Louisville Built A Reputation For Drag And Its LGBTQ Scene. Kentucky Senate Bill 115 Could Kill That.

Editor’s Note: This story was written about the original version of SB 115. On Thursday, soon after this story was published, a significantly overhauled version of the bill was introduced. A copy of the new version seen by LEO Weekly carries criminal charges for drag performers who perform “sexually explicit” shows on public property or in other places where minors could see them. The bill drops a measure that would require “adult-oriented businesses” — including venues that hosted drag shows — to be located at least 1,000 feet from residences, schools, YMCAs and a number of other locations. The overhauled version of the bill passed out of committee on Thursday and will now head to the Senate floor.

As a young queer person growing up in Frankfort, Kentucky, drag queen Gilda Wabbit did not see people who embodied the person she knew she was. Wabbit’s head was constantly filled with people saying things like “gay people go to hell”  and “gay people are a problem.” 

It was an environment in which she felt like she could not exist as her true and intrinsic self.

“I am grateful that I failed, but when I was 18 years old I tried to kill myself because I was lonely [and] because I thought that I was a bad person,” said Wabbit, now 30.

Today, things are different. Same-sex marriages are recognized nationwide. The use of pronouns that reflect a person’s gender identity has become normalized. 

In Kentucky, queer people are visible and vibrant, with Louisville’s LGBTQ scene receiving national accolades. Meanwhile, Wabbit headlines shows at the Louisville LGBTQ nightclub Play and has appeared on the drag reality show Camp Wannakiki, which airs on YouTube.

But the livelihoods of Wabbit and other Kentucky drag queens could be in jeopardy if Senate Bill 115 is passed. 

The bill, introduced by Oldham County Republican Sen. Lindsey Tichenor, would classify venues that host drag performances as “adult-oriented businesses” and mandate that such businesses be located at least 1,000 feet from the nearest residence, school, walking trail, park and a number of other locations. If enacted and followed, the bill would wipe out drag performances as they exist in Louisville today, putting performances at clubs, restaurants and other venues in jeopardy. 

“As written, SB 115, would effectively remove every venue that currently has drag in the state of Kentucky, [and] it would remove all of their abilities to have drag shows, which means it would ruin my ability to continue my livelihood,”said Wabbit, who has been performing for more than eight years. “This is what I’ve been working my whole life towards.”

Performer Gilda Wabbit speaks to her audience.

So far, the bill has attracted a handful of co-sponsors and been assigned to a committee, but has not been otherwise acted upon yet by lawmakers.

Senate Bill 115 is one of a number of pieces of legislation targeting LGBTQ rights in Kentucky this year. Other bills in the legislature would allow public school teachers to misgender transgender youth and for healthcare providers to deny care to transgender individuals. Senate Bill 102, which was also introduced by Tichenor, would not let transgender students use bathrooms and locker rooms that align with their gender identity.

Despite the rush of anti-trans bills in Frankfort, recent polling by Mason-Dixon found that 71% of Kentuckians opposed the state having the ability to overrule parents’ healthcare decisions for their transgender child (one piece of legislation, House Bill 470, would block minors from receiving gender-affirming care). 

Kentucky’s anti-drag bill did not surprise drag queen Lexi Love, who felt such legislation could be coming after an anti-drag show bill made headway in Tennessee, which last week became the first state to pass a ban on some drag performances. On Monday, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee said he would sign the bill, which bans adult entertainment, including drag, from public property or where it might be seen by minors. According to The Washington Post,  as of mid-February, bills targeting drag shows had been introduced in 14 states. 

Love, who lives in northern Kentucky, travels south to Louisville on the weekends to perform at Play due to what she says is the lack of a drag scene in the Cincinnati area. At first, she was surprised by how welcoming Louisville was to drag, but with legislation like Senate Bill 115 being introduced, Love’s original uncertainty resurfaced. 

“It kind of like reinstated what I originally had grew up thinking about Kentucky, and them not liking drag,” she said.


In the bill, drag performances are defined as instances in which a person “performs before an audience for entertainment while exhibiting a gender expression that is inconsistent with the biological sex formally recognized on the performer’s original birth certificate” — and where that gender expression “is a caricatured, advertised or featured aspect of the performance taken as a whole.” 

As currently written, that definition is broad enough that it could include Shakespeare productions that feature cross-dressing characters in leading roles.

“I can’t fathom how that is viewed as adult entertainment,” said Matt Wallace, Producing Artistic Director of Kentucky Shakespeare, which runs the country’s longest-running, non-ticketed Shakespeare festival in Old Louisville’s Central Park every summer. “But we are in a public park, with a playground and we are doing 400-year-old Shakespeare.”

Last summer, the group put on Shakespeare’s “The Twelfth Night,” which swapped Illyria for 1920s New Orleans but kept a cross-dressing Viola in the lead role (and featured drag queen May O’Nays playing tuba). This summer, Wallace said the group’s production of “A Midsummer’s Nights Dream” will again feature a woman playing a Nick Bottom, a male character.

