Drag queens at Pride. Courtesy of FransA on Pexels.

In the last half decade or so in the United States, with every cultural step forward seems to come two steps back in the realm of queer rights. Following Tennessee Governor Bill Lee’s confirmation on Monday, Feb. 27 of his intentions to sign a bill that would effectively criminalize public drag performances in front of minors, the action was signed into law three days later. Intentionally vague, frustratingly hypocritical, and at its core anti-queer propaganda, the law is slated to go into effect on July 1 of this year, a month in advance of national Pride Month.

The bill, passed on Thursday, March 2, limits public displays of “adult cabaret performances,” with the explicit intent to keep them away from children. According to the bill, and adult cabaret performance is defined as one “that features topless dancers, go-go dancers, exotic dancers, strippers, male or female impersonators who provide entertainment that appeals to a prurient interest, or similar entertainers.” While there is no mention of the word “drag” in the verbiage (no doubt intentionally for the sake of plausible deniably of homophobia), many predict it will be firmly applied to the art form in several ways. Drag after all is an expression of genderfuckery, amongst other core tenets. 

Courtesy of the Office of Gov. Bill Lee via Facebook.

The bill is not the first of its kind proposed in the United States, though it is the first officially signed into law. 300+ anti-queer bills have been passed or introduced in 2022 alone. In fact, 11 other states, all historically Republican-favoring, are publicly considering new regulations on drag, with some planning to outright ban performances in certain contexts. In the wake of years of discriminatory policies that restrict the basic human rights of transgender people, all of which have absolutely no scientific or psychological backing, the banning of drag and cabaret performances is simply another step in a slow, painful maneuver to silence queer voices. As the rise of queer content in public and in mainstream media continues to grow exponentially, we continue to see a rise in LGBTQ+ hate in equal proportion in the form of targeted attacks, violence, misinformation, and harmful rhetoric. 

To get a glimpse into the double standard of the bill and how it aims to specifically target queer people and artists, look to the controversy surrounding on the bill’s main proponents: Gov. Bill Lee. Surrounding his announcement of the bill is an image taken from his high school yearbook in 1977, in which he stands in a cheerleading uniform, curly wig, and pearl necklace. Next to him stands two girls in men’s suits and hats. In other words, everyone in this photo is in drag. Referring to the picture, when frankly asked by a reporter “is it only illegal when gay people do it?” Lee deflected, stating: “What a ridiculous, ridiculous question that is. Conflating something like that to sexualized entertainment in front of children, which is a very serious subject.” Ironically enough, this is not the first drag related scandal of this nature this year, following the rumors that Republican Rep. George Santos himself once worked as a drag queen.

Despite claims by Republican state Senator Jack Johnson (one of the legislation’s sponsors) that the bill “is not targeting any group of people,” the bill is firmly set to disrupt predominately queer spaces in the state of Tennessee. The tireless argument that queer content or public display is harmful to minors is an unsubstantiated claim rooted in the fear-mongering of concerned parents and conservative Americans. The fact of the matter is that being exposed to entertainment that challenges gender norms, or more explicitly queer and drag content, does not harm children, but rather it exposes them to different art forms and encourages them to find their own paths to self-expression. 

There is also the continued insistence that drag content is inherently inappropriate for children, or that it is all perverted and used as a predatory measure to entice them. This kind of misinformation paints drag queens and queer people as delinquent criminals, when in fact drag is typically a means of self expression, not disguise. And yes, not every drag show is appropriate for children, as is the case with any form of media or live performance, but restrictions and censorship is not the answer. It does not fall on the artist to cast wide appeal and silence their own art for the sake of a minority of viewers who might be offended. It is instead on those in attendance or those monitoring those in attendance to determine themselves whether the content is appropriate. You walk into a drag show by your own free will, it doesn’t come to you.

Drag artist Sasha Velour said it best in The Untitled Magazine’s REBEL Issue when discussing Republican attacks on drag: “The fact is: drag does exist. Lot’s of people love it. There is no need to hide that from children or make them feel like it is shameful or shocking when that really isn’t how most of the world views it… we don’t need stigma around something as innocent as clothing.” 

These kinds of bills not only pull our country backwards in terms of our right to free expression, but they more dangerously set further precedents for the policing and gatekeeping of queer content. They implicitly condone queer hate and allow for more and more people to overanalyze acts of drag, transness, or other queer expression to find fault and sinister intent where none exists. Meanwhile, other more “tame” content that many would also consider inappropriate for children, like that containing violence or other forms of hatred, remain largely unregulated or under-examined simply because it does not challenge the gender norms that conservatives cling to so dearly.

Despite the stated repercussions of being charged with a misdemeanor, or even a felony for repeat offenders, drag queens and activists are fighting back. Drag artist Bella DuBalle of Memphis’ Atomic Rose has vowed to not comply with the bill, and even plans to put on a large public drag show on the day of the bill’s passing. And you know what, it’ll be a fabulous gay time.

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