On April 1, 2023, a bill drafted by Tennessee Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson went into place. This bill makes “adult cabaret” performances by topless, go-go or exotic dancers, strippers or male / female impersonators illegal, but you probably know it as the bill that is said to prevent drag performances. The term “drag” is used to describe performance art in which gender expression is exaggerated, usually for entertainment purposes. Drag usually involves cross-dressing (the act of wearing clothes or makeup that is typically associated with another gender), with those who perform femininity being called drag queens, and those who perform masculinity being called drag kings. Those found violating this law can be fined up to $2,500 or receive a year in prison for first offenses. Any future offenses will receive a felony charge, which is punishable with up to six years in prison. 

Drag queens and supporters protest the Tennessee drag ban. Photo: John Amis

The bill’s legislation does not use the term “drag,” but instead replaces it with the phrase “adult cabaret;” in fact, some legal experts even believe that the bill would not apply explicitly to drag shows. However, Johnson confirmed in a statement to NPR that the law is intended to prohibit drag and other forms of queer expression: “just as current law prohibits strip clubs from admitting children, this legislation would also prohibit sexually suggestive drag shows from being performed on public property, or on any non-age-restricted private property where a minor could be present.” I have two issues with this: firstly, Johnson wouldn’t have addressed drag if he hadn’t written the bill with the intention of prohibiting it. Secondly, if the current legislature already prevents children from entering sexually explicit places like strip clubs, why is there a need for more legislation surrounding the issue? “It’s an anti-drag law, because they passed it intentionally to try to chill and prevent people from doing drag, but that’s not really what the law says….it’s clear that some people think that drag in and of itself as an art form is obscene and that it should not be viewed by children” said Kathy Sinback, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee (ACLU). 

So you may be wondering, what’s the big deal? This law is one of many restricting gender and sexuality expression in public that have been rampant for the last century, with the New York law allowing cops to harass and arrest law-abiding trans citizens repealed just two years ago in 2021. This represents the continuance of a repressive and transphobic pattern in legislation. The drag ban is not the only recent Tennessee law restricting gender expression; the Tennessee Senate Bill 1 taking effect on July 1st will prohibit healthcare providers from prescribing puberty blockers or hormones and from performing gender-affirming surgeries for transgender minors. This bill is not only extremely transphobic and harmful to the mental health of trans children everywhere, who already have extremely high suicide and self-harm rates, but can also be physically detrimental to those forced to withdrawal from Hormone Replacement therapy (HRT). HRT on its own can cause fatal blood clots, and withdrawal symptoms include mood swings, depression, fatigue, insomnia, gradually decreasing sex drive, high blood pressure and a general feeling of malaise, according to Enby NYC. “We will not allow this dangerous law to stand. Certain politicians and Gov. Lee have made no secret of their intent to discriminate against youth who are transgender or their willful ignorance about the life-saving health care they seek to ban. Instead, they’ve chosen fearmongering, misrepresentations, intimidation, and extremist politics over the rights of families and the lives of transgender youth in Tennessee,” says the ACLU. “We are dedicated to overturning this unconstitutional law and are confident the state will find itself completely incapable of defending it in court. We want transgender youth to know they are not alone and this fight is not over.” Recently, there has been another proposal in Tennessee that would prevent trans people from changing the gender written on their driver’s license if it goes into effect. Despite efforts from the ACLU and other organizations, transphobic legislature is still being drafted and passed. 

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