LGBTQ

Screwdolph the Red-Nippled Reindeer Draws Scrutiny of Florida Regulators

Longtime drag performer Nina West (center) is a host of "A Drag Queen Christmas."
Longtime drag performer Nina West (center) is a host of "A Drag Queen Christmas." Photo by Nina West / "Jingle Juice"
A Florida regulatory agency has opened a probe into child attendance at "A Drag Queen Christmas," a show that tours across the country, featuring drag performers doing off-color comedy and holiday-themed musical numbers such as "Tits in a Box."

Gov. Ron DeSantis' office announced that the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation (DBPR) opened the investigation after receiving "multiple complaints about a sexually explicit performance marketed to children held in Fort Lauderdale."

"The department is actively investigating this matter, including video footage and photographs from the event," DeSantis' press secretary Bryan Griffin said in a statement.

Part of a 36-city national tour, the show was hosted by Nina West and Trinity the Tuck at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts Au-Rene Theater on December 26.

A Drag Queen Christmas typically features live singing and lip-sync performances by alumni and previous winners of RuPaul's Drag Race, along with an appearance by choreographer and singer Todrick Hall. In the show's trademark "Screwdolph the Red-Nippled Reindeer" sketch, a performer in a reindeer costume with blinking-orange breasts dances in front of a video of reined men leading Santa Claus's sleigh. 

According to the show's marketing material, production company Murray & Peter Present has held the drag queen tour for the past eight years. The show stopped in Miami at the James L. Knight Center on December 27 before heading to Orlando and Clearwater, Florida, for the final tour dates of the year.

The Broward Center tells New Times that DBPR has not contacted it in connection with the probe.

"Please note that admission to Drag Queen Christmas on December 26 was limited to patrons 18 years or older unless accompanied by a parent. To ensure patrons were aware of the adult themes and content in the show, this information was on the website and ticket purchase page; all ticket buyers were also informed directly through a 'Know Before You Go' email, a customer communication that is sent out in advance of most shows," the Broward Center said in a statement.

On Instagram, attendees of the Fort Lauderdale show shared clips of the queens lip-syncing to songs like Mariah Carey's hit "All I Want for Christmas" in holiday-themed red and green dresses and candy-cane-striped bodysuits.

A protester interrupted the event, loudly repeating that "it is not right" for children to be in attendance. The man was met with jeers from the crowd before leaving the theater. When police told him to vacate the premises or face jail, he proclaimed, "You should arrest them for having children at this thing."

Critics of the tour have pointed to event descriptions that state "all ages are welcome." Footage of the Fort Lauderdale event shows the vast majority of the crowd were adults.

Eric Swanson, a drag performer who attended the Broward event, says there was ample notice that adult humor would be in store for the audience.

"What I saw was comedy, was schtick, was nothing different than what you see... on any given night flipping through your channels," Swanson tells New Times

"Don't buy an opera ticket and then complain they sang at the opera," says Swanson, who performs under the stage name Miss Bouvee. "I felt it was pretty obvious what you're coming into. And if this is going to offend you, you shouldn't be here."

Murray & Peter Present has not responded to New Times' request for comment.

The tour has generated backlash across the country recently, culminating in a segment on Tucker Carlson Tonight during which activist Tayler Hansen complained about child attendance. Hansen appeared particularly perturbed by the show's "Tits in a Box" segment featuring a performer donning fake exposed mammaries while opening presents under a Christmas tree, each of which is filled with breasts, as the segment title promises.

The Broward Center, which opened in 1991, hosts more than 700 performances yearly, including Broadway musicals, operas, ballets, plays, and concerts. According to its website, it also has an arts-in-education program that serves thousands of students a year.

Depending on what the DBPR probe finds, the department could file a complaint to revoke the Broward Center's liquor license or other state licenses.

Griffin said in his statement that the DBPR will "share any collected evidence with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement for potential criminal liability."

"Exposing children to sexually explicit is a crime in Florida, and such action violates the department's licensing standards for operating a business and holding a liquor license," Griffin said.

The controversy comes at a tense moment in the clash between DeSantis and LGBTQ rights advocates who have accused the governor of attempting to gain political clout among his base by tapping into the culture wars involving gay and transgender issues.

Meanwhile, threats and extremist protests have been mounting in recent months against producers of drag shows and venues that host them, according to the LGBTQ advocacy organization GLAAD. A recent analysis by the organization tracked "increasingly violent rhetoric and incidents as the year progressed," including the firebombing of a Tulsa doughnut shop that had hosted a drag event in October. Protests in which white supremacist and Nazi groups showed up outside drag events have been documented nationwide.

In July, DBPR, whose leader is appointed by DeSantis, launched a probe into popular Wynwood restaurant R House after a video circulated online showing one of its drag show performers wearing pasties and a thong while leading a child through the restaurant. The investigation yielded an administrative complaint in which the department is trying to revoke the restaurant's liquor license on the grounds that the business is a public nuisance and violated state lewdness law.

In September, R House responded in the administrative proceedings by pointing to pop music performers and celebrities who have worn thongs and performed provocative dances in Florida without triggering investigations by the state.

"The government should not penalize a minority business because parents chose to introduce their child to the art of drag performances, as is their right guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution and its Amendments, and the Florida Constitution," the restaurant's attorneys argued.

The performer at the center of the controversy said that a parent of the child seen in the widely circulated video had asked her to take the child by the hand because it was the girl's birthday. The dancer maintained she "would never do anything to hurt a child."

While protesters and conservative pundits, including Lauren Chen, have called for the arrest of adults who bring children to risqué drag shows, legal experts interviewed by New Times have noted that such a criminal case would have to prove the material is "harmful to minors" as defined by Florida's obscenity statute.

Criminal defense lawyer and obscenity law expert Jamie Benjamin said that to exceed that standard, a theatrical performance or film would have to shock community values and lack "serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value" for children.

Besiki Kutateladze, a criminal justice and hate crime researcher, cited the long-running tradition of drag performances in South Florida. "Every performer is different, and of course, you will have different interpretations of what is contemporary art," Kutateladze said in August in the wake of the R House controversy. "But I think the drag shows have the components to be viewed as art."

Update published 12/28/2022 4:35 p.m.: The Department of Business and Professional Regulation sent letters to venue operators at the James L. Knight Center in Miami and the Plaza Live in Orlando, threatening to take action against their state licenses if they allowed children to attend "A Drag Queen Christmas" events.

"If minors are allowed to attend this drag show, the Department will take any and all actions available to ensure that you do not pose a threat to minors in the future," a letter to the Orlando Philharmonic Plaza Foundation states.
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Naomi Feinstein is a fellow at Miami New Times. She spent the last year in New York City getting her master’s degree at the Columbia School of Journalism. She is also a proud alum of the University of Miami.
Contact: Naomi Feinstein

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