A drag queen story hour and drag show on Malmstrom Air Force Base nearly two years ago has prompted U.S. Sen. Steve Daines to push for a ban on what he describes as "adult cabaret performances" on military installations.
Daines introduced the legislation, which takes aim at "topless dancers, go-go dancers, exotic dances, strippers, or male or female impersonators who provide entertainment that appeals to prurient interest," on May 9. Co-sponsored by several fellow GOP senators, including Florida's Marco Rubio and Arkansas' Tom Cotton, the bill would prohibit the Defense Department from hosting or financially supporting performances deemed to fall into the aforementioned categories.
"As Montanans are starting to hear about it, they're infuriated," Daines said last week of the two drag events hosted on the Cascade County base in June 2021 as part of LGBTQ+ Pride Month events. "Montanans want answers and I'm not going to let this go."
Daines said he learned of the events earlier this year, though old adverts for the two performances remained up on the base's Facebook page as of last week. The June 28, 2021 post lists a 2 p.m. story hour on the base library with goodie bags for the first 25 children in attendance and a 3:41 p.m. drag show at the Grizzly Bend, an on-base eatery.
Air Force officials confirmed to the Daily Inter Lake that the events occurred, but said an outside group — the base Pride Committee — organized the story hour and subsequent drag show. Attendance was voluntary and the events did not receive public funding, officials said.
"Private organizations on military bases are able to host voluntary events to celebrate monthly observances or cultural events if approved by the local installation commander. These events are not government funded and attendance by service members or their families is strictly voluntary," an Air Force spokesperson said in an emailed statement. "Examples of other events hosted on base could include fun runs, 5Ks, trivia contests, or musical performances, etc."
Daines received a similar account from Assistant Secretary of the Air Force Alex Wagner in response to his inquiries on April 18.
"The event at Malmstrom AFB was planned and conducted by a private organization that followed installation procedures to request space at the library to host their event during Pride Month — a nationally recognized and DoD approved special observance. No taxpayer funds were spent to host or facilitate the event," Wagner wrote in a letter.
Daines is contesting that description, saying he finds it hard to believe the story hour and subsequent drag show — promoted on social media and held on base — were organized without drawing on taxpayer dollars.
"I don't believe it," he said. "That's why I'm still demanding answers. Look, they're trying to cover this up."
In a letter sent to Defense Secretary Austin Lloyd on May 9, Daines sought clarification on those last two questions.
"Furthermore, [the] April 18 letter states that, 'Event spaces on the installation are made available to military-affiliated individuals and installation-recognized private organizations to host events with a variety of themes.' Your response also claimed that 'no taxpayer funds were spent to host or facilitate the event.' How do you reconcile that claim with the fact that the event was shared on the base's official social media channels?" Daines wrote.
Republican Lawmakers grilled the secretary of defense and Gen. Mark Milley, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on drag performances on military installations during testimony before Congress on March 29.
"I will say again, this is not something that we support or fund," Defense Secretary Lloyd told Rep. Matt Gaetz, R- Florida, during a hearing on the Defense Department's fiscal year 2024 budget request. When Gaetz referenced the Malmstrom events a few seconds later, he got the same answer from Lloyd.
"Again, I will say what I said before," Lloyd told Gaetz.
"I find it hard to believe no taxpayer funds were used for an event on base, in a building paid for by taxpayers, and promoted by the base," Daines told the Inter Lake last week.
The senator has drawn upon the story time and drag show at Malmstrom to argue the military, under President Joe Biden, has become distracted by efforts to promote social equity.
"What this does is distract from the mission of our military and we are already having problems recruiting men and women," Daines said.
He held up the Army, specifically. The largest and oldest branch of the military missed its recruiting goal by about 15,000 soldiers in fiscal year 2022, according to multiple media accounts. It was short of its goal by about 10,000 soldiers thus far in fiscal year 2023, reported the Military Times.
Air Force officials told the publication that they expected to undershoot their target by 3,400 active duty airmen. The Navy is poised to miss its recruiting goals for fiscal 2023 by 6,000 sailors.
Theories for the shortfalls abound and include a tight labor market, but a Military Times investigation found that the Defense Department's Genesis system, which pulls in civilian medical records to screen potential recruits, has made it harder for would-be servicemen and women with past health issues to enlist.
Daines, though, connected the Malmstrom events to the perceived political goals of the Democratic party to recruitment woes.
"When you have a drag show for children on a base property, I think this distracts the military from the mission, which is to secure this country, to be the most fierce fighting force in the world and not focus on a woke agenda, and I think that is translating into declines," Daines said.
Daines' bill comes amid a wave of legislation around the country targeting drag performances, particularly story hours, including in Montana. Rep. Braxton Mitchell, a Columbia Falls Republican, shepherded a bill through the recently concluded state Legislature specifically prohibiting drag story hour at schools or libraries that receive public funding.
Gov. Greg Gianforte, a Republican, signed the bill into law this week.
While Daines' bill omits language about drag queen story hours, the senator expressed confidence that it would cover events like those held at Malmstrom Air Force Base. Read twice, the legislation has been referred to the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Pressed about the potential to inadvertently restrict entertainment aimed at adults on the base, like theatrical performances or screenings of R-rated movies, Daines said he held no objections to servicemen and women attending community events at military installations.
"We're all for having men and women serving the military and having community events, but when those events involve sexualized performances for children, that is driving an agenda, paid for by taxpayers, and that's over the line," he said.
Asked what authority would have the final say on what constituted "prurient interests," Daines declined to specify.
"Montanans know it when they see it," he said.
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