Tennessee to Become First State to Ban Drag Shows for Child Audiences

Amy Gamm
By Amy Gamm
March 1, 2023Newsshare
Tennessee to Become First State to Ban Drag Shows for Child Audiences
Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee delivers his State of the State address in the House Chamber of the Capitol building in Nashville, Tenn., on Jan. 31, 2022. (Mark Zaleski/AP Photo)

Republican Tennessee Governor Bill Lee is poised to sign into law the first bill in the United States that would ban drag queen performances from being hosted at any venue where children might be present and, additionally, that would make it a criminal offense for anyone hosting or performing in them.

On Monday, Feb. 27, the Tennessee governor said that he intends to sign the bill as soon as it reaches his desk.

“The concern is … children that are potentially exposed to sexualized entertainment, to obscenity, and we need to make sure that they’re not,” Governor Lee told reporters near Dr. William Burris Elementary School in Hendersonville, Tennessee.

The measure (pdf) seeks to amend portions of existing Tennessee obscenity law by clearly defining what characterizes an “adult cabaret performance”—and to identify where such performances can be hosted. Previously, no specific language was used to distinguish such acts.

The legislation doesn’t explicitly name “drag shows.”

Instead, under the proposed law, the definition of “adult cabaret performance” is clarified to include those performances featuring topless, go-go, and exotic dancers, strippers, or “similar entertainers,” as well as “male or female impersonators who provide entertainment that appeals to a prurient interest.”

Additionally, the bill states that anyone who hosts or performs in an “adult cabaret” show as defined would be charged with a class A misdemeanor, and subject to a fine of up to $2,500 and up to one year in prison as a first offense. Any subsequent violations would escalate to a class E felony, and could carry a one-to-six year prison term and fines of up to $3,000.

On Feb. 9, the Tennessee state Senate passed S.B. 3 along partisan lines, with 26 Senate Republicans voting for it and six Democrat Senators against, the news platform reported.

On Feb. 23, the House’s companion bill on the hosting of such events, H.B. 9, was then passed with a 74–19 vote.

Protecting Children From ‘Sexualized Entertainment’

“I am not trying to ban drag shows, and I’m not trying to take away anyone’s First Amendment rights,” Tennessee state Sen. Jack Johnson, a Republican and the senate bill’s sponsor told The Washington Post. “But you should be able to take your kids to a public park or library and not be surprised by seeing sexually explicit entertainment taking place.”

According to PEN America, a nonprofit organization championing free speech, a total of 14 bills have been introduced so far this year across the United States—and mostly in Republican-led states, including Arkansas, Missouri, Nebraska, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and West Virginia. Other states, meanwhile, such as Montana and Idaho, are in the process of drafting similar legislation.

In recent years, drag queens have starred in fast-food and car commercials, while a number of restaurants have promoted “all-ages drag brunches.”

Drag Queen Story Hour, an organization founded in 2015 that promotes drag performers reading books to children in libraries, schools, and bookstores, has become a particular target of Republicans and Christian lobbyist groups, according to the news service, with such groups becoming the driving force behind much of the legislation.

Categorizing its drag shows as “family entertainment,” Drag Queen Story Hour has grown to include chapters in 28 cities and states across the United States, with a further three in Europe and one in Japan.

Concerns Over First Amendment Rights

Legislation measures have ignited a firestorm across the country, with opponents expressing their fears about where such laws could lead.

Some proponents of free speech find the efforts to ban so-called drag queen performances for children in violation of free speech.

Speaking to USA Today, Kate Ruane, director of U.S. free expression programs at PEN America, was critical of the proposed legislation. “If you want to put on ‘Twelfth Night,’ the Shakespeare play, you can’t do it because it requires drag—it requires a woman dressing as a man,” Ruane said.

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