“If I hadn’t been a girl, I’d have been a drag queen.”
Dolly Parton has uttered those words famously and often. But if she really were a drag queen, one of Tennessee’s most famous daughters would likely be out of a job under legislation passed Thursday and soon heading to Republican Gov. Bill Lee, who has promised to sign it.
Across the country, conservative activists and politicians complain that drag shows contribute to the “sexualization” or “grooming” of children. No other state has acted as fast as Tennessee to ensure that drag shows cannot take place in public or in front of children. And organizers of LGBTQ Pride events say such bans could effectively cancel their popular parades.
The protestations have arisen fairly suddenly around a form of entertainment that has long had a place on the mainstream American stage.
Milton Berle, “Mr. Television” himself, was appearing in drag on the public airwaves as early as the 1950s on “Texaco Star Theater.” “RuPaul’s Drag Race” is a bona fide cultural phenomenon. Highly popular drag brunches bring revenue to restaurants. That such spectacles are now being portrayed as a danger to children boggles the minds of people who study, perform and appreciate drag.
“Drag is not a threat to anyone. It makes no sense to be criminalizing or vilifying drag in 2023,” said Lawrence La Fountain-Stokes, a professor of culture and gender studies at the University of Michigan and author of “Translocas: The Politics of Puerto Rican Drag and Trans Performance.”
“It is a space where people explore their identities,” said La Fountain-Stokes. “But it is also a place where people simply make a living. Drag is a job. Drag is a legitimate artistic expression that brings people together, that entertains, that allows certain individuals to explore who they are and allows all of us to have a very nice time. So it makes literally no sense for legislators, for people in government, to try to ban drag.”
Under the Tennessee bill, the words “drag show” are not explicitly stated. Instead, the legislation changes the definition of adult cabaret in Tennessee’s law to mean “adult-oriented performances that are harmful to minors.” The bill also says that “male or female impersonators” now fall under adult cabaret among topless dancers, go-go dancers, exotic dancers and strippers.
The proposal also bans adult cabaret from taking place on public property or any place where minors might be present. It threatens performers with a misdemeanor charge, or a felony if it’s a repeat offense.
Several other states, including Idaho, North Dakota, Montana and Oklahoma, are considering similar bans. And the Arkansas governor recently signed a bill that puts new restrictions on “adult-oriented” performances. It originally targeted drag shows but was scaled back following complaints of anti-LGBTQ discrimination.
“I find it irresponsible to create a law based on a complete lack of understanding and determined willful misinterpretation of what drag actually is,” Montana state Rep. Connie Keogh said in February during floor debate. “It is part of the cultural fabric of the LGBTQ+ community and has been around for centuries.”
Lee has 10 days to sign the Tennessee bill, but that countdown doesn’t start until top legislative leaders send him the legislation, which could take a few days.
Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson, the legislation’s Republican sponsor, says it addresses “sexually suggestive drag shows” that are inappropriate for children.
Drag does not typically involve nudity or stripping, which are more common in the separate art of burlesque. Explicitly sexual and profane language is common in drag performances, but such content is avoided when children are the target audience, such as at drag story hours. At shows meant for adults, venues or performers generally warn beforehand about age-inappropriate content.
“Drag is a longstanding, celebratory form of entertainment and a meaningful source of employment for many across the state,” Sarah Warbelow, legal director for the Human Rights Campaign, said in a statement last week. “Yet, rather than focus on actual policy issues facing Tennesseans, politicians would rather spend their time and effort misconstruing age-appropriate performances at a library to pass as many anti-LGBTQ+ bills as they can.”
Months ago, organizers of a Pride festival in Jackson, west of Nashville, began receiving online threats and criticism for hosting a drag show in a park. A legal complaint spearheaded by a Republican state representative sought to prevent the show, but organizers reached a settlement to hold it indoors, with an age restriction.
And in Chattanooga, false allegations of child abuse spread online after far-right activists posted video of a child feeling a female performer’s sequined costume. Online commentators falsely said the performer was male, and it has gone on to be used as a rationale to ban children from drag shows.
The drag bill marks the second major proposal targeting LGBTQ people that Tennessee lawmakers have passed this legislative session. Last week, lawmakers approved legislation that bans most gender-affirming care. Lee says he plans on signing the bill.
Tennessee has introduced more anti-LGBTQ bills than any other state since 2015, according to the Human Rights Campaign.
Lee was fielding questions Monday from reporters about the legislation and other LGBTQ bills when an activist asked him if he remembered “dressing up in drag in 1977.” Lee was presented with a photo that showed the governor as a high school senior dressed in women’s clothing that was published in the Franklin High School 1977 yearbook. The photo was first posted on Reddit over the weekend.
Lee said it is “ridiculous” to compare the photo to “sexualized entertainment in front of children.” When asked for specific examples of inappropriate drag shows taking place in front of children, Lee did not cite any, only pointing to a nearby school building and saying he was concerned about protecting children.
McMillan reported from northeastern Pennsylvania. Associated Press writers Jonathan Matisse in Nashville and Amy Beth Hanson in Helena, Montana, contributed to this report.