Drag shows have been popular in Tennessee cities, especially Nashville, for two decades or more. They grew out of the city’s identity as a hub for music and a generally welcoming place for LGBTQ+ people and their allies. On any given night, or during the weekend brunch hours , there might be an exuberant show or two. More than 20 clubs, restaurants and bars host the events. Patrons range from tourists, to the local LGBTQ+ regulars, to one-off bachelorette or birthday parties.
That landscape might be about to change. On March 2, Gov. Bill Lee signed Senate Bill 3 (SB3). It criminalizes drag shows where minors could be present. Supporters of SB3 believe minors who witness drag performances suffer psychologically. Rep Chris Todd (R-Madison County) even called allowing children to see the shows, “child abuse.” Anyone violating the law could be charged with a misdemeanor, which is a fine of up to $2,500 and up to six months in jail. The second violation is a felony, with up to six years in prison.
The law was set to go into effect April 1. Late March 31, Judge Thomas Parker, of the U.S. District Court of Western Tennessee, issued a temporary restraining order in response to a local small business. Memphis-based Friends of George’s, an LGBTQ+ theater company, filed the lawsuit against the local district attorney and the state. “If Tennessee wishes to exercise its police power in restricting speech it considers obscene, it must do so within the constraints and framework of the United States Constitution,” the Judge wrote.
The law, the first of its kind in the nation, has been facing fierce opposition from businesses in Nashville and Memphis.
How Much Is At Stake
David Taylor, a Nashville businessman, co-owns four businesses including the nightclub Tribe and the tour bus Big Drag Bus, which have drag performances. He’s been in business for 20 years, never worrying much that his business would even raise an eyebrow. The growth of his business – he now has a payroll of about 200 people, earning a total of $3 million a year — coincided with the extension of drag into the mainstream. RuPaul’s Drag Race first aired in 2009 and has since spawned other shows, contests and live tours. And while live drag shows for adults can indeed be bawdy, there are now scores of rated G drag brunches and reading hours geared for families with kids.
Taylor, who employs 13 full time and 60 guest drag performers in Nashville, estimates he’s paid $13 million to Tennessee in sales and liquor taxes since opening. His clubs serve alcohol, so no minors are allowed in his establishments, he and his performers will not be breaking the law.
Yet these days have had many drag performers are worried. “It’s the potential of going to jail, and that traumatizing experience,” said a Memphis based drag performer who goes by Freak Nasty before the temporary halt. “Your only choice if you’re arrested and you’re trans, is either to be put in general population with people who may see you as an outcast, or be put into isolation, which can be mentally damaging.”
Freak Nasty said the law shows the power of the conservative areas of the state. “They’re trying to push what they don’t even have in their areas,” they said of the 91 counties beyond the four urban ones where drag shows are common. “in the areas that are okay with it.”
The contentious political environment has become part of the conversation about the March 27 shooting at Nashville’s Covenant School. The shooter, Audrey Hale, who was killed by police, identified as transgender. Many in the LGBTQ+ community who were already feeling scared are now fearing retribution. Hale’s motive is unknown.
Like Nashville, Memphis, Chattanooga and Knoxville also have clubs and bars that feature drag shows. Overall, they’re part of a robust industry: Tennessee had $18.1 billion in eating and drinking sales in 2021, according to the National Restaurant Association; restaurants and food services employ 10% of the state’s population.
Putting Power into the Hands of Enforcers
One of the common complaints around SB3 has been its vague and subjective wording. Drag would now categorized as “adult cabaret entertainment” which includes “go-go dancers, exotic dancers, strippers, male or female impersonators.” In order for a performance to be considered a criminal offence for minors to witness, it must fit these three criteria:
- Found by the average person, applying community standards, to appeal to the prurient, shameful, or morbid interests of minors.
- Is offensive to standards in the adult community with respect to what is suitable for minors.
- Lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific values for minors.
Celebrities, like Madonna, business owners, drag performers, activists and attorneys have been speaking out against SB3. Madonna issued a statement when announcing her December 22 benefit in Nashville with drag performances, “… these so-called laws to protect our children are unfounded and pathetic.” Stella Yarbrough, the ACLU of Tennessee legal director, issued a statement after Gov Lee signed SB3 into law, underscoring that the law does not make drag performances illegal in Tennessee. “The law bans obscene performances, and drag performances are not inherently obscene,” Yarbrough wrote. “However, we are concerned that government officials could easily abuse this law to censor people based on their own subjective viewpoints of what they deem appropriate,” added Yarbrough.
