Republican drag show bans are nothing more than a sorry attempt to ‘rile up extremists’

A drag queen wearing a sparking outfit dances while performing before a young audience at a reading event

Tennessee banning public drag shows is part of an insidious Republican push to roll back LGBTQ+ rights. 

The Tennessee House of Representatives has passed a bill classifying drag as “adult-oriented entertainment”, and banning shows that take place in public or venues where minors could see them.

After the vote, on Thursday (23 February), the bill landed on Republican governor Bill Lee’s desk where it’s expected to be signed into law

Under the drag ban, a first offence would be a misdemeanour crime, and a subsequent offence would be a felony, carrying a prison sentence of between one and six years.

While Tennessee is likely to be the first state to enact a drag show ban, similar bills have cropped up in at least 14 other states including Texas, ArizonaIdaho and Iowa

The language used in these bills means they could also be used to target trans people, many have warned.

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A drag queen reads from a book while standing in a library
Drag queens and performers have long hosted family-friendly events to promote inclusion and acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community. (Getty)

Tennessee’s bill refers simply to “male or female impersonators”, while legislation in Arkansas goes after performers presenting in a “gender identity that is different from the performer’s gender assigned at birth”.

West Virginia Republicans are trying to ban “any tranvestite and/or transgender exposure, performances or display to any minor”.

There’s no precedent for these bills beyond a concerted effort by the GOP to roll back LGBTQ+ rights. The current legislative session is the first since at least 2015 to propose anti-drag measures, according to an analysis of state legislation by the Washington Post

They come amid a years-long movement by Republican politicians and conservative groups to target LGBTQ+ protections, with a particular focus on trans rights. As well as bills targeting drag, Republicans are also going after gender-affirming healthcare, trans athletes and LGBTQ-inclusive education.

Ari Drennen, the LGBTQ+ programme director of Media Matters for America, recently told PinkNews that rhetoric like this is “just something that keeps people outraged while they [Republicans] don’t tackle any real problems”

Drag bans have real consequences

Drag has long been embedded in the queer community – there were drag queens at the Stonewall Riot of 1969, while the ballroom scene’s history stretches back into the 19th century.

Arguably, drag has been in the mainstream for decades, but the success of RuPaul’s Drag Race has made it ubiquitous like never before, with performers regularly appearing on TV and in music videos, movies and commercials. 

A parent holds the hands of two small children as they try to get into a drag event with people holding up a trans Pride flag to block out hateful protestors
More than 140 drag events were targeted in 2022 alone, according to GLAAD. (Getty)

With this newfound exposure and the rise of the internet, drag is finding younger audiences. In 2015, the author and activist Michelle Tea created Drag Queen Story Hour, an event in which drag queens read books to families. It was a hit, and similar events began taking place around the world.

History has taught us that progress always comes with pushback, and recent years have seen drag queens swept up in a wave of anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment.

Legislative efforts to ban drag shows gathered national momentum in 2022 thanks to a viral video of a family-friendly event at a Dallas Bar. 

The clips of a queen dancing alongside young people in front of a suggestive neon sign prompted Texas representative Bryan Slaton to call for a state law banning children from future drag performances

Slaton claimed such measures were needed to protect children from being sexualised by “perverted adults”. 

A crowd of people, including one person wearing an inflatable pink unicorn costume, show up to block out hateful protestors at a drag event
LGBTQ+ people and allies have shown up in droves to protect families and kids from right-wing protestors at drag events. (Getty)

Since, Republicans across the country have used similar anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric to push their own drag bans.

Georgia congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene likened drag shows to “strip clubs”, and Florida governor Ron DeSantis suggested last year that parents who take their kids to drag shows should be investigated for abuse.

His administration filed complaints and conducted investigations against venues for hosting drag events where they claimed kids were present.

The anti-drag legislative push has coincided with rising attacks on drag queens, kings and performers.

Hate groups such as the Proud Boys regularly show up to drag events to shout vile abuse, and far-right pundits such as Matt Walsh have compared drag queens to “pedophiles” and “groomers”.  

More than 140 drag events were attacked or threatened with violence last year, according to GLAAD.

The Tennessee bill passing means LGBTQ+ performers will faced renewed persecution.

Human Rights Campaign legal director Sarah Warbelow has slammed Tennessee lawmakers for doing “nothing but spread hate, misinformation and extremism”.

Republican representative Chris Todd, who sponsored the bill, previously called a family-friendly drag event “trash” and “child abuse”. He later said a drag ban was a “common-sense child safety bill”

Warbelow said that “dangerous rhetoric” attacking drag has “real consequences”, adding: “Prejudiced-inspired bills only rile up an extremist base and normalise violence against the LGBTQ+ community, especially transgender and non-binary people.”

“Drag is a longstanding, celebratory form of entertainment and a meaningful source of employment for many across the state. Yet, rather than focus on actual policy issues facing Tennesseans, politicians would rather spend their time and effort misconstruing age-appropriate performances at a library to pass as many anti-LGBTQ+ bills as they can.”

Many are determined to fight the bill, including Drag Race queen Jinkx Monsoon, who wrote on Twitter that the history of the LGBTQ+ community is a “revolution of love, empathy and truth. You can’t ban those things”.

She added: “We will fight this battle the way our predecessors did: with grace, compassion, and throwing a brick if we have to.”