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Miss Bouvèé has something to say about Florida's drag bans

Miss Bouvèé has something to say about Florida's drag bans

<p>Miss Bouvèé has something to say about Florida's drag bans</p>
Photo by Timmy Mark Wakefield; Styling by Dan Gagnon

This drag performer reflects on the lasting impact the state's anti-drag bans have had a year after they were put into motion.

“I had thousands of dollars of Pride work lined up for [last] June,” says Miss Bouvèé, who moved from Michigan to Florida in October 2020 to make a living as a drag performer and cabaret singer. “I mean, we’re talking pay-your-rent-for-the-rest-of-summer kind of work. And, on May 17, 2023, it was gone. It was like COVID times all over again.”

On that date, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed new laws targeting LGBTQ+ people. The pieces of legislation expanded the state’s existing “don’t say gay” law, placed bans on gender-affirming care, restricted what bathrooms transgender people are allowed to use, and heavily censored drag shows. Most of the new laws went into effect immediately.

“It was signed on May 17, and within 48 hours I heard from various events related to Key West Pride, St. Pete Pride, and Wilton Manors Stonewall Pride,” says Bouvèé. “Many of them called me and said, ‘We can’t risk this.’”

She explains that what was “normally a very lucrative time for a drag queen” suddenly went dry. “I had to sit with my husband and say, ‘I don’t know how I’m going to contribute my half of our finances.’ I’m a full-time drag queen.”

By her own estimates, Bouvèé has lost over $10,000 from canceled gigs as a result of the bans. And even when she found venues willing to book drag queens, brutal precautions were taken to conceal their performances. “It was literally like, ‘Let’s draw the shades, get the curtains closed, make sure the windows are tinted. Doors can’t be opened to the street when there’s a drag show.’ It was infuriating.”

She also notes that, for various reasons, “outdoor performances [bring] a higher revenue gross for the performer. Without them, I had to do twice as many indoor shows.”

Students protest one of Gov. DeSantis's anti-LGBTQ+ bills in March of 2023SnapSaintPete/Shutterstock

Bouvèé says her biggest heartbreak, however, came from the Wilton Manors Stonewall Pride Parade. “No live drag performances were permitted out on stage. They said I could stand on a float. Well, standing on a float doesn’t pay my rent,” Bouvèé says. “Many people showed up in drag in solidarity, which I’ll never forget. But it was somewhat demeaning. To carry the name ‘Stonewall’ and not protest in any way…. And the city commissioners — some of them are my friends — voted unanimously to uphold this. The Pride organizers didn’t flinch. They just said that all bars were advised not to have drag performances outside, and everybody listened.”

She adds, “None of the commissioners, the city, the organizers, or the bars offered any kind of assistance or financial help. It was very, very, very disappointing.”

Wilton Manors Stonewall Pride CEO Jeffrey Sterling denies to The Advocate that the event had an agenda against drag queens, explaining that venue owners were concerned about fighting lawsuits, paying fines, or having their liquor licenses revoked. When business owners asked Sterling how to proceed, he advised them to adhere to the law signed by DeSantis, as best as he could interpret it anyway. This led to a more “family-friendly” approach to Stonewall Pride that excluded things like nudity and swearing — which Sterling argues might have affected, limited, or even targeted drag performances.

Sterling insists that, unless a venue leased space on city property, “no one was under any orders,” and each establishment was able to make its own decisions about hiring drag queens or not.

In May of 2023, Wilton Manors mayor Scott Newton wrote in a newsletter that certain changes to the event were “necessary to protect our businesses, and to minimize the risk of receiving penalties, fines, and legal repercussions” while noting that “the amended special event permit in no way bans or prohibits any member of our community from expressing themselves. It does, however, seek to ensure that adult performances take place where only adults are present.”

LGBTQ+ venues and events in the U.S. aren’t historically known for being in positions of power and/or solid financial stability. Significant financial damage, like fines ranging from $5,000 to $10,000, as well as lawsuits that could result in prison time and alleged threats to revoke a venue’s liquor license, could destroy a business overnight. Bouvèé acknowledges these legitimate risks and concerns from that period, but also points to a north star that came to the rescue of drag performers under attack.

“We owe everything to Hamburger Mary’s Orlando, which led the fight against [the Florida drag bans],” says Bouvèé. “They said, ‘No, we’re not going to take this. This infringes on our right to work; on our income and revenue.’ They sued, it went all the way to the top, and a judge overthrew it. That’s what should have happened from the get-go.”

On June 23, 2023, U.S. District Judge Gregory Presnell ruled against DeSantis’s drag bans after the owners of Hamburger Mary’s Orlando sued the state of Florida. And on November 17, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Florida could not enforce its drag ban — which put an indefinite end to it.

Bouvèé is still processing the losses and disappointments from the past year and booked herself to be out of town during Wilton Manor’s 2024 Pride event. “I’m actually choosing to…be out of the country for Stonewall Pride,” she says. “It’s bittersweet, because I don’t even know if I were here that I would choose to go.”

A year later, Bouvèé is booked and blessed again — but says she’s still concerned that conservative politicians might introduce new anti-LGBTQ+ laws and is worried a lack of community support would repeat itself.

“There was a missed opportunity to unite,” she adds. “I hope that it never happens again.”

Miss Bouvèé's photo by Timmy Mark Wakefield; Styling by Dan Gagnon

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