Kansas Republicans seize on false report about drag show to attack Gov. Laura Kelly

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TOPEKA — Kansas Republicans were so excited by a drag performance, they didn’t bother to question false reporting that said the state provided funding for the event.

Instead, they seized an opportunity provided by the U.K. Daily Mail to bash Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly during the final stretch of a tightly contested race for governor.

The Daily Mail — a publication deemed too unreliable to be used as a Wikipedia source — delivered an “exclusive” report Monday that falsely claimed the Kansas Department of Commerce provided funding to an arts commission that gave a grant to the organizer of the Oct. 22 DADA Ball in Wichita to help fund the drag show.

The article featured a photo of a performer wearing a spangled leotard, with thighs showing through stockings and legs spread, during a dance routine. A crowd of onlookers includes a couple of children.

Derek Schmidt, the GOP nominee for governor, led a chorus of Republican outrage over the story, saying government funding of such an event was “extreme,” “wrong,” demeaning to the “good name” of Kansas, and “must stop.”

Government funding wasn’t used for the event. The Kelly administration moved quickly to debunk the Daily Mail story, but Schmidt’s campaign continues to press the false narrative. Schmidt demanded an apology from the governor for promoting a drag show.

Gov. Laura Kelly answers reporter questions
Gov. Laura Kelly answers questions for reporters after voting Tuesday at the Shawnee County Election Office in Topeka. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

In a brief interview with reporters after voting Tuesday morning in Topeka, Kelly said “if anybody needs to apologize, it’s Derek Schmidt for deceiving the public.”

“I really don’t know what his motives are,” Kelly said. “I can’t get into his head. I just know that it wasn’t true.”

On Monday, Schmidt falsely said governor had been “caught sanctioning and condoning activities that may expose children to sexually suggestive or explicit programming.”

“My administration will put a stop to using your hard-earned money and our state’s good name to sponsor or promote sexually suggestive or explicit programming — especially to children,” Schmidt said. “It’s just common sense.”

It is the latest attempt by the Schmidt campaign to appeal to LGBTQ bigotry among Kansas voters as the governor’s race nears the Nov. 8 finish line. Polling released Tuesday by Fort Hays State University showed 50.4% of Kansas voters approve of Kelly’s performance of governor — but two-thirds of voters support a ban on transgender athletes.

“I’m appalled that Derek Schmidt would play to bigotry so openly just as a means to gain political power, and that he would target vulnerable members of the LGBTQ community for his own political goals,” said Tom Witt, executive director of Equality Kansas. “It’s disgusting and appalling, and he should be ashamed of himself.”

Witt said he didn’t see why people would be upset about the drag show anyway: “It’s Halloween. People are going to wear costumes. Drag performers are people in costumes.”

The Schmidt campaign has refused to retreat from its attack, with a spokesman saying the Kelly administration’s explanation of funding “doesn’t pass the smell test.”

The Kansas Department of Commerce provides grant funding for initiatives that use the arts to enhance community vitality, revitalize neighborhoods, generate local business, create and preserve job opportunities and impact tourism. The agency, though the Kansas Creative Arts Industries, provided a grant to Harvester Arts to support a residency by artist Aaron Asis. Harvester Arts didn’t use state money on the drag show in question.

The event promoter mistakenly referenced the Kansas Creative Arts Industries in an advertisement for the event.

An event listing at KMUW.org encouraged participants to “break out your weirdest and most fabulous outfit” for the all-ages evening of music, fashion, drag and dancing. The promotion said the event was inspired by avant-garde art movements.

Liz Hamor, chief empowerment officer of Center of Daring, an LGBTQ advocacy group, said the GOP response to the drag show is “a thinly veiled attempt by subscribers of conservative religion to hide their homophobia and transphobia behind their equally problematic purity culture.”

“Exposing children to artistic self-expression and celebrations of diversity creates adults who show compassion and acceptance toward people with diverse identities and perspectives,” Hamor said. “If you don’t want your children to expand their understanding of the world and to grow their compassion for others, then don’t have them go.”

Schmidt’s campaign previously has focused on legislation that would ban transgender girls from participating in school sports. Former University of Kentucky swimmer Riley Gaines wouldn’t say who was paying her to appear alongside Schmidt as she recalled the pain of tying for fifth place with a transgender athlete.

Kelly has twice vetoed the transgender athlete bill, saying the Kansas State High Schools Activities Association already provides oversight of competitive fairness. Debate in the Legislature earlier this year revealed there was only one transgender student in all of Kansas who was participating in a KSHSAA activity, and the activity wasn’t a gender-specific sport.

Witt said LGBTQ teens are hurting themselves because they are under attack from adults who should be protecting them. He has had to speak at their funerals.

Schmidt, who oversees a suicide prevention program as the attorney general, “should be helping these kids, not shooting at them,” Witt said.

“The average, everyday Kansan shouldn’t be an expert on transgender issues,” Witt said. “This is a situation almost wholly created by the right wing to try to gain political advantage. There have been trans kids going to the bathroom and playing kickball with their friends for years and years in this state, and nobody gave a damn one way or another. And now suddenly, queer kids are the big evil.”

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