Dolly Parton said the words famously and often. But if she were a drag queen, one of Tennessee’s most famous daughters would likely be out of a job under a law signed into law by Republican Gov. Bill Lee on Thursday.
Lee signed the legislation without giving a statement or a public ceremony. The bill goes into effect on July 1.
Across the country, conservative activists and politicians complain that drag contributes to the “sexualization” or “grooming” of children. Many states are considering bans, but none have moved as quickly as Tennessee to ensure children are not exposed to exposure. Efforts seek to quell the popular “drag story time ” where the queens read to the children. Organizers of LGBTQ Pride events say they are freezing their parades. And advocates note that the bills, pushed largely by Republicans, burden businesses in unrepublican ways.
Protests suddenly arose around a form of entertainment which has long had a place on the mainstream American stage.
Milton Berle, “Mr. Television” itself, is shows the drag on public airwaves in the early 1950s at the “Texaco Star Theater.” “RuPaul’s Drag Race” a bonafide cultural phenomenon. The very popular drag brunches bring us to restaurants. That such scenes are now described as a danger to children boggles the minds of people who study, perform and appreciate drag.
“Drag is not a threat to anyone. It doesn’t make sense to criminalize or denigrate drag in 2023,” said Lawrence La Fountain-Stokes, a professor of cultural and gender studies at the University of Michigan and author of “Translocas : The Politics of Puerto Rican Drag and Trans Performance.”
“It’s a space where people explore their identities,” said La Fountain-Stokes, who managed to pull herself together. “But it’s also a place where people simply live. Drag is a job. Drag is a legitimate artistic expression that brings people together, that entertains, that allows certain individuals to explore who they are and allows us all to have a really good time. So it literally makes no sense for lawmakers, for people in government, to try to ban drag.
Drag does not usually involve nudity or stripping, which is more common in other burlesque arts. Overtly sexual and vulgar language is common in drag shows, but avoid such content if children are the target audience. In shows intended for adults, venues or performers usually warn in advance about age-inappropriate content.
The word “drag” does not appear in the Tennessee bill. Instead, it changed the definition of adult cabaret in Tennessee law to mean “adult performances that are harmful to minors.” It also says that “male or female impersonators” fall under adult cabaret topless dancers, go-go dancers, exotic dancers and strippers.
The bill then bans adult cabarets from public property or anywhere minors may be present. It threatens performers with a misdemeanor charge, or a felony if it’s a repeat offense.
The bill has raised concerns that it could be used to target transgender people, but sponsors say that is not the intent.
The Tennessee Pride Chamber, a business advocacy group, predicted that “selective surveillance and enforcement” would lead to court challenges and “significant costs” as governments defend an unconstitutional law that harms state brand.
“Tourism, which contributes so much to our state’s growth and well-being, may suffer from boycotts that disproportionately affect members of our community who work in Tennessee’s restaurants, arts, and hospitality industries ,” Chamber President Brian Rosman wrote in an email to The Associated Press. “Corporations won’t continue to expand or relocate here if their employees — and their recruits — don’t feel safe or welcome in Tennessee.”
John Camp, a Pride organizer in Knoxville, said the event in Tennessee’s third-largest city will be somber this October — describing it as “more of a march than a celebration.” There were 100 drag performers last year, he said, but he’s not sure how many will participate this year.
Many other states, including Idaho, Kentucky, North Dakota, Montana and Oklahoma, are considering similar restrictions. And the governor of Arkansas just signed a bill that places new restrictions in “adult-oriented” shows. It originally focused on drag shows but was scaled back after complaints of anti-LGBTQ discrimination.
“I find it irresponsible to create a law based on a complete lack of understanding and determined willful misinterpretation of what drag really is,” said Montana State Rep. Connie Keogh in February in the floor debate. “It’s part of the cultural fabric of the LGBTQ+ community and has been for centuries.”
Tennessee state Sen. Jack Johnson, the Republican sponsor, says his bill addresses “sexually suggestive drag shows” that are inappropriate for children.
A few months ago, organizers of a Pride festival in Jackson, west of Nashville, were criticized for hosting a drag show in a park. A legal complaint led by a Republican state representative sought to block the show, but organizers reached a compromise. settlement to keep it inside the house, with age restriction.
And in Chattanooga, false allegations of child abuse spread online after far-right activists posted a video of a child wearing a sequined costume by a female performer. Online commentators falsely claim that the performer is male, and this is used as a justification for banning children from drag shows.
“Instead of focusing on the actual policy issues facing Tennesseans, politicians would rather spend their time and effort misconstruing age-appropriate displays in a library to pass more anti-LGBTQ+ bills as much as they can,” Sarah Warbelow, legal director for the Human Rights Campaign, said in a statement last week.
Sometimes, vitriol turns to violence. Protesters, some of them armed, threw stones and smoke grenades at each other outside a drag event in Oregon last year.
The Tennessee drag bill marks the second major proposal targeting LGBTQ people passed by state lawmakers this year. Last week, lawmakers approved legislation prohibiting most gender-affirming care. Lee also signed the bill into law on Thursday.
Lee took questions Monday from reporters about the law and other LGBTQ bills when an activist asked him if he remembered “wearing drag in 1977.” She was presented with a photo showing the governor as a high school senior dressed in girls’ clothing that was published in the Franklin High School 1977 yearbook. The photo was first posted on Reddit over the weekend.
Lee said it was “ridiculous” comparing the photo to “sexual entertainment in front of children.” When asked for specific examples of inappropriate drag shows taking place in front of children, Lee did not elaborate, pointing only to the nearby school building and saying he was concerned about the children’s safety.