‘It seems clear who they are standing with’: The Tennessee drag show that tore a college community apart

Students at East Tennessee State wanted to organize a family-friendly event before a state-wide ban on drag shows went into effect. It became so popular that everyone from presidential candidate Marianne Williamson to Representative Gloria Johnson planned to attend. But the college had other ideas. Skylar Baker-Jordan reports

Thursday 06 April 2023 14:57 BST
Didi Blue Heart opens at ESTU
Didi Blue Heart opens at ESTU (Skylar Baker-Jordan)

Didi Blue Heart had the crowd enraptured and enraged. Picking up a giant rainbow flag, she proudly waved it from side to side as Katy Perry’s “Roar” blasted from the sound system.

“My voice needs to be heard,” she told me before the show. Her drag troupe, the Gypsy Queens, “have been very loud and proud. We don’t hold back. We have zero filters. And our shows are very inclusive to everyone, including children. Until recently.”

Didi Blue Heart used to run family-friendly drag shows as well as more raucous ones. But now — at a packed event at East Tennessee State University attended by hundreds of students, as well as the presidential candidate Marianne Williamson — she was facing the possibility of her last ever performance.

A recent law passed by a Republican supermajority and signed in by Republican Governor Bill Lee made Tennessee the first state in the nation to legislate against drag performances. It prohibits drag performances on public property or anywhere children might be present, effectively banning them entirely. Didi Blue Heart and her troupe were appearing at this show as an act of defiance, one day before the ban was scheduled to go into effect on April 1.

The “Can’t Drag Us Down” drag show and story hour — arranged by East Tennessee State’s Young Democratic Socialists of America student group — was designed to be a family-friendly event for all ages that would celebrate LGBTQ culture and demonstrate peacefully against the passage of the law.

Despite the fact that the ban hadn’t been instated on the date the show was planned for, East Tennessee State had tried to prevent it from going ahead. Jessica Vodden, the Chief Marketing and Communications Officer at the college, told me, “We have a responsibility as a public institution to honor the intent of the legislature. We’re talking about a matter of hours here.”

(Skylar Baker-Jordan)

Student organizers said that the university wanted them to move the event off campus. “They wanted us to move it to Founders Park,” an open park in downtown Johnson City, organizer Aria Inaba told me. “People from the far right can come with guns [if we move it there] because it’s an open-carry state, so we told them no.”

The university then told the students they would be required to move the show from the student union at the center of the college to an obscure building next to a parking garage on the far corner of campus. Jessica Voden said the reason was for “safety and minimizing disruption.”

Student organizers were unconvinced. “They used Marianne Williamson [appearing]… as a way of saying ‘Well, we need to beef things up now, and things have changed,’” said Noah Nordstrom, another student organizer who performed as a drag parody of Tennessee’s Republican US Senator Marsha Blackburn. The university had already told organizers they would have to instate an 18-and-over age restriction, which Nordstrom referred to as “an immoral rule”.

The controversial far-right speaker Michael Knowles, who last month asserted that “transgenderism must be eradicated from public life entirely,” is being welcomed to campus later this semester, Nordstrom pointed out. Meanwhile, LGBTQ students were being pushed into a corner.

Inaba agreed. “I could go on about Michael Knowles also being here in the next upcoming weeks, who said about trans people should be eradicated from public life. So, who are [ETSU administrators] going to stand with? And it seems very clear who they are standing with.”

“I can’t think of a more important place to be,” Williamson told The Independent about her appearance at the show. “To see any group of Americans scapegoated is dangerous for every group of Americans.” During the performance, she gave a rousing speech about the importance of civil engagement that was well-received.

Williamson was proud to see the students organizing against what she sees as an oppressive law, though she was unhappy they had to do it. “I’m sorry that this generation, at this time that should be the happiest time of their lives, should be facing such challenges. But we are,” she said. “I think at this time, all of us need to toughen up, buckle up, and rise up. Other generations have had to do that, and it’s simply our turn now.”

Not everyone in the community agrees, however. Between 15 and 20 protestors showed up outside the venue as the drag show opened its doors.

(Skylar Baker-Jordan)

“I sent my son to this college. I took my money that I worked for, and I sent my boy to this school,” one of the protesters, Pastor Ron Dimaline of Mount Zion Ministries, told me. “I have skin in the game here.”

Dimaline feels that students “come to school to be taught reading, writing, and arithmetic” and that drag shows should not be allowed on campus. “I didn’t pay for my boy to come here and come home and say ‘Dad, I think I’m something else than what I thought you are’.”

