Undercover agents saw nothing ‘lewd’ at Orlando drag show. Florida is going after venue anyway

Tribune Content Agency

When the historic Plaza Live theater in Orlando hosted an event last December called “A Drag Queen Christmas,” the show drew a full house, noisy street demonstrators — and a small squad of undercover state agents there to document whether children were being exposed to sights that ran afoul of Florida’s decency law.

The Dec. 28 performance featured campy skits like “Screwdolph the Red-Nippled Man Deer” and shimmying, bare-chested men who wouldn’t have been out of place at a Madonna concert. Also a hip thrust or two, similar to what is sometimes indulged in by NFL players after a touchdown. All of it was dutifully recorded by the undercover agents on state-issued iPhones.

But while the agents took photos of three minors — who appeared to be accompanied by adults — at the Orlando drag show, they acknowledged that nothing indecent had happened on stage, according to an incident report obtained exclusively by the Miami Herald.

“Besides some of the outfits being provocative (bikinis and short shorts), agents did not witness any lewd acts such as exposure of genital organs,” the brief report stated. “The performers did not have any physical contact while performing to the rhythm of the music with any patrons.”

Still, the state’s Department of Business and Professional Regulation proceeded to file a complaint against the nonprofit that runs Plaza Live, claiming the venue had illegally exposed children to sexual content. The complaint, issued Feb. 3, seeks to strip the small, nonprofit theater of its liquor license — a serious blow that would likely put it out of business.

It’s all part of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ statewide crackdown on drag shows, which could escalate further as legislators draft new laws to tighten restrictions on venues that allow minors into those performances. DeSantis has said he believes “sexualized” drag shows are dangerous for kids.

Ahead of the Orlando event, state officials warned the Plaza Live not to let in children. Far-right figures — including the social-media account Libs of TikTok and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Georgia Republican — had been raising the alarm for days about the show, which toured the nation before coming to Florida.

DBPR, which regulates alcohol sales in Florida and has its own sworn cops, says it has the authority to strip liquor licenses from venues that violate state law. DeSantis himself has said the goal is to financially hurt venues that allow children to see drag.

“Having kids involved in this is wrong,” the governor said last year. “It is a disturbing trend in our society to try to sexualize these young people. That is not the way you look out for our children, you protect children, you do not expose them to things that are inappropriate.”

Based on the agents’ photos and videos, DBPR said the Plaza Live had allowed children to see “acts of sexual conduct, simulated sexual activity, and lewd, vulgar and indecent displays” — in violation of state laws that ban showing “lewd or lascivious” materials to minors under the age of 16.

Although the complaint asserted that the Plaza Live broke decency laws, prosecutors have not filed criminal charges. The state is handling the case as a license-compliance matter.

In the adult-entertainment industry, obscene acts generally include touching, sexual manipulation, or exposing an erection — none of which happened at the Plaza Live or any of the other venues targeted by the state over similar allegations since last summer.

Carlos Guillermo Smith, a former Democratic state legislator from Orlando, said the report from state agents proves that the “moral panic” about drag shows is a “hoax.”

“What you see here is the governor sending in investigators and then dismissing what the investigators have to say because it doesn’t fit into his narrative,” said Guillermo Smith, who now works for Equality Florida, an LGBTQ rights group. “It’s more evidence that all of this … is contrived, it’s politically motivated. And it’s not about protecting children. It’s part of an ongoing effort to marginalize LGBT people and their allies because that’s the vehicle that will get him to … the GOP nomination.”

He pointed out that parents can choose what movies to take their children to without the state interfering.

DeSantis — who has said that parents need more rights in other areas like schools — does not advocate for parental choice when it comes to drag shows.

DBPR is also seeking to stop two other Miami venues — the Hyatt Regency Miami hotel and R House in Wynwood — from serving liquor. The Hyatt hosted the same “Drag Queen Christmas” that played in Orlando. R House hosted a drag queen weekend brunch. Venues in Fort Lauderdale and Clearwater also put on “A Drag Queen Christmas,” although DBPR hasn’t filed complaints against them.

DeSantis is widely expected to launch a bid for president in the next few months. His drag crackdown has won him national attention in conservative circles — and sparked fear and anger in Florida’s LGBTQ community. It is part of a wave of legislation around the country targeting drag shows.

The group that runs the Plaza Live, the Orlando Philharmonic Plaza Foundation, declined to comment for this story. The group previously said that the Plaza Live has hosted drag performances with no issues for eight straight years.

Recently, though, the political climate for such events has changed.

Conservative activists are pushing to limit children’s attendance at drag events, even when they are advertised as “family friendly,” like book readings for kids at libraries. The efforts have given birth to groups such as Gays against Groomers that equate children learning about LGBTQ issues with child abuse.

The governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment about the report. Neither did DBPR.

‘Politically motivated’

DeSantis’ office has said the state is simply responding to complaints from concerned citizens about drag shows.

“We thank the public for continuing to bring attention to these incidents,” DeSantis spokesman Bryan Griffin said in a statement posted on Twitter last year.

But when asked for copies of those complaints, DBPR simply provided links to several Tweets.

One came from Libs of TikTok, a social media account that scornfully chronicles gay and transgender issues.

Another was from Taylor Greene, the ultra-conservative Georgia congresswoman known for spinning wild conspiracy theories.

“This is intentional grooming of children by both the parents and the performers,” Taylor Greene wrote.

Last summer, the state also said it was responding to “public outrage” in response to the R House drag brunch. In fact, the controversy was traced back to a well-known conservative influencer, Lauren Chen.

“Hey, DeSantis, you need to be on top of this,” Chen said in a viral TikTok video. “I absolutely want to see these people thrown in jail.”

