As the state-sponsored persecution of transgender Americans continues across large swathes of the United States this year, Tennessee has earned the dubious distinction of being the first state to pass a law banning drag performances in the presence of minors.
How it will be enforced remains to be seen, but the law, which Republican governor Bill Lee signed along with a ban on gender-affirming care for minors early this month, goes into effect in just a few days, on 1 April. It stipulates that a first offence constitutes a misdemeanour punishable by a fine of $2,500 and up to one year in jail. A second offence constitutes a felony, punishable by up to six years in prison.
But what exactly constitutes a violation? The new anti-drag law bans “adult cabaret performances” within 1,000 feet of schools, public parks or places of worship, or where minors are present or might be able to see the performance.
As summarised by Brooke Midgon in The Hill, the Tennessee law “builds on existing restrictions on ‘adult-oriented businesses’ in Tennessee, expanding the state’s obscenity laws to include performances that feature topless or exotic dancers or ‘male or female impersonators’ that provide entertainment appealing ‘to a prurient interest’”.
Anyone who has an authentic understanding of drag as a type of performance art devoted to playing with and stretching the boundaries of gender, and who is arguing in good faith, would undoubtedly conclude that many approaches to drag do not constitute “adult cabaret performances”. But that won’t matter to the authoritarians who will be enforcing laws like Tennessee’s – laws similar to those that were previously used well into the 20th century to give cops free rein to harass queer Americans.
With that in mind, the vagueness of the law’s wording is probably the point – it leaves much open to the interpretation of the enforcer. Pride Month is in June, not much more than two months away. While it is unclear whether this law will be used to arrest performers or even people dressed in a way that a police officer deems gender-nonconforming and “prurient” at Pride festivals, the very existence of the law will undoubtedly produce a chilling effect, likely driving most drag in Tennessee underground.