Tennessee measure restricting drag shows heads to governor

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) – Tennessee lawmakers advanced legislation Thursday that would severely limit where certain drag shows can take place, a proposal Republican Gov. Bill Lee has vowed to sign into law.

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 the move lines up with Tennessee being among the states passing the most anti-LGBTQ legislation in the past few years.

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 then 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.

Lee has 10 days to sign the bill into law, but that countdown doesn’t start until top legislative leaders send him the legislation, which can take a few days.

Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson, the Republican bill sponsor, has said the bill would address “sexually suggestive drag shows” that are inappropriate for children.

In Tennessee and across the country, drag has been cast in a misleading light by right-wing activists and politicians who complain about the “sexualization” or “grooming” of children.

Tennessee’s action follows a recent bill signing by Arkansas’ governor of new restrictions on “adult-oriented” performances. That bill originally targeted drag shows but was scaled back following complaints it discriminated against the LGBTQ community.

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 language is typically toned down when children are present, or else venues or performers alert parents beforehand that they should reconsider whether to bring their kids along.

“Drag is a longstanding, celebratory form of entertainment and a meaningful source of employment for many across the state,” Human Rights Campaign Legal Director Sarah Warbelow 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.”

The bill marks the second major proposal that targets the LGBTQ community that Tennessee lawmakers have passed since beginning their annual legislative session in January. Last week, lawmakers approved legislation that bans most gender-affirming care. Lee says he plans on signing the bill.

Lee was fielding questions Monday from reporters about the legislation and other anti-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 of him wearing women’s clothing 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.

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