Tennessee Passes Law Banning Drag & Trans Healthcare – NPR Story-level
Nashville, TEN. — Tennessee Governor Bill Lee has signed a bill banning drag performances in public spaces, a move that will likely force drag performances underground in Tennessee.
Lee gave his signature just hours after the measure passed the Senate on Thursday afternoon. At the same session, he signed a ban on gender-affirming healthcare for state youth.
The announcement comes as a yearbook photo of the Republican governor dressed as a woman recently appeared on Reddit.
government Bill Lee has signed a bill banning drag performances in public spaces, a move that will likely force drag performances underground in Tennessee. by WPLN @MariannaBac reports that Lee signed the measure this afternoon, just hours after it passed the Senate. https://t.co/0nHvViwpZQ
— WPLN News – Nashville Public Radio (@WPLN) March 2, 2023
Lee says there’s a big difference between wearing a dress to a high school football game and drag queens wearing a dress onstage.
Hella Skeleton, a drag performer in rural Middle Tennessee, says the line isn’t clear.
“For Bill Lee to say, ‘You know, that was joyful when I did it,’ that’s absolutely absurd when a lot of drag is extremely joyful,” says Skeleton. “Apparently, when straight men dress badly in drag, it’s okay. But when gay, queer, and trans men do it, it’s not okay.”
Republican state representative Jack Johnson cosponsored the bill. He says: “We are protecting children, families and parents who want to be able to take their children to public places. We are not attacking anyone or targeting anyone.”
Broad language worries advocates
The language of the bill has also sparked concern from the broader LGBTQ community. Drag performers are defined as “male or female impersonators.” Henry Seaton of the ACLU of Tennessee says that could affect queer Tennesseans across the board, not just drag performers.
“It’s… this subtle, sinister way of further criminalizing just being trans,” Seaton says.
The ban could also have a chilling effect on Pride festivals. Outdoor dragging is a staple in the Tennessee summer heat. While the new laws typically take effect on July 1, the bill was quietly changed in January to take effect on April 1, ahead of Pride month in June.
Tennessee Tech student Cadence Miller says her generation of queer people owes a lot to drag queens, and it’s no coincidence they are now under threat.
“Historically, drag has been such an integral part of queer culture,” says Miller. “Trans drag performers who were like trailblazers and us getting… any kind of queer rights, like at all.”
Legal challenges ahead
The law qualifies drag performances as “harmful to minors,” but the state’s American Civil Liberties Union says the legal definition of “harmful to minors” is very narrow in Tennessee and only covers extreme sexual or violent content. .
“The law prohibits obscene performances, and drag performances are not inherently obscene,” says Stella Yarbrough, legal director for the ACLU of Tennessee. The way the law is written, she says, shouldn’t 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 views 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 an LGBTQ family event.
Impacts on local businesses and beyond
The measure refers to drag performances as “adult cabaret” that “appeal to a lewd nature.” Nashville business owner David Taylor proved to the state legislature that drag shows at his club are not sexually explicit:
“We know this because we have a Tennessee liquor license and are subject to Tennessee liquor laws. Our 20+ years in business, we have not received a subpoena for one of our drag performers.”
Taylor says the drag ban will have a negative impact on Nashville’s economy. Drag brunches at the city’s bars are packed 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,” says Taylor.
This legislative session marks the third year in a row that the state house has removed the Tennessee transgender rights. Many trans people and families of trans children wonder if staying in the state is worth fighting for.
“There are 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 kind of choice of, you know, you can stay here and suffer or you can leave this home that you’ve created and everything you’ve invested in. here,” says drag performer Hella Skeleton. “So yeah, it’s a really tough choice.”