Ann Berendzen, an Orlando resident who attended the Plaza Live performance, said the attacks on drags shows have no basis in reality.

“I’m almost 60 and it was my first drag show,” Berendzen said. “I had a blast. I thought it was hilarious.”

She said she was shocked when she saw the state’s complaint.

“Every one of the accusations is false. They’re not exaggerated. They are completely false. It’s gross,” Berendzen said. “You’d see more sexuality in a Las Vegas show.”

DeSantis is charging headlong into the culture wars on more than just drag shows.

The governor’s policies have targeted abortion rights, transgender healthcare and how public schools, private employers and universities address subjects like racism, sexual orientation and gender identity.

‘A form of expression’

Despite the political storm, legal experts have cast doubt on claims that shows like “A Drag Queen Christmas” violate Florida’s decency laws.

The incident report from the undercover agents only adds to the weakness of the state’s case, attorneys said.

“This document would be exhibit A for the defense,” said Fritz Wermuth, a Central Florida litigator who has handled First Amendment cases.

Daniel Aaronson, a criminal defense lawyer and freedom of speech expert, agreed.

“To me, the report is a clean bill of health: They are saying, ‘We did not observe a crime,’ “ Aaronson said.

While shows like a “Drag Queen Christmas” might not be to everyone’s taste, that’s how art and theater work — and the state shouldn’t censor them, said Adam Steinbaugh, an attorney with the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), a national free speech group.

“Drag is a form of speech, it is a form of expression,” Steinbaugh said. “Some people might find it offensive. The solution to that is: Don’t go. If it’s not your cup of tea, don’t drink it.”

Drag refers to performers dressing up as other genders and has been used in the theater from ancient Greece through Shakespeare and beyond.

Steinbaugh said the state was usurping the responsibilities of parents — and wielding alcohol licenses as a cudgel to censor venues that host drag.

“Parents have the right to make choices about what their children see,” he said. “You can criticize that choice, but you can’t censor it.”

As a result of the state’s crackdown, venues may simply choose not to take the risk of hosting drag shows — a clear “chilling” effect on speech, Steinbaugh said.

FIRE obtained the documents, photographs and videos referenced in this story through a public records request and shared them with the Herald.

New restrictions on the horizon

In cracking down on drag shows, state regulators have had to cite existing laws against “public nuisances,” as well as a precedent set by the Florida Supreme Court in 1947 that defines “men impersonating women in the context of ‘suggestive and indecent’ performances” as such a nuisance.

Hours before doors opened for a “A Drag Queen Christmas,” DBPR delivered a letter to the Plaza Live warning it not to allow children into the show that evening.

The theater quickly posted a small, typed sign on a door stating: “While we are not restricting access to anyone under 18, please be advised some may think the context is not appropriate for under 18.”

One of the videos taken by agents appears to show a performer named Jimbo the Clown giving birth to a log of bologna and throwing slices to the crowd. (The DBPR complaint referred to the scene as a “graphic depiction … of childbirth and/or abortion.”) At one point, a video screen behind the performers displayed an image of a finger penetrating a wreath.

The Screwdolph skit contained the lyrics: “You know Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Vixen / Vomit and Stupid and Dildo and Dicks-in / But do you recall the most famous reindeer of all? / Screwdolph the Red-Nippled Reindeer had a very shiny bust.”’

Audience members whooped and applauded throughout.

Among other claims made in the complaint, DBPR alleged that performers illegally exposed “prosthetic female breasts and genitalia.”

But state law does not say it is illegal to expose minors to prosthetic body parts.

That may change during the current legislative session.

Republican lawmakers have introduced legislation that, if approved, will make it unlawful for children to witness “lewd exposure of prosthetic or imitation genitals or breasts.”

The restriction will apply in cases when the shows are “without serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value for the age of the child present,” or are considered “patently offensive,” or appeal to “a prurient, shameful, or morbid interest.”

Under the proposals, a person who knowingly admits a child into one of these performances would face a first-degree misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in prison.

House Speaker Paul Renner on Friday did not say whether he supported the penalties attached to the proposal. But he did assert that drag shows should be considered entertainment for adults, not children.

When asked whether parents should have the choice to bring their kids, Renner, a Republican, spoke only for himself: “This parent would not want my little kids having to answer questions about what is happening with the guy with the beard who is dressed like a woman.”

The Florida Legislature has consistently passed new laws expanding the powers of the state after DeSantis’ previous actions ran into trouble in court, including the governor’s migrant flight program and his prosecutions of alleged voter fraud.

Before the state can revoke a liquor license, businesses are allowed to request a hearing in front of an administrative law judge. Cases can take as long as two years to resolve. Losing a liquor license is the most severe penalty that can result from a violation.

Patty Sheehan, an Orlando city commissioner who attended the Plaza Live show, said the claim that children are being harmed is “absurd.”

Sheehan said the theater’s director of security confirmed that three minors were in the audience — but told her they were all teenagers accompanied by their parents.

In their report, the state agents pegged two of the kids they saw as between the ages of six and eight and an older child at 14. The conservative website Florida’s Voice posted a video of what appeared to be a young girl watching the show.

Sheehan said she did see younger children waiting in line to enter the venue. But she said she had seen anti-drag protesters bringing them there.

“They were putting these young children in line to make it look like they were going into the theater,” she said.

Although protesters called audience members “groomers” and yelled obscenities at them, the commissioner said she thoroughly enjoyed “A Drag Queen Christmas.” The show was so full that she had to watch from a folding chair in back.

“Some of it was weird, but that’s art,” Sheehan said. “Art is weird sometimes.”