Metro Weekly

Tennessee Bans Drag

Governor Lee signs bill banning drag shows on public property, and another measure barring trans youth from accessing gender-affirming care.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee – Office of the Governor.

Tennessee Republican Gov. Bill Lee signed a pair of bills on Thursday targeting the LGBTQ community and expressions or displays of gender-nonconformity. 

The first bill bans drag performances on public property and in places where they might be viewed by minors.

The bill defines drag performances as “adult cabaret performances,” likening them to sexually explicit shows like those featuring topless dancers, go-go dancers, exotic dancers, and strippers, or that contain material that “appeals to a prurient interest.”

Shows or venues hosting shows that violate the law can be prosecuted as a Class A misdemeanor, which is typically punished by a fine and up to a year in prison, with subsequent violations being prosecuted as a Class E felony, punishable by a fine and a prison sentence of one to six years.

When asked by reporters last month about the bill, Lee referred to drag shows as “sexualized entertainment in front of children,” reported The Associated Press.

At the same time, a photograph of the governor wearing a dress, published in his 1977 high school yearbook, surfaced on Reddit.

Lee scoffed at the notion that his donning drag was in any way comparable to the types of acts that he purports regularly occur in drag performances.

Similar bills are being considered in other states as the Republican Party nationwide has embraced anti-transgender and anti-drag legislation, playing on voters’ discomfort with gender-nonconformity by claiming that children are being “groomed” or exposed to “sexual” content when they view drag performances.

Many critics of drag often cite the dance movements that can occur in such shows  — including splits, gymnastic-like tumbles, or “twerking” or “grinding” — claiming such movements are inappropriate for minors to view because they simulate sexual acts.

Opponents of the law argue that not all drag performances are inherently sexual, and that Tennessee — and other states that have taken similar actions to punish venues for hosting drag shows — are unfairly classifying drag as something that can only be carried out in specially-zoned or -licensed “adult-oriented” venues.

Additionally, other LGBTQ advocates warn that the law could be used to prosecute any transgender adult who simply wears gender-affirming clothing in public or presents themselves as a gender not matching their assigned sex at birth.

Overzealous police officers and prosecutors, they argue, will aggressively pursue any public expression of gender-nonconformity — even something as simple as painting one’s nails — as an “adult cabaret performance” in an attempt to discourage transgender visibility.

The American Civil Liberties Union claims that the bill’s wording, referring to performances that are “harmful to minors” is narrow and covers only content that has no artistic value, arguing that most drag shows are protected by the first amendment.

“The law bans obscene performances, and drag performances are not inherently obscene,” Stella Yarbrough, the legal director of the ACLU of Tennessee, told The New York Times

Yarbrough added that the ACLU of Tennessee is concerned that elected officials may try to abuse the new law to censor people’s freedom of speech and freedom of expression, promising that the ACLU would challenge any attempt to use the law to punish drag performers or shut down family-friendly events.

Lee also signed a bill, taking effect on July 1, that stops health care providers from prescribing puberty blockers and hormones to trans-identifying minors, or from performing gender-affirming surgeries on people under 18.

With Lee’s signature, the Volunteer State becomes the eighth state in the nation to place some form of restriction on gender-affirming health treatments, following a similar bill that was signed in effect by Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves earlier this week. 

The ACLU, the ACLU of Tennessee, and Lambda Legal have said they intend to challenge the constitutionality of the law in court. Similar across-the-board bans in Alabama and Arkansas, which passed last year, have been blocked by the courts while lawsuits challenging the laws move forward.

“We will not allow this dangerous law to stand,” the legal groups said in a joint statement. “Certain politicians and Gov. Lee have made no secret of their intent to discriminate against youth who are transgender or their willful ignorance about the life-saving health care they seek to ban. Instead, they’ve chosen fear-mongering, misrepresentations, intimidation, and extremist politics over the rights of families and the lives of transgender youth in Tennessee.”

Republicans have seized on access to gender-affirming care as a wedge issue they can exploit, arguing that medical professionals are pressuring youth experiencing gender dysphoria into transitioning before they are old enough, later leading to “remorse” or “regret” when such individuals pursue life-altering treatments that do not resolve their feelings of depression, anxiety, or isolation. 

But many major medical organizations argue that such treatments are helpful in alleviating gender dysphoria and the depression and suicidal ideation that stem from it, and oppose government interference in private medical decisions made between a patient, their parents, and their doctors. 

“The passage of this law cutting off trans young people’s access to life-saving care is devastating — but it won’t stop our community from holding and supporting each other,” Ivy Hill, the director of Gender Justice for the Campaign for Southern Equality, said in a statement. “No law can stop the transgender community from charting our paths to thriving and living authentically.”

Phil Cobucci, the founder of Inclusion Tennessee, called both the drag ban and the ban on gender-affirming care “aggressive attacks on best-practice medical care and free speech.”

He said Lee’s signature of the law amounts to “state-sponsored violence.”

“The government has no place inserting itself into the private medical decisions that should be made by doctors, patients, and their families alone — and the restrictions on drag could easily be wielded as a weapon against artists and the trans community more broadly,” Cobucci said in a statement. “We will never stop working to support transgender Tennesseans and are sending our love, support, and strength far and wide.”

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