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Tennessee becomes the first state to pass a ban on public drag shows

Britney Banks speaks to protesters outside the Tennessee state Capitol on Feb. 14, 2023, as the legislature hears testimony on two bills that would restrict the rights of LGBTQ people in the state.
Blaise Gainey
/
WPLN
Britney Banks speaks to protesters outside the Tennessee state Capitol on Feb. 14, 2023, as the legislature hears testimony on two bills that would restrict the rights of LGBTQ people in the state.

Nashville, TENN. — Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee has signed a bill banning drag shows in public spaces, a measure that will likely force drag shows underground in Tennessee. Other states across the country are proposing similar legislation.

Lee gave his signature just hours after the measure passed in the Senate Thursday afternoon. In the same sitting, Lee signed a ban on gender-affirming health care for youth in the state.

The announcement comes as a yearbook photo of the Republican governor in drag recently surfaced on Reddit.

Lee says there's a big difference between wearing a dress at a high school football game and drag queens wearing a dress on stage.

Hella Skeleton, a drag performer in rural Middle Tennessee, says the line is not clear.

"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 co-sponsored the bill. He says, "We're protecting kids and families and parents who want to be able to take their kids to public places. We're not attacking anyone or targeting anyone."

Broad language worries advocates

The language of the bill has also drawn concern from the larger LGBTQ community. Drag performers are defined as "male or female impersonators." The ACLU of Tennessee's Henry Seaton says that could impact queer Tennesseans across the board, not just drag performers.

"It's ... this subtle and sinister way to further criminalize just being trans," Seaton says.

The ban could also have a chilling effect on Pride festivals. Outdoor drag is a staple in the Tennessee summer heat. While new laws typically go into effect on July 1, the bill was quietly amended in January to take effect April 1 — ahead of Pride month in June.

Tennessee Tech student Cadence Miller says his generation of queer people owe a lot to drag queens, and that it's no accident they're under threat now.

"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."

Yarbrough says the ACLU will challenge the law if it is used to punish a drag performer or shut down a family-friendly LGBTQ event.

Impacts on local business and beyond

The measure refers to drag shows as "adult cabaret" that "appeal to a prurient nature." Nashville business owner David Taylor testified before the state legislature that the drag shows at his club are not sexually explicit:

"We know this because we have a Tennessee liquor license and are bound by Tennessee liquor laws. Our more than 20 years in business, we've not received a citation for one of our drag performers."

Taylor says the ban on drag will negatively impact Nashville's economy. Drag brunches in the city's bars are filled with bachelorette parties, and Music City's infamous fleet of party vehicles includes a drag queen-specific bus.

"My businesses alone have contributed more than $13 million to the state in the form of sales and liquor taxes since we opened," Taylor says.

This legislative session is the third year in a row that the statehouse has peeled back the rights of transgender Tennesseans. It has many trans people and families of trans kids wondering whether staying in the state is worth the fight.

"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."

Copyright 2023 WPLN

Marianna Bacallao