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Like Tennessee, others are targeting drag shows, many wondering: Why?


NASHVILLE, TN — NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) – “If I hadn’t been a girl, I would have been a drag queen.”

Dolly Parton said these words famously and often. But if she really was a drag queen, one of Tennessee’s most famous girls would likely be out of a job under legislation passed Thursday and soon head to Republican Gov. Bill Lee, who has promised to sign her.

Across the country, conservative activists and politicians complain that dating is contributing to the “sexualization” or “grooming” of children. Several states are considering restrictions, but none have acted as quickly as Tennessee to ensure children are not exposed to drag. The efforts are aimed at extinguishing the popular ‘drag story hours’ in which queens read to children. Organizers of LGBTQ Pride events say they have chilled their parades. And advocates note that the bills, pushed largely by Republicans, burden businesses in an unRepublican way.

The protests arose quite suddenly over a form of entertainment that has long had a place on the mainstream American stage.

Milton Berle, “Mr. Television” himself, appeared in drag on the public airwaves as early as the 1950s on “Texaco Star Theater”. “RuPaul’s Drag Race” is a real cultural phenomenon. That such shows are now presented as a danger to children amazes people who study, play and enjoy drag.

“Drag is not a threat to anyone. It makes no sense to criminalize or vilify drag in 2023,” said Lawrence La Fountain-Stokes, professor of culture and gender studies at the University of Michigan and author of “Translocas: The Politics of Puerto Rican Drag and Trans Performance”.

“It’s a space where people explore their identity,” said La Fountain-Stokes, who got hit on. “But it’s also a place where people just make a living. Drag is a job. Drag is a legitimate artistic expression that brings people together, that entertains, that allows individuals to explore who they are, and allows all of us to have a great time. So it literally makes no sense for lawmakers, for members of government, to try to ban drag.

Drag usually does not involve nudity or stripping, which are more common in the art separate from burlesque. Explicitly sexual and profane language is common in drag performances, but such content is avoided when children are the target audience. At adult-oriented shows, venues or performers usually give advance notice of age-inappropriate content.

The word “drag” does not appear in the Tennessee bill. Instead, it changes the definition of adult cabaret in Tennessee law to mean “performances intended for adults that are harmful to minors.” It also states that “male or female impersonators” now fall under adult cabaret among topless dancers, go-go dancers, exotic dancers and strippers.

The bill then prohibits adult cabaret from public property or anywhere minors might be present. It threatens performers with a misdemeanor or felony charge if it is a repeat offence.

The Tennessee Pride Chamber, a business advocacy group, has predicted ‘selective oversight and enforcement’ will lead to legal challenges and ‘massive spending’ as governments defend an unconstitutional law that will hurt the company’s brand. State.

“Tourism, which contributes significantly to the growth and well-being of our state, may well suffer from boycotts disproportionately affecting members of our community who work in Tennessee’s restaurants, arts, and hospitality.” , House Speaker Brian Rosman wrote in an email to The Associated Press. “Businesses won’t continue to expand or move here if their employees – and their recruits – don’t feel safe or welcome in Tennessee.”

John Camp, a Pride organizer in Knoxville, said the event in Tennessee’s third-largest city will be dark in October, describing it as “more of a march than a celebration.” There were 100 dragsters last year, he said, but he doesn’t know how many may participate this year.

Several other states, including Idaho, Kentucky, North Dakota, Montana and Oklahoma, are considering similar bans. And the governor of Arkansas recently signed a bill that imposes new restrictions on “adult-oriented” shows. It originally targeted drag shows, but was scaled back following complaints of anti-LGBTQ discrimination.

“I find it irresponsible to create a law based on a complete lack of understanding and a deliberate misinterpretation of what drag actually is,” Montana State Rep. Connie Keogh said in February during a debate on the floor. “It’s part of the cultural fabric of the LGBTQ+ community and has been around for centuries.”

Tennessee Senator Jack Johnson, the Republican sponsor, says his bill deals with “sexually suggestive drag shows” that are unsuitable for children.

Months ago, organizers of a Pride festival in Jackson, west of Nashville, came under fire for hosting a drag show in a park. A legal complaint led by a Republican state representative sought to prevent the show, but organizers reached an agreement to keep it indoors, with an age restriction.

And in Chattanooga, false allegations of child abuse have spread online after far-right activists posted a video of a child smelling a female entertainer’s sequined costume. Online commentators falsely claimed the entertainer was male, and this was later used as justification for banning children from drag shows.

“Rather than focus on the real political issues facing the people of Tennessee, politicians would rather spend their time and effort misinterpreting age-appropriate performances at a library to pass so many anti- LGBTQ+ as possible,” said Sarah Warbelow, Legal Director of the Human Rights Campaign. , said in a statement last week.

Sometimes the vitriol became violence. Protesters, some armed, threw rocks and smoke grenades at each other outside a drag racing event in Oregon last year.

Tennessee’s dredge bill marks the second major proposal targeting LGBTQ people that state lawmakers have passed this year. Last week, lawmakers approved legislation banning most gender-affirming skincare. Lee says he plans to sign the bill.

Lee was answering reporters’ questions about the legislation and other LGBTQ bills on Monday when an activist asked if he remembered “dressing up as a drag guy in 1977.” She was presented with a photo showing the Governor as a high school girl dressed in women’s clothing that was published in the 1977 Franklin High School yearbook. The photo was first posted on Reddit over the weekend.

Lee said it was “ridiculous” to compare the photo to “sexualized entertainment in front of children”. When asked for specific examples of inappropriate drag shows taking place in front of children, Lee cited none, merely pointing to a nearby school building and saying he was concerned about the protection of children.


McMillan reported from northeastern Pennsylvania. Associated Press writers Jonathan Matisse in Nashville and Amy Beth Hanson in Helena, Montana contributed to this report.

Joanna Swanson

Joanna Swanson is Europe correspondent at the Thomson Reuters Foundation based in Brussels covering politics, culture, business, climate change, society, economies and inclusive tech. With specific focus in breaking news, she has covered some of the world's most significant stories.