Metro Weekly

Blount Pride Attendance Doubles After DA Threatens to Prosecute

A Tennessee Pride festival's attendance doubled this year, despite threats to prosecute organizers under a law banning drag performances.

Drag king Orion Mars reads at Rainbow and Drag Storytime at Blount Pride 2023 – Photo: Taryn Ferro / Aw Snap Photography

Attendance at a local Tennessee LGBTQ Pride festival more than doubled after a county district attorney threatened to prosecute organizers under a state law seeking to prohibit drag shows by classifying them as “adult cabaret performances.”

Blount Pride, a festival featuring music, art, drag performances, and a community resource fair, is held annually in Maryville, Tennessee, less than a half-hour outside Knoxville.

This year’s celebration was scheduled to take place during an eight-hour time slot on Saturday, Sept. 2, on the campus of Maryville College. 

Just days before the event was to take place, Blount County District Attorney Ryan Desmond sent a letter to Blount Pride organizers, the President of Maryville College, and local elected and law enforcement officials, warning that he intended to prosecute them if they violated the “Adult Entertainment Act,” which bans “male or female impersonators” from performing in public spaces, or in places where minors might view drag performances.

The law, which likens drag shows to acts where full or partial nudity occurs, such as topless dancing and strip acts, was passed by Republicans earlier this year. It is part of a nationwide push by conservatives to outlaw public expressions of LGBTQ visibility, based on the assumption that exposure to LGBTQ identity sexualizes children and influences them to identify as LGBTQ.

A federal judge in West Tennessee previously issued a temporary injunction blocking the state from enforcing the law in Shelby County, which includes Memphis.

But Desmond insisted that the law remains in effect outside of Shelby County.

In the letter to local officials and Blount Pride organizers, he said that he was empowered to prosecute anyone found to be violating the law in Blount County. 

“It is clear from the holding and subsequent order [in the Shelby County case] that this enjoinder is presently only applicable to the 30th Judicial District,” Desmond wrote. “It is my conclusion that violations of the AEA can and will be prosecuted by my office.”

In response, the American Civil Liberties Union sued the attorney general, Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti, and local law enforcement authorities on behalf of Blount Pride and drag performer Flamy Grant. The ACLU claimed the letter was a “blatant attempt to chill Plaintiffs’ speech and expression protected under the First Amendment.”

U.S. District Judge Ronnie Greer, of the Eastern District of Tennessee, issued a temporary restraining order stopping Desmond and other state and local officials from enforcing the Adult Entertainment Act against festival organizers. 

“This ruling confirms that despite continued attempts to remove LGBTQ people from public life, our First Amendment rights matter just as much as anyone else’s,” Flamy Grant said in a statement. “Our fundamental right to exist as we are and to gather in celebration with our community is protected by the First Amendment on and off the stage.”

With the restraining order in place, the festival was allowed to proceed, bringing in record attendance by more than doubling the number of attendees, reported The Daily Beast.

Several anti-LGBTQ demonstrators protested outside the college’s arts center, where the bulk of the day’s events were held.

Greer has yet to rule on whether to issue a preliminary injunction that would block state and local authorities from enforcing the law against other planned LGBTQ events or drag shows. A hearing on that matter has been scheduled for Sept. 8.

Nonetheless, attendees were elated that the event was allowed to proceed, with some even saying they believe the controversy has united the on-campus LGBTQ community.

“Our queer students, we’ve grown up used to this, we’ve grown up going to Pride events doing that kind of thing and expecting some type of push back some type of protesters but I think it’s brought them closer and brought the allies closer as well, where it’s not just the queer students who are worried about it now,” Maryville College Student Body President Kelton Bloxham, who is openly gay, told Knoxville-area ABC affiliate WATE.  “It’s also the allies who are worried, and that kind of gives them an understanding of what queer students have been going through for our entire lives.”

“When you come to an event like this, you don’t see people who are going back in the closet and hiding,” Montana State Rep. Zooey Zephyr, a transgender woman, told WATE. “You don’t see people who are scared to be themselves. You come to these events and you say, ‘You can do many things in the law, but you will not make me deny who I am and you will not make me afraid. I will stand here tall and I will celebrate my existence with my community.’

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