City officials in Branson, the famous tourist town in Missouri, advanced a measure last week to restrict drag shows, thereby embracing a culture war manufactured by Christian nationalists instead of dealing with substantive policy issues in their problem-ridden city.
When Missouri lawmakers failed to advance a drag show ban out of the Statehouse this session, cities like Branson took it upon themselves to pass their own version of the ban.
If you’ve never been to Branson, let me paint a picture for you: Imagine a folksy, ultra watered-down version of Las Vegas. There are endless live shows, and bright lights that line the strip full of hotels and theaters. However, instead of catching a show at the Bellagio, you might go to Branson’s God and Country Theater. Instead of enjoying the view of the Vegas strip from the Stratosphere, you can take in the (admittedly beautiful) views of the Ozarks from Inspiration Tower at the Christian-themed Shepherd of the Hills amusement park. Hopefully, the picture is clear — Branson is Vegas if Vegas suddenly underwent a spiritual revival and started billing itself as “family friendly.”
What lies beneath the lights and the glitz that mark Branson’s strip is a far more tragic story. Branson’s poverty rate is nearly double that of the national rate. A study published by a local nonprofit highlights the fact that nearly 20 percent of residents are experiencing homelessness at any given time. Even with these urgent humanitarian crises staring the Board of Aldermen in the face, they chose to turn their attention to a “crisis” that has been manufactured by religious zealots across the country.
Branson is not alone in this. It is merely a microcosm of what happens when Christian nationalists are in charge. Take Tennessee, for example. Before a court ruled its ban on drag shows unconstitutional, lawmakers had passed a measure similar to the one approved in Branson. Tennessee ranks close to the bottom in terms of health care. Similarly, lawmakers in Louisiana, Arkansas and Mississippi, to name a few, also have seemingly prioritized anti-drag or other anti-LGBTQ+ legislation, while their states have among the highest poverty rates in the country and, just like Tennessee, rank among the worst in health care.
During the hearing, Branson’s Board of Aldermen heard from roughly 30 witnesses. Unsurprisingly, the majority of those supporting these restrictions cited the bible and/or Christianity in some capacity. Echoing the mindless talking points that have been manufactured by the religious right, Veronica Moore spoke at the public hearing in favor of the restrictions by saying, “For the sake of the little ones and future generations, I think Christians and moral people cannot stand by idly and allow your schools, your libraries, your hospitals and legislators and churches to be taken over by really what is a transgender craze.”
Rev. Bruce Peterson, however, got to the heart of the issue by saying, “We have many serious problems in our community, many of which we hide in the name of image and profit. . . . Compared to these serious problems, drag shows are a small problem. They don’t threaten our way of life. It’s time to get over discomfort about drag shows.”
Peterson’s underlying point is spot on. Drag shows are merely a source of discomfort to those who are blinded by religious dogma. City leaders in Branson, like officials in many other parts of the country, are deflecting constituency attention away from very real issues that plague their city by hyping a manufactured “crisis.” It’s time Branson officials put an end to this ridiculous crusade and get to work to enact meaningful policy solutions that benefit all residents of the city. That is how a secular, reason-based government should operate.
Ryan Dudley joined FFRF as the State Policy Manager, a new position, in 2022. He has worked in advocacy roles for a number of nonprofits, as well as a nonpartisan legislative research analyst for both the Colorado General Assembly and the Wisconsin General Assembly. Ryan also served in the Army National Guard from 2007-2015. He earned a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science from Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi and a Master of Public Policy from DePaul University in Chicago.