Tennessee and the Anti-Drag Race
“The point of the law is to terrorize people.”
That’s how Patrick Grzanka, a professor of psychology at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and the chair of the university’s interdisciplinary program in women, gender and sexuality, describes Tennessee’s new, extreme anti-drag law — among the first of its kind in the country.
The law, which Republican Gov. Bill Lee signed Thursday, criminalizes “adult cabaret” performances that are “harmful to minors.” It includes “male or female impersonators” on public property or where they could be seen by children. It takes effect April 1, with the first offense being a misdemeanor and subsequent ones being felonies.
Not long before Lee signed the bill, a 1977 yearbook photo surfaced showing him dressed in drag when he was in high school. The howls of hypocrisy came quickly.
But I don’t think people like Lee see that as hypocrisy. They see hilarity in straight men donning women’s clothes to mock femininity but see obscenity and perversion in (usually) gay men doing the same (only better!) to celebrate femininity and find a sense of affirmation and self-realization.
They see their role as guarding the border between their narrow, normative definitions of “masculine” and “feminine” and making sure no one traverses it. They are sentinels of the patriarchy, all too willing to oppress or try to intimidate their fellow citizens.
And the imprecise wording of Tennessee’s law seems calibrated to provoke the maximum amount of doubt and, therefore, fear: How is impersonating a man or woman defined? (Does a high school stunt, for example, count?) Could transgender men and women be prosecuted? How is harm to minors defined, and who defines it?
As Grzanka told me: “Forget about accountability. There doesn’t even have to be internal consistency to the legislation so long as it promotes hate.” He sees the anti-drag law as a continuation of “a kind of legislative waterboarding” by the political right to generate backlash against L.G.B.T.Q. progress that many see as “a massive threat to white Christian heterosexual values.”
He believes the law is part of a “retrenchment politics that is designed to put L.G.B.T. people back in our place, and of course the place is cowering in fear in the closet.”
The Tennessee drag performers I interviewed for this column pointed to the opaqueness of the law as a source of the apprehension surrounding it. For instance, in Tennessee, will drag performances in Pride parades — joyful events that have been embraced across America — now be illegal?
As Cameron Wade, a Nashville drag entertainer who performs under the name Justine Van de Blair, told me, that vagueness is ripe for abuse and the message the bill sends is “that L.G.B.T.Q. survival is not important and that we aren’t welcome here.”
While Tennessee is leading in this hateful anti-drag race, it isn’t the only state engaged in it. Late last month, Republican Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders of Arkansas signed a bill restricting “adult-oriented performance,” a measure that had originally targeted drag performers explicitly before being watered down in the face of opposition.
According to the Human Rights Campaign’s State Equality Index, 29 out of 315 anti-L.G.B.T.Q. bills were enacted into law in 2022, and the group is now tracking approximately 750 L.G.B.T.Q. bills introduced in state legislatures around the country. As H.R.C. points out, “over half are bills that will cause real harm to the L.G.B.T.Q.+ community.”
And Tennessee doesn’t appear to be finished. As I was writing this column on Monday, state lawmakers were busy working on requiring paid “adult oriented” performers in certain jurisdictions to get a permit and prohibiting venues from allowing children to see those performances.
With the bill signed last week, Tennessee has now adopted 14 anti-L.G.B.T.Q. laws since 2015, “more than any other state in the country,” according to the Human Rights Campaign.
Michelangelo Signorile, a radio host and the author of the prescient 2015 book “It’s Not Over: Getting Beyond Tolerance, Defeating Homophobia and Winning True Equality,” told me that conservative politicians are “seeing this as the issue they need to completely outdo each other in the culture war fight” because they think that’s what their base wants.
Signorile points out that the anti-drag bills further weave together existing political threads on the right, lumping together child indoctrination and abuse with anything to do with being L.G.B.T.Q. to sow distrust and bigotry. These efforts play into the “groomer” scare, which dovetailed with the passage of Florida’s so-called Don’t Say Gay law.
Per an H.R.C. report issued in August, hateful tweets about “groomers” from “just 10 people were viewed an estimated 48 million times, equivalent to 66 percent of the reach of the 500 most-viewed tweets.” Those 10 people included Republican Representatives Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert.
Conservatives, having suffered losses in recent years on L.G.B.T.Q. rights issues, found a smaller, more vulnerable subset of the queer community to attack: those fighting for gender identity rights.
While the public has in recent decades developed a better understanding of sexual orientation, its understanding of gender lags. In that context, some people conflate performing in drag with being transgender.
Indeed, on the same day Lee signed the anti-drag legislation, he also signed legislation to essentially ban gender-affirming care for trans youth.
These laws pose a real threat both to drag performers and the trans community. One criminalizes artistic expression; the other criminalizes people for being who they are. Taken together, they further embolden hate groups already mobilized on gender issues.
That hate, and the oppression it engenders, is dangerous and potentially deadly. All people deserve to live their lives in the fullness of their truths.
Monica Lusk, a trans Memphis drag entertainer who performs under the name Monica Dupree, told me that she feels doubly attacked by Tennessee’s law and that she’s “mad as hell.” “Drag saved my life,” she said, all because she went to a drag show 23 years ago and could finally see herself. “Drag” doesn’t mean “lewd.” But drag often frees, and sometimes saves."