Tennessee governor signs law restricting drag performances in public

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee signed off on legislation on Thursday that will severely limit where certain drag shows can take place.

While several states are currently considering restrictions against the performances, no other state has acted as quickly as Tennessee to ensure that drag shows cannot take place in public or in front of children. The move lines up with Tennessee being among the states passing the most anti-LGBTQ legislation in the past few years.

The word “drag” does not explicitly appear in the new legislation. Instead, it 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, along with topless dancers, go-go dancers, exotic dancers and strippers.

Lee, a Republican, signed off on the legislation without issuing a statement or in a public ceremony. It goes into effect July 1.

Also Thursday, Republican lawmakers in Kentucky advanced a bill also aimed at putting limits on drag shows. The move sparked chants of “shame” from opponents, who criticized the measure as discriminatory and said it would stifle First Amendment rights.

Man in a suit speaking at a podium
Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, shown on Feb. 6, says he plans to sign a bill approved by the state’s lawmakers that bans most gender-affirming care. The legislation limiting drag shows takes effect July 1. (Mark Zaleski/The Associated Press )

Drag long seen as ‘celebratory’

Across the United States, right-wing activists and politicians claim that drag leads to the “sexualization” or “grooming” of children.

Tennessee’s action follows a recent bill signing by the governor of Arkansas on 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 long-standing, 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 month. “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.”

Lee asked about photo of himself in women’s clothing

Tennessee lawmakers have also approved legislation that bans most gender-affirming care. Lee said he plans on signing that bill, too.

As Lee was fielding questions on Monday from reporters about the legislation and other anti-LGBTQ bills, 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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