Tennessee lawmakers passed a bill on Thursday prohibiting drag performances in public or in front of children, putting the state at the forefront of a Republican-led effort to limit drag in at least 15 states in recent months.
The more than 20 bills across the country are a pushback against modern drag, which evolved from an underground performance art using costumes and makeup to play with gender norms, which evolved into gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender venues , helped usher in a mainstream entertainer. Part of the popularity of the television pageant show “RuPaul’s Drag Race”.
Artists and civil rights groups have denounced the proposed drag rules, saying they are unconstitutional, redundant under existing obscenity laws, and would encourage harassment and violence against gay and transgender people. They see the bills as part of a Republican effort to advance laws restricting the conduct of LGBTQ people nationwide.
Proponents of the bills say they aim to protect children.
“It gives parents confidence that they can take their children to a public or private show and not be blindsided by a sexual performance,” Tennessee Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson, a Republican, said in a statement.
Representative Chris Todd, a Republican, said he sponsored the bill in the House of Representatives after seeking a court order last year to stop an advertised “family-friendly” drag show during an LGBTQ Pride event at a park in Jackson. Which he called a form of child abuse.
“It was forced to stay indoors and 18 and up, and I was asked to come up with legislation that would make that more clear,” Todd said in the House on Thursday.
This month, Johnson and his Senate colleagues passed a bill criminalizing “adult cabaret entertainment” in public or where it can be viewed by children, though it would still be allowed in age-restricted venues. The bill defined such entertainment as including “adult-oriented” performances by strippers, go-go dancers or “male or female impersonators”.
The first offense would be a misdemeanor offense, and the subsequent offense would be a felony, punishable by one to six years in prison.
On Thursday, the House passed the bill, which will go to Governor Bill Lee, a Republican, to sign into law.
Lawmakers also voted to send a bill to the governor that bans doctors from providing gender-affirming medical treatments, such as puberty blockers, hormone therapy and surgery, to transgender minors.
Tennessee, like other states, already has public indecency and obscenity laws that ban overly violent or sexual performances in front of minors, regardless of the performer’s gender. Drag performances usually do not include nudity or stripping.
Peppermint, a drag performer who rose to fame on “Drag Race,” said the anti-drag bills were the latest in a long history of anti-LGBTQ legislation based on false, dangerous slurs against gay and trans people: that they are “grooming” or sexually abusing children.
“It’s a straw man, it’s a boogie monster, it’s not actually a real thing, so they make up stories,” she said. “First they target us, dehumanize us, villainize us and then they pass laws against us.”
As a trans woman, Peppermint said she would now hesitate to move to Tennessee, saying that even when trans performers do not perform drag, they can be accused of male or female impersonation, which is prohibited by law. are not defined.
In recent years, drag has become increasingly visible. Drag queens have starred in fast-food and car commercials. The restaurant hosts an all-ages drag brunch featuring entertaining diners who perform. Founded in 2015, the Drag Story Hour, in which costumed drag performers read to children, has expanded to at least 20 states.
There has also been a reaction. Drag Story Hour in particular has become a target for Republican lawmakers and conservative Christian groups, and the Proud Boys, a violent far-right group, have hosted protests against libraries and other venues across the country.
Drag performers say they are able to tailor their act to their audience as other performers, such as an actor who can appear in both a sexually explicit R-rated film and a children’s film.
“Drag is best known for humor and glamour: we’re talking about people lip-syncing to pop songs and dancing in elaborate costumes,” said Lynn Purvis, Tennessee court administrator. Those who have occasionally done drag testified in opposition to the bill. In a committee hearing.
“Seeing a drag queen doesn’t make a child gay or trans, but it can help traumatized children have hope of one day being able to express themselves freely.”