Tennessee becomes first state in the nation with law restricting drag performances

Gov Bill Lee signed the bill on Thursday. It is expected to take effect later this year

Abe Asher
Thursday 02 March 2023 22:20 GMT
Far-right protesters demonstrate against South London drag show

Tennessee has become the first state in the country to approve restrictions on where drag shows can be performed, opening a new frontier in the battle against genderqueer freedom of expression in the United States.

The bill passed by the Tennessee legislature and signed by Gov Bill Lee on Thursday effectively bans drag from being performed on public property or in spaces where minors are present, even though children are constantly exposed to other forms of gender expression.

The bill does not explicitly mention drag shows, but rather changes the definiton of adult cabaret in the state to include “adult-oriented performances that are harmful to minors,” and classifies “male or female impersonators” as adult cabaret performers alongside performers like strippers.

Performers who violate the law could face a misdemeanour criminal charge, repeat offenders could be charged with a felony.

The law, which is regarded as an attack on the state’s transgender community and free speech more broadly, has been condemned by groups like Human Rights Watch. Mr Lee on Thursday also signed a total ban on gender-affirming healthcare in the state, meaning Tennesseans won’t be able to access things like puberty blockers and hormone treatments. Gender-affirming surgeries are also now banned.

The number of bills targeting transgender Americans has increased dramatically over the last several years, with 150 bills targeting transgender people and 340 bills targeting LGTBQ+ people as a whole filed in state legislatures this year.

Drag shows have increasingly become a target for far right agitators over the last year, including in several towns in Tennessee. But the legislative attack on drag shows is a new development, one that other Republican-run states who have passed legislation limiting the transgender community’s rights on everything from healthcare to sports participation could follow in the coming months.

Democrats and a range of activists, organisations, and even some Republicans registered a number of concerns with the law restricting drag shows, including that the definitions the state has adopted could allow it to ban other kinds of performances the interpretors of the law don’t like.

In the end, those objections didn’t matter: the Tennessee legislature’s Republican supermajority passed the bill anyway. Mr Lee wasted no time in signing it when it reached his desk.

The ACLU has said that it plans to sue the state over the gender-affirming care ban, and the indirect ban on drag shows in public places and non-age restricted venues could face legal challenges as well.

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