It’s easy to find entertainment examples that fall into a gray area should SB3 go into effect as it is written now. Will Cardi B or Britney Spears perform at an all ages arena show, as they twerk and work a faux-stripping pole on stage? Can female pro-wrestlers participate in “Bra and Panties” matches—ripping off each other’s clothes down to their bras and panties while wrestling—be criminalized if children are present? This was a concern of Rep Scotty Campbell, (R Mountain City) who is a pro-wrestling promoter did not return calls for comment. What about Harry Styles performing in a dress if he gyrates his hips? Is RuPaul considered “adult cabaret entertainment” or would SB3 not apply because of RuPaul’s celebrity status?
On March 20, the Nashville fundraiser Love Rising concert took place in the packed Bridgestone Arena, with performances by local drag stars and artists like Maren Morris, Britney Howard, Sheryl Crow, Jason Isbell, Hozier and Allison Russell, to benefit LGBTQ+ organizations. Morris quipped from the stage to the audience, “And yes, I introduced my son to some drag queens today, so Tennessee, fucking arrest me!” Another fundraiser is planned at the Nashville City Winery on April 2.
Venue owners and performers obviously didn’t want the headache of going to court, even if they would likely win a case. They don’t want protestors like The Proud Boys showing up, or anyone holding a Nazi flag, which is what happened at a January drag brunch in Cookeville, Tennessee, despite being an 18 and up show. Church groups are also harassing business owners, like the couple who own Hexagon, a craft brewery In Knoxville, which held a Halloween drag show. On March 2, the day Governor Bill Lee signed SB3, a banner with a swastika was unfurled on an overpass in Nashville.
The Atomic Rose nightclub in Memphis has defiantly kept their all ages, family-friendly drag brunch shows on the schedule, even after SB3 had been planned to take effect. The drag queen Bella DuBall, who hosts and directs drag shows at the venue was recently interviewed on Fresh Air by Terry Gross. “… we’re continuing all our shows. I will continue to welcome families into our all-ages brunch,” DuBall said. She continued that the best response to legislation that tries to diminish the LGBTQ+ community “… is to get louder and to be more in your face, to be bolder, and to let them understand that we’re not a threat to society.” DuBall adds “… I will not cow to intimidation. And I won’t be silenced.” The Atomic Rose’s Instagram latest post reads, “Drag is not a crime and we’re not going anywhere.”
In an interview, Freak Nasty posed, “Say I have headphones in my ear and I’m dancing around in the store, grocery shopping, the way that [SB3] is written is so vague that it’s left up to interpretation.” She likens SB3 it to the famous phrase said by the Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Potter Stewart in 1964 about pornography, “I know it when I see it.”
Ryan McQuade, a Nashville resident who frequents LGBTQ+ establishments, says he’s worried about the average trans person walking down the street, in a miniskirt, platform heels and a tube top, for example, and is considered sexual just by existing. McQuade muses that arresting a drag queen on one of Nashville’s main streets in front of tourists, bachelorette parties, would likely never happen, there’d be such a scene and outcry. “But what would stop someone who’s just a truly transphobic person from calling the cops on somebody who is trans?” he asks.
One of Taylor’s businesses in Nashville is the Big Drag Bus, a raucous tour of the city by bus, with drag queens as guides. Tour participants must be adults, as alcohol is served, but minors could catch a glimpse of the drag queen tour guides as the party bus drives through Nashville (responses from onlookers on the street have typically been to cheer, according to many of the drag performers). “I would be hard pressed to believe or even have someone make an argument that this is a sexual show, because it’s not,” says Taylor, “And therefore, it’s not harmful to minors.”
There is additional anti-drag show legislation in the Tennesee pipeline. HB30, which passed the House, but not yet the Senate, would require adult cabaret entertainers, which now includes drag performers, to obtain a valid permit from the adult-oriented establishment board.
“We definitely feel like we were targeted as a community. It gives us grave concern about that, and what that means for the future,” says Taylor. While he was relieved to know his employees, customers and businesses would not be impacted by SB3, even before the temporary halt, but he is concerned about the future, as there are more anti-LGBTQ+ bills awaiting votes in Tennessee. “There were other people at other times in history that thought the same thing and it just got a whole lot worse for them,” Taylor reflects, “How do we know that this is it?”
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