part of the festivities.
The annual breakfast draws hundreds of attendees of various ages, and this year’s audience included about 30 middle-school aged students from Columbia Public Schools.
“The approach we took to songs, when we told the entertainers, was to offer something positive, uplifting, a song fit for a general family audience,” Brandon Banks, director of marketing for Nclusion Plus, said in an interview with The Independent.
Hours after the event, Missouri Senate President Pro Tem Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, tweeted that his office was “inundated with calls & emails re: grade school kids being forced to sit through a drag show” at the breakfast.
In his tweet, Rowden included a link to a Substack blog post by Libs of TikTok — which primarily shares content by LGBTQ creators and programs to a far-right audience. Libs of TikTok’s creator Chaya Raichik posted video footage of Thursday’s drag performances on her blog and Twitter.
The subjects of previous Libs of Tik Tok’s tweets have been overwhelmed with violent threats following the account’s posts.
Gov. Mike Parson added to the criticism on Friday, when his official Twitter account stated he was “deeply concerned about reports that Columbia middle school students were subjected to adult performers during what is historically a MLK Day celebration. This is unacceptable.”
And by Friday afternoon, Attorney General Andrew Bailey had sent letters to the Columbia Public Schools and Columbia city officials accusing them of violating laws protecting children from sexually explicit material.
In the nearly identical letters, Bailey accused district Superintendent Brian Yearwood and city Mayor Barbara Buffaloe of working “actively to undermine Missouri’s laws by deliberately subjecting a group of middle-school students to an adult-themed drag show performance.”
Bailey suggested that the performance violated a law requiring parents to be notified of the content of human sexuality education and to be given a chance to opt-out of that part of the curriculum. He also cited a new criminal statute making it class A misdemeanor to give “explicit sexual material” to a student.
The law defines the prohibited materials as depicting “human masturbation, deviate sexual intercourse (non-vaginal sexual relations), sexual intercourse, direct physical stimulation of genitals, sadomasochistic abuse, or emphasizing the depiction of postpubertal human genitals…”
Nothing even faintly resembling the prohibited explicit material was presented, Banks said.
“There was nothing sexual, nothing of any kind that this performance conveyed,” he said. “This was a completely G-rated, family-friendly, uplighting, motivational, positive experience.”
The conservative backlash, Banks said, ignores the content of the performance to make political points.
“It feels like we are being treated as the chum in the water for the sharks to feed on,” Banks said. “It is just fear-mongering at the end of the day and it feels like it is taking our community backwards.”
Each of the Nclusion Plus performers lip-synched a performance to a song – “Don’t call me baby,” recorded in 2008 by Kreesha Turner; “This Is My Life,” recorded in 1968 by Shirley Bassey; and “Collect My Love,” a 2015 recording by Alex Newell – and the trio performed together on the finale, “Hold On (For One More Day),” a 1990 song by Wilson Phillips.
In an interview Monday, Rowden said he didn’t understand what Banks means by a “G-rated” performance.
“That’s a distinction without a difference and it’s people looking for ways to justify things that they have no business trying to justify,” Rowden said.
The problem, Rowden said, was that the Columbia Public Schools permission slips sent to parents asking that students be allowed to attend did not specifically say that a drag performance was part of the program.
Rowden said he had meetings scheduled with district officials later this week.
“If a parent sent their child to a diversity event without knowing that there was going to be a drag show there, I think there was a failure of communication somewhere,” Rowden said. “So, I’d like to figure out where that was.”
District spokeswoman Michelle Baumstark, in a statement Friday, said “attendees are not provided specific details of the performances in advance of the event.”
Columbia Values Diversity Celebration advertised the event online as including “entertainment by Nclusion+,” which on its own website says it promotes “LGBTQIA+ events, media, and education.”
The district received complaints from two parents who sent a child to the event, Baumstark wrote in the district statement, and “also received numerous communications from parents who did NOT have students at the event, individuals who do NOT have children enrolled in CPS, and individuals who do NOT reside in our community.”
In a letter to Parson that was distributed to the district’s parents on Sunday, Yearwood pushed back against Bailey’s assertion that the performance violated any laws governing sex education or what materials can be provided to students.
“Any characterization of the ‘Columbia Values Diversity’ Breakfast as ‘child endangerment’ or having a ‘sexual nature’ or violating state law is categorically false,” Yearwood wrote. “Although CPS was unaware what the performance by NClusion+ would entail, their program was not an ‘adult’ performance. This type of misrepresentation is harmful to our students, our staff, and our community.”
The performers at Nclusion Plus did nothing more risque than might be seen in a high school theatrical performance, Banks said. The only reason it has come under attack, he said, was from people who don’t want children to know that gay people exist.
“If we have to be called into war, so to speak, that is just how we have to respond, to do something to defend our community when they need us,” Banks said. “But at the end of the day, we hope this is a blip on the radar and no harm was truly done.”
Two bills seek to add venues that exhibit drag performances to the list of establishments defined as “sexually oriented businesses.”
One of these bills, introduced by freshman Rep. Mazzie Boyd, R-Hamilton, will receive a public hearing Tuesday in the House’s General Laws Committee.
The House added her bill — and a slew of bills targeting transgender Missourians — to the committee’s agenda Monday.
The label of “sexually oriented business,” which currently includes establishments like strip clubs and adult boutiques, would limit the time and audience for venues presenting drag performances.
The establishments could only be open until midnight and no minors could enter. If included in the definition of sexually oriented business, drag venues would also be barred from serving alcohol.
This story was originally published by the Missouri Independent.