A bill that would prohibit drag shows in public spaces has been signed into law by Tennessee Governor Bill Lee, which is expected to drive such performances underground in the state. Other states are proposing comparable laws.
Lee signed the measure just hours after it passed in the Senate on Thursday. During the same session, Lee also signed a bill prohibiting gender-affirming healthcare for minors in the state.
The announcement comes after a yearbook photo of the Republican governor in drag surfaced on Reddit.
According to Hella Skeleton, a drag performer from rural Middle Tennessee, the distinction between wearing a dress at a high school football game and drag queens wearing dresses on stage is not so clear, despite Gov. Lee’s assertion that there is a significant difference.
“For Bill Lee to say, ‘You know, that was lighthearted when I did it,’ that is absolutely absurd when a lot of drag is extremely lighthearted,” Skeleton says. “Apparently when straight men dress up badly in drag, that’s OK. But when gay and queer and trans people do it, that’s not OK.”
Republican State Rep. Jack Johnson, a co-sponsor of the bill, has stated that they are protecting kids, families, and parents who want to take their kids to public places, and that they are not attacking or targeting anyone.
However, the broad language of the bill has raised concerns among LGBTQ advocates. The bill’s definition of drag performers as “male or female impersonators” has the potential to affect queer individuals in Tennessee beyond just drag performers, according to Henry Seaton of the ACLU of Tennessee.
“It’s … this subtle and sinister way to further criminalize just being trans,” Seaton says.
Outdoor drag shows are a popular part of Pride festivals in Tennessee during the summer season. However, the newly passed ban on drag shows in public spaces could have a negative impact on these events.
The ban, which was initially set to go into effect on July 1, was amended in January to take effect on April 1, ahead of the Pride month in June. This move has raised concerns among LGBTQ advocates and supporters. Cadence Miller, a student at Tennessee Tech, believes that drag queens have played a significant role in shaping the queer community, and their current threat is not a coincidence.
“Historically, drag has been such an integral part of queer culture,” Miller says. “Trans drag performers who were like pioneers and us getting … any type of queer rights, like at all.”
Legal challenges ahead
The law calls drag shows “harmful to minors,” but the state’s American Civil Liberties Union says that the legal definition for “harmful to minors” is very narrow in Tennessee and only covers extreme sexual or violent content.
“The law bans obscene performances, and drag performances are not inherently obscene,” says ACLU of Tennessee Legal Director Stella Yarbrough. The way the law is written, she says, should not make drag shows illegal in the state.
“However, we are concerned that government officials could easily abuse this law to censor people based on their own subjective viewpoints of what they deem appropriate.”
The ACLU has expressed its intention to challenge the law should it be used to penalize a drag performer or shut down an LGBTQ event.
The ban, which refers to drag shows as “adult cabaret,” with an appeal to “a prurient nature,” could negatively affect local businesses. David Taylor, a Nashville business owner, testified before the state legislature that the drag shows at his club are not sexually explicit, as demonstrated by the Tennessee liquor license they possess, which binds them to Tennessee liquor laws. The ban on drag could negatively affect Nashville’s economy, as drag brunches in the city’s bars are frequented by bachelorette parties, and Music City has a renowned fleet of party vehicles, including a drag queen-specific bus.
This marks the third consecutive year that the Tennessee statehouse has rolled back the rights of transgender Tennesseans. Consequently, many trans individuals and families of trans kids are contemplating whether staying in the state is worth the battle.
“There’s a lot of people who grew up here, and this is where their roots are. And it’s really brutal to be faced with that sort of choice of, you know, you can either stay here and suffer or you can leave this home that you’ve created and all that you’ve invested in here,” says drag performer Hella Skeleton. “So, yeah, it’s a really tough choice.”