The idea that an LGBTQ group would exist on campus bothered Dimaline in part because he felt that it was indoctrinating students. “I have a church, but I don’t bring it here and shove it in,” he added.

Dimaline was joined by a number of evangelical Christians, including Stan Bailey, who drove from 30 miles away in Greenville. “This event is a drag event, and we feel that goes against the laws of God,” he said, before repeating a common evangelical anti-LGBTQ slogan: “He created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.”

Bailey believes that the state is right to pass laws such as the one restricting drag performances in order to protect the public decency, especially children. “You’re indoctrinating children into a lifestyle that’s against the principles of the almighty, all-powerful God, the one and only God. And you’re giving children that are eight, 10, 12 years old the right to make decisions that they have no way to choose for themselves those decisions,” he said.

(Skylar Baker-Jordan)

“I feel like parents that are making those decisions for their children, to let them change their gender, that’s child abuse,” he added, seemingly referencing another recently-passed Tennessee law which prohibits the administration of puberty blockers and cross-sex hormones for anyone under the age of 18. “Parents should be put in jail for that. You can’t do that to your children.”

Some such parents — those who have transgender children under the age of 18 — came to the event with their kids, only to be turned away at the door because of the new age restriction. This was upsetting to many of those inside, including Williamson. “There are things that concern me in terms of safety to our children,” she told The Independent, including military-grade guns on our streets and sex and violence on TV and in video games. “When I think of all the threats to American children — and there are many — drag shows is not among them.”

That is a sentiment that Holly Would, another drag performer with the Gypsy Queens who donated her time to the protest, shared. Before the drag ban passed, she and other queens would sometimes perform child-appropriate Disney drag shows where they dressed as Disney princesses. “These kids, you see them blossom and shine when they’re watching you do their favorite Disney number,” she said.

Didi Blue Heart agreed, pointing out that at the Disney shows there is “no profanity, no cussing, no sexual [innuendo] or anything put out there. Everything is very family-friendly, very Disney.” The kids themselves love the Disney shows, she added: “They’re up dancing, they’re up singing. We give them treat bags and toys… We have things for all the kids to really enjoy themselves.”

(Skylar Baker-Jordan)

That kind of age-inclusive show is important, Holly Would says, because it shows LGBTQ children that they are not alone: “Growing up in a small town that was very rural, I thought that gay people only existed in New York City and California. That’s the truth. I thought I was the only one around here.”

As an adult, she uses drag as a way to help today’s youth feel less isolated than she did growing up. When she performing at an area Pride festival, “there were so many kids running up to have us sign their hats and their flags, and these were kids that had never seen a drag queen.”

“This one child,” she added, growing emotional, “she cried when she saw me because she said she never thought she would see a drag queen in person, other than on TV.”

It is unclear to Holly Would and other drag queens precisely how the ban will affect their performances. While it does not technically ban drag entirely, it does restrict it to the point where drag shows become basically untenable to run. Holly Would worries that the Gypsy Queens will no longer be able to perform at a large outdoor venue they typically perform at every summer. And, of course, the Disney shows will no longer be performed. “A lot of the adults, they like to bring their kids and watch them enjoy their favorite Disney princess,” she said, adding that it “is sad” that they’ll no longer be able to hold such shows.

This frustrates Didi Blue Heart, who feels that the state of Tennessee is overreaching and violating parental rights: “If I want to put on a wig and read a story to my grandkids and my boys – my children – and their mothers are okay with that, why are we taking their rights away?”

Some people, she added, have changed their minds once they’ve seen the Gypsy Queens perform. “I know so many people that come to our shows that are Republican and they’re like ‘Oh, we love your show!’ Then, at the end, when we say ‘Vote,’ they’re like ‘Oh my God, we didn’t realize that this was what we were voting against’.”

(Skylar Baker-Jordan)

On the day after the protest, a federal judge put a last-minute injunction on the law’s enforcement until the court can hear appeals from the Friends of George’s, a Memphis-based theater company suing the state for alleged First Amendment violations. The legal restrictions promised for April 1 will no longer go ahead. But it’s clear from the drag show’s experience with East Tennessee State that crackdowns are happening, whether the law is in place or not.

Inaba felt that the law’s consequences would go beyond drag. “The bill is written really vaguely, talking about how drag queens or male and female impersonators are considered like cabaret shows, inherently sexual, which is not true,” she said. “It gives them a justification to attack drag queens and to attack trans people because of the language that is in that bill.” She believes that if the voters and legislators who want to see drag banned would just attend an event in good faith, then perhaps their minds could be changed: “I want everyone to watch drag, even people on the right. Because they haven’t seen drag, and they probably should.”

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