Metro Weekly

Tennessee Could Make Public Drag a Felony

An emboldened Tennessee GOP is continuing to double down on anti-LGBTQ actions with drag queens squarely in their sights.

Photo: Anna Griessel / Dreamstime.com

Tennessee lawmakers have introduced a new bill ahead of next year’s legislative session that would effectively criminalize public acts of drag. 

Senate Bill 3, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson (R-Brentwood), would amend an existing state law that prevents adult-oriented businesses, such as strip clubs, from operating within 1,000 feet of schools, public parks, or places of worship. It would include “adult cabaret performances,” such as those by go-go dancers, exotic dancers, or “male or female impersonators.”

The bill would ban drag performances “that appeal[s] to a prurient interest” from taking place “on public property” or anywhere they “could be viewed by a person who is not an adult.” Outdoor Pride-themed events where drag queens are merely visible are likely to be banned.

Under the bill, first-time offenses would be classified as a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in prison or fines of up to $2,500.

Second or repeat infractions would be prosecuted as Class E felonies, bearing a prison sentence of up to six years and fines of up to $3,000 per incident, reports Xtra Magazine.

Critics of the bill say the wording of the bill — even the “appeals to the prurient interest” designation — is vague and open to a variety of interpretations, including the personal views of anyone who complains about drag performances.

They also question whether the bill would go as far as banning public viewings of movies where performers dress in drag, or even magazines on public display featuring drag queens on the cover.

Alejandra Caraballo, an instructor at Harvard Law School’s Cyberlaw clinic, has argued that the bill’s language would be applied beyond drag performers, and that the law could be abused by local law enforcement to prosecute people who are transgender or gender-nonconforming and who present or dress in a manner that does not meet stereotypes based on their assigned sex at birth.

“The language of ‘male or female impersonators’ could be applied to trans people for simply existing as themselves,” Caraballo wrote in a tweet. “They’re not just going after drag queens, they are trying to criminalize trans and queer people in public spaces.”

Johnson, speaking with Nashville-based ABC affiliate WKRN, said the bill is intended to prevent drag shows that are “sexual in nature” — such as those that involve twerking, splits, or any dance movements that simulate sexual acts — from being performed in public, where such acts might be viewed, even accidentally, by children.

However, he said the bill would contain exceptions, pushing back against critics accusing him of broader censorship.

“I don’t want to ban a theater company from doing a production of Mrs. Doubtfire in a public park,” Johnson said. “Most people have seen that movie where Robin Williams was dressing up as a woman. We don’t have an issue with that. We do have an issue with men dressed as women simulating sex acts in public parks in front of kids.”

The anti-drag bill will be debated in the next legislative session, which begins on January 23, 2023. It is almost certain to pass and signed into law by Gov. Bill Lee, as Republicans hold super-majorities in both legislative chambers. 

It is the third bill targeting LGBTQ visibility to be introduced ahead of next year’s legislative session. A pair of House and Senate bills were recently introduced, seeking to criminalize doctors and parents who allow children to receive treatments that assist them in transitioning to live as a gender that does not match their assigned sex at birth. 

Given that the first few bills introduced in any legislative session are often those prioritized by leadership, the introduction of SB3 signals Tennessee Republicans’ desire to “double down” on their anti-LGBTQ actions — and continue emphasizing “culture war” issues over economic ones — following Tuesday’s midterm elections, which were considered a success for the GOP in the Volunteer State.

Last year, Tennessee lawmakers passed a “bathroom bill” barring transgender children from using gender-affirming bathrooms. They passed a bill banning transgender athletes from competing on sports teams matching their gender identity, withholding state funding from schools that allow such athletes to compete.

And they passed a bill requiring that parents be given a 30-day period to decide whether to have their children “opt out” of any instruction — such as historical lessons about LGBTQ people or events, biology classes, or sex education curriculum — that touches, even briefly or in passing, on sexual orientation or gender identity. 

Lawmakers also passed a bill last year that mandated that establishments allowing transgender people to use restrooms matching their gender identity post signs announcing that policy for customers to view.

However, a federal judge blocked the law from being enforced, and permanently struck it down as unconstitutional in May 2022, on the grounds that it forces trans-friendly business owners to engage in “compelled speech” and communicate a message with which they don’t agree.

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