“With the diversity of our casting and the inclusion that we’re working for at Kentucky Shakespeare, we have females playing male characters all the time, men playing female characters, we have non-binary and trans actors playing all kinds of roles,” Wallace added. “It’s part of what we do and it’s part of that artistic expression.”

Pandora Productions, a theater production company focused on telling LGBTQ stories that has been operational for 25 years, is also worried that Senate Bill 115 could impact their operations.  

“We do all kinds of shows that tell the story of the LGBTQ+ community. So we often have men in dresses. We also will cross the other way too — with women in men’s clothing. So I think it would impact us quite a bit whether we’d be able to tell those stories or not,” said Michael Drury, Pandora Productions’s Producing Artistic Director.

The group puts on plays at the Henry Clay Theater in downtown Louisville, which is within 1,000 feet of apartments as well as the YMCA, locations Senate Bill 115 would not allow “drag performances” near.

To Drury, the bill has little to do with adult entertainment.

“[Senate Bill 115] is masquerading as anti-drag queen and putting it into the adult entertainment category,” he said. “But it’s pretty transparent to those of us in the LGBTQ+ community that this is really an anti-trans bill.”


In January, the New York Times released its yearly “52 Places To Go” list for 2023. Alongside exotic and well-heeled destinations like Nîmes, France, Palm Springs, California and Fukuoka, Japan was Louisville, Kentucky.

The headline for Louisville’s writeup was: “A rising L.G.B.T.Q. scene with quilts, drag shows, the Derby and, of course, bourbon.”

In the blurb that followed, the city’s “bourbon-fueled convivial spirit” got a shout-out from The Gray Lady, as did the city’s top marks on the Human Rights Campaign’s Municipal Equality Index.

Gilda Wabbit leans against a bar during a recent performance.

NYT’s praise wasn’t haphazard; Louisville has worked hard to develop its LGBTQ entertainment scene — and to market itself as a destination for LGBTQ travelers. However, Senate Bill 115, if passed, could threaten what that hard work has accomplished.

“We don’t need legislation that is going to hurt our ability to be competitive, whether it’s for leisure visitors or meeting and convention visitors,” said Cleo Battle, CEO of Louisville Tourism.

Tourism-wise, Battle said, Louisville is competing with cities like Indianapolis, Columbus, and Nashville for weekend visitors; legislation that would put an end to some of Louisville’s draws and prove unwelcoming to LGBTQ travelers could hurt the city’s ability to compete.

In a statement to LEO, Louisville Mayor Craig Greenberg said the bill would be bad for the city.

“This is a bad bill. This legislation is reactionary, clearly discriminatory, and most likely unconstitutional,” said Greenberg, an attorney by training who went to Harvard Law School.

Samuel Marcosson, a UofL law professor who specializes in constitutional law, agreed with the mayor on the constitutionality of the bill.

“I have little doubt that SB 115 is unconstitutional,” he said, adding that it would amount to “content-based regulation of speech — that certain kinds of expression are being singled out because of what is being said,” which would be a difficult position to defend. Additionally, he said, the state could try arguing “secondary effects” of adult entertainment like crime and blight, but that argument was unlikely to hold up with regards to drag shows.

“The only thing SB 115 would accomplish would be to subject the state to a lawsuit, and to having to pay the attorney’s fees for the plaintiffs when the state loses,” he said.


While Senate Bill 115 aims to lump drag shows, drag brunches, and drag storytimes in with strip clubs, escort agencies, and porn theaters, queens like Umi Naughty say for them performing drag is an outlet for expression and creativity and not about sex. 

“To me, drag has always been kind of like an expression or like exploration of gender, whether it’s one that you were born with, or like, you know, one that’s opposite of the one that you were assigned at birth, or even just the absence of gender,” said Naughty, who performs at brunches at Le Moo, an upscale steakhouse on Lexington Road. “You know, it’s just more of a social commentary as an art form.”

Gilda Wabbit strikes a pose during a performance.

To many queens, it feels like legislators have a double standard when it comes to queer performers. 

“If you as a person can understand, mentally, that someone like Eddie Murphy can have a very raunchy adult, stand up comedy career, and also be a beloved actor in children’s movies, then you can understand that a drag queen can work at an 18 and up venue, and do entertainment for 18 and up people, and also read for children at a storytime and know what’s appropriate,” said Wabbit. 

Naughty echoed Wabbit, saying her brunch performances, where she knows kids will likely be present, are much different than nightclub performances.

“Look at any TV shows, movies, video games that kids have access to. Like, are we going to ban all of those things?” she added.

To Wabbit, drag queens like her have simply become one of the many “boogeymen” Republican politicians use as to cast blame on for societal problems. 

“It’s not just trans people, it’s not just drag queens, [and] it’s not just queer people it’s happening around the country with immigrants, it’s happening around the country with Black people,” she said. “The world works like a pendulum, but like it’s swinging in the direction right now [of] everyone pointing the fingers elsewhere, instead of doing the hard work.”