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God Save the Drag Queens
Tennessee's law banning public drag shows is another transparent move to further marginalize queer and trans people.
On March 2, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee signed into law a ban on “adult cabaret” performances in public places or wherever children could see them, making the state the first to ban public drag shows this year.
Though the law doesn’t explicitly name “drag” as one of the so-called cabaret styles it criminalizes, it bans “male or female impersonators” who provide entertainment deemed “harmful to minors.” And that’s not to mention the broad, misleading insinuations that bill’s language makes about drag shows at large.
Regardless of the law’s lack of specificity, it’s detailed enough to target drag artists for merely performing in public. In the wake of years of far-right anti-LGBTQ attacks, Tennessee’s anti-drag law is but another step in the GOP crusade to literally eradicate transgender and gender-nonconforming people.
Tennessee is joined by many allies. GOP lawmakers in at least 13 other states have filed bills to effectively bar public drag performances in the presence of children, including Arizona, Arkansas, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Texas, Kentucky, West Virginia and Oklahoma, according to the Washington Post and Time. One of several proposed bills in Arizona would sentence drag artists who perform in front of children to at least 10 years in prison and force them to register as sex offenders. In West Virginia, a bill would ensure that anyone convicted of engaging in a public performance of “adult cabaret” could be fined up to $25,000 or face a maximum of five years in prison. In Montana, minors would be barred from all drag shows, while Missouri’s bill would specifically bar drag queens from hosting story hours or being involved in “learning activities with minor children present.”
For me, these proposals evoke strong memories of the anti-“Critical Race Theory” laws and right-wing talking points about “intellectual grooming” from 2021. Such bills were a direct response to the Black Lives Matter uprisings of 2020 and the promises (loosely) made afterward by institutions to advance racial justice and equity, including schools. While both sets of these bills claim to protect the welfare of children, it is the political and cultural contexts in which they have been introduced that reveal their true intentions.
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Take the school curriculum bills, which allegedly aim to protect kids from being ostracized on the basis of discrimination. Of course it is right and just to protect children from discrimination. But why was discrimination in the classroom suddenly a concern as schools nationwide considered adjusting their curriculum to be more reflective of U.S. history? Or when white students were suddenly at risk of learning about colonization’s role in systemic racism?
And in the case of the anti-drag bills, again, nobody is asking for children to be exposed to performances with “nudity, sexual excitement, sexual conduct, excess violence, or sadomasochistic abuse,” per the language of the Tennessee law. I’m not going to get into the nuance of drag shows for adults compared to story times for children, or about how most drag queens have more skin covered than your average professional cheerleader, because the reality is that the people crafting these laws could not give two shits about the truth. They knowingly tell lies and weave boogeymen, because their main objective is to paint a picture that stokes exploitable fear.
And how does the state justify criminalizing pole dancers and drag queens for potentially exposing children to “excess violence,” but not other people whom kids are far more likely to encounter in public or in entertainment—say, police officers, or professional athletes?
Again, it’s the political and cultural context that brings the intentions of these bills into focus. Over the past two years, Republicans have sought to bar trans kids from competing on teams or against other kids of the same gender. Right-wing demagogues have accused teachers, particularly queer teachers or teachers who aim to be more gender-inclusive, of “ideological grooming”—a smear calculated to echo the false accusations made of gay men decades prior—and have banned discussion of gender identity from classrooms. They’ve lodged similar accusations against librarians and marginalized writers and authors of diverse stories. Their conspiracy-addled followers have protested drag shows that specifically cater to adults, bringing upon queer performers the violence these lawmakers allegedly decry. They’ve brought back anti-trans bathroom bills from half a decade ago. They’ve tried to separate trans kids from their supportive parents and cut off trans children (and adults!) from their healthcare. Hell, on the day Lee passed the anti-drag ban, he also signed into law a ban on gender-affirming healthcare for minors, which is, in fact, violence upon trans kids themselves.
All of this is violence against queer and trans people—and unlike the violence and dangerous behavior that these lawmakers pretend to be fighting against, this violence is all too real. These bills have consequences. Never mind the protests outside of drag shows — these lawmakers have literal blood on their hands for going after drag artists, this we already know. I will write this into infinity — people will die as a direct result of these policies and the harassment that these laws evoke.
These bills, dishonest as they are, are another transparent move by Republicans to use children to drum up panic over, and discriminate against, queer and trans people, and it’s sickening. It’s disgusting and putrid, and I hope that hell exists if only for the people crafting, proposing, and passing these bills to burn in it. Because in the meantime, it will be the broader LGBTQ community, not just drag artists and the families who want to see them perform, who will suffer.
A final thought before I end this blog. I’ve been thinking of something that Michael Hobbes said recently on his podcast If Books Could Kill about the fight for trans rights (in an episode about the New York Times’ war on trans people — do check it out), as well as another message that drag queen Silky Nutmeg Ganache shared on Instagram. The time for cis and straight people to show up for our LGBTQ peers is now, and the lack of action on the part of cis people to shut down the bad faith “trans debate” early on is partially to blame for the spiraling transphobic discourse we have today. Silky had a similar call to action: straight people, specifically straight women, love to participate in queer culture, so they have an obligation to defend queer people. This is everyone’s fight—so we should stand up and act like it.
Due to an editing error (ed note: sorry!!!!) this blog originally said that the anti-drag bill was signed into law on March 6, instead of March 2.