Tennessee governor signs first-of-its-kind bill restricting drag shows

By Matt Lavietes

On March 2, 2023

The measure will prohibit drag performances on public property or at locations in the state where they can be viewed by minors.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee during a Republican Governors Association conference on Nov. 15, 2022, in Orlando, Fla.Phelan M. Ebenhack / AP file

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee signed a novel bill into law Thursday that will criminalize some drag performances.

The first-of-its-kind legislation will ban “adult cabaret entertainment” on public property or in locations where it can be viewed by minors. Such entertainment, according to the measure, includes “topless dancers, go-go dancers, exotic dancers, strippers, male or female impersonators, or similar entertainers.”

The law, which takes effect April 1, calls for first-time offenders to be slapped with misdemeanors. Subsequent offenses would be classified as felonies and could result in prison sentences of up to six years.

Lawmakers in at least a dozen other states have proposed measures that would similarly restrict drag performances, according to an NBC News analysis.

Supporters say the legislation is necessary to safeguard children against exposure to inappropriate entertainment.

One of the bill’s Republican lead sponsors, Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson, did not respond to a request for comment. Instead, he celebrated the signing on Twitter.

“The bill gives confidence to parents that they can take their kids to a public or private show and will not be blindsided by a sexualized performance,” he wrote.

Asked for comment, Jade Byers, the press secretary for the other lead sponsor, Rep. Chris Todd, wrote, in full, “The Governor signed the bill today and appreciates the work of Leader Johnson to protect children.”

Several drag performers in the state argue that the legislation broadly paints drag as overtly sexual and unfairly targets the underground art form, which has deep roots in the LGBTQ community.

“Drag has never turned a child into a prostitute or anything negative — it just gave them a chance to express happiness,” said Denise Sadler, 38, who has been performing as a drag queen for over 20 years in Nashville. “If happiness is against the law, then what kind of world do we live in?”

Some also note that the state already has obscenity laws.

“For them to pass further legislation governing this ‘obscene’ art form of drag, it doesn’t serve any purpose other than to stir up the people who already hate us and make it harder for us to just exist out in the world,” said Luke Conner, a Memphis drag queen whose stage name is Anyanka. “It’s not about protecting children anymore. It’s about silencing an entire group of people.”

LGBTQ advocates also worry that police will enforce the law against transgender people walking around in public, falsely painting them as “male or female impersonators.”

“Y’all are giving the police every right … to attack me and come at me when I’m not doing anything but living my life,” said Sadler, who is transgender. “For this to be the land of the free, I shouldn’t have to walk around being scared because I’m Black or because I’m trans.”

Regina Lambert Hillman, a law professor at the University of Memphis who was part of a legal team that challenged Tennessee’s ban on same-sex marriages in 2013, similarly described the bill’s language as “intentionally vague” and said she understands the trans community’s concern. However, she said, the law cannot prevent trans people from dressing in their lived genders in public.

“You still have First Amendment protections,” she said. “What that means is how a person dresses or what a person says, that does not change. The government cannot suppress speech, including expressive conduct, just because they find it offensive or they don’t like the content.”

Hillman said that in her view, the law’s purpose is to “put people on notice.”

“This is more like you’ve got a law looking for a problem instead of a problem looking for a law,” she said.

Tensions surrounding the legislation flared further over the weekend after an image that appears to show Lee, the governor, in drag as a high school student was shared on Reddit and Twitter.

Answering reporters’ questions Monday, Lee neither confirmed nor denied whether the image — which appears to show him in a short-skirted cheerleader’s uniform, a pearl necklace and a wig — was indeed of him.

“What a ridiculous, ridiculous question that is,” he said in an exchange that was recorded and shared on Twitter by The Tennessee Holler, a local news site. “Conflating something like that to sexualized entertainment in front of children, which is a very serious subject.”

After the photograph surfaced, Lee was met by protesters in Memphis on Tuesday. Two people were detained.

Marina Pepe, 32, who co-runs a weekly drag brunch with Sadler in Nashville, said she worries the new legislation will lead to further unrest and feed the recent rise in acts of violence against drag performers.

“When that window is opened, especially from a higher voice, if someone feels like, ‘OK, well that government or the politicians, they said this is wrong and it’s OK to act out against,’” Pepe said. “People act on that.”

There were more than 140 protests and significant threats aimed at drag events in 47 states last year, according to a report by the LGBTQ media advocacy group GLAAD. In an extreme case, a donut shop in Tulsa, Oklahoma, was firebombed with a Molotov cocktail in October after it hosted a drag event, according to KFOR and KJRH, the NBC affiliates in Oklahoma City and Tulsa. Anti-drag protesters have even found a place in liberal enclaves, such as New York City, in the last handful of months.

NBC News previously reported that the incidents, coupled with the mass shooting at a Colorado LGBTQ nightclub, Club Q, in November, prompted several high-profile drag performers to beef up their security apparatuses. Several previously disclosed that they have hired armed guards to escort them on tour.

Pepe said she is also considering hiring full-time security staffers for her show’s weekly performances at a Nashville bar.

Aside from legislation that would limit drag, state legislators across the country have introduced more than 300 bills that target LGBTQ rights, according to a tally by the American Civil Liberties Union.

A large proportion of the bills seek to ban transition-related care for transgender minors, including one Lee also signed into law Thursday. Tennessee is now one of seven states — in addition to Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, South Dakota, Utah and Mississippi — where governors have signed such measures into law. However, the laws have been temporarily blocked by judges in Arkansas and Alabama, pending the outcomes of lawsuits.

This piece was republished from NBC News.

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