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Are Dolly Parton and Taylor Swift really our allies? The Tennessee drag ban would suggest not

Celebrities whose words would carry a lot of weight should speak up in the face of damaging attacks on the LGBTQ community

Skylar Baker-Jordan
Friday 03 March 2023 20:38 GMT
Tennessee passes law restricting drag shows

“Shade never made anybody less gay,” Middle Tennessee’s favorite daughter, Taylor Swift, famously sang in her 2019 hit, “You Need to Calm Down.”

“It’s a good thing I was born a girl,” East Tennessee’s favorite daughter and American national treasure Dolly Parton has repeatedly said. “Otherwise, I’d be a drag queen.”

“I’m so proud of… all those in country music and beyond who are standing up today to say that we are all God’s children,” country music superstar, Tennessee resident, and gay icon Reba McEntire once told the LGBTQ community. “Just know that I’ve got your back.”

It is indeed a good thing Dolly Parton isn’t a drag queen, because there’s a lot of shade towards the LGBTQ community in Tennessee. Yesterday, Bill Lee – current governor and former cross-dresser – signed a bill into law banning gender-affirming healthcare for transgender minors and giving them one year to detransition. The bill also bans public drag performances.

Yet, despite her promise, Reba and her fellow Tennessee celebrities have been quiet so far. It isn’t just celebrities, either. FedEx, headquartered in Memphis andthe state’s largest business, touts itself as an ally to the LGBTQ community. “Through programming and education of the LGBTQ community, FedEx is creating opportunities and delivering impacts for people. Our focus is simple—dignity and respect for everyone,”their website claims, adding that “FedEx prioritizes health and wellness initiatives by supporting LGBTQ organizations in these areas as well.”

Yet here we have one of the most direct and damaging attacks on LGBTQ healthcare in American history – forcing patients to detransition and banning gender-affirming healthcare – and FedEx remains silent. They are not alone. While 137 businesses of varying sizes in the state – including Sony Music Group, Universal Music Group, and Warner Music Group – all signed an open letter opposing these laws, some heavy hitters have remained silent. These include Herschend Family Entertainment (which, alongside Parton, owns Dollywood), Goodlettsville-based Dollar General (another company that touts itself as an LGBTQ ally), and Jack Daniels, which has produced a whiskey “dedicated to supporting the LGBTQ community…”

That companies want to appear to court LGBTQ consumers is nothing new. Corporations have been chasing the “pink dollar” since the term was coined in the 1990s. An ABC News article from 2000 reports on advertisers pulling their ads from Laura Schlessinger’s show after the controversial radio personality called gay and lesbian people “deviants,” highlighting companies like Xerox, GEICO, SkyTel, and Proctor & Gamble all severing ties with the show. “That such mainstream companies are so concerned about losing the gay and lesbian market is proof of the community’s value to advertisers,” the report says, going on to point out that “much of the research done to date shows that gay consumers often have more disposable income.”

That is still true; same-sex couples statistically have more disposable income than opposite-sex couples. Marketing to us, declaring allyship, even promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives in their offices and among their staff thus makes sense. It’s an inexpensive way to bolster their public image and convince this lucrative consumer base to spend our hard-earned dollars on their products and services.

The moment their support is tested, though, you hear more crickets than a night spent on old Rocky Top. We see that happening now. This, too, is somewhat understandable. Looking at how Florida Governor Ron DeSantis retaliated against Disney for opposing his homophobic “Don’t Say Gay” law, it must be frightening for businesswomen like Parton and companies like FedEx to speak out. There is every reason to believe that the far-right legislature in Nashville would similarly try to punish anyone who dared question or oppose them. Two people in Memphis were already arrested simply for protesting these measures at an event Lee attended earlier this week. Tennessee officials have made clear they are not above using the force of the state to silence dissent.

Plus, Dolly Parton has famously refrained from entering the political fray. “I don’t do politics,” Dolly once said. “I have too many fans on both sides of the fence. Of course, I have my opinion, but I learned years ago to keep my mouth shut about things.”

I understand her position, but as a woman who has embraced our community and her status as an icon in it, she needs to speak up.

Whatever the reason, it’s disappointing and hurtful to me as a gay Tennessean. I want to believe that Dolly, Taylor, and Reba are all genuine allies. Certainly, each has embraced the community before. I just don’t know where they are now when we need them the most.

I keep thinking about those two protestors arrested in Memphis. They had the courage to stand up against tyranny and injustice. They also have significantly less power and privilege than celebrities like Parton, Swift, and McEntire and businesses like FedEx, Dollar General, and Jack Daniels.

Each of these individuals and companies are, in their own way, institutions within this state. Their vocal opposition and action – including refusing to perform in their home state, or threatening to move their businesses out of state – would mean more than a hundred arrested protestors or a thousand angry op-eds.

If Taylor Swift took a stand like she did against Spotify in 2014 and refused to perform in Tennessee – and organized her fellow performers to similarly boycott – I believe this would do a lot to wake folks up to the injustice going on in her home state. If Dolly Parton spoke out against the bigotry at the heart of these laws, folks from Bristol to Memphis would take note. If iconic Tennessee brands like FedEx, Jack Daniels, and Dollywood warned that this would hurt the state’s ability to attract and retain talent as well as harm our economy – especially our tourism industry, which generates more than a billion dollars in revenue every year – lawmakers might actually consider reversing course.

For that is the only thing that will actually make them listen. Republicans in Nashville need to be shown that these laws will hurt our state’s bottom line. That begins with business and entertainment leaders taking a stand. It means allies like Dolly Parton, with all the clout she brings with her, speaking out against these hateful measures. It means superstars like Taylor Swift refusing to perform here until the laws are repealed. It means companies like Jack Daniels and Dollar General refusing to donate to candidates who supported these laws.

It means, essentially, wealthy and powerful folks putting their money where their mouths are. They have the platform and the power to make Nashville listen, if only they will use it. I don’t pretend that it will be easy or without consequence. This, however, is the test of an ally. Do you really support the LGBTQ community, or is it all a marketing ruse?

These celebrities and corporations talk a big game about supporting the LGBTQ community. Dolly, Taylor, and Reba are all here for the parade, and we appreciate that. Now, however, we need them here for the protest.

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