Tennessee becomes first US state to ban drag performances in chilling attack on LGBTQ+ rights

A drag queen smiling during a Pride parade.

Tennessee governor Bill Lee has signed an anti-drag bill into law, effectively banning public performances in the state.

The Republican signed Senate Bill 3 on Thursday (2 March). It effectively bans drag and vaguely defined “adult cabaret” performances by making it a felony to present one in a location that could be accessed by anyone under the age of 18.

The bill defines “adult cabaret performance” as productions that “feature male or female impersonators who provide entertainment that appeals to prurient interests”.

Not only does this ban public drag but it could also make pantomime, some Shakespeare productions, and even Pride, illegal in the state.

Those found guilty of breaching the law face a fine of up to $2,500 (about £2,100) and nearly a year in jail.

The bill, which also describes drag performances as “harmful to minors,” is the first of its kind to be enacted in the US.

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Several similar bills around the country have been proposed or are undergoing legal processes on the way to becoming law.

More than 300 anti-LGBTQ+ bills, including those that target drag, have been proposed since the beginning of the year.

Even more are expected to flood in over the next few months, while others that ban gender-affirming care or restrict LGBTQ+ freedoms are being debated.

A drag queen wearing a sparking outfit dances while performing before a young audience at a reading event
Tennessee lawmakers passed a drag ban bill, but the anti-drag measure is part of a larger GOP-led attack on LGBTQ+ rights in the USA. (Getty)

Prior to officially signing the law, Lee told the press that he did not believe he was being “hypocritical” after a 1977 picture of him in drag was leaked.

A Reddit user posted a picture of Lee in a wig and wearing a cheerleader’s uniform and a pearl necklace, a few days after the Republican governor vowed to enact the law. The image comes from his high school yearbook.

When provoked by reporters on why drag was only illegal “when the gays do it,” he argued it was a “ridiculous question”.

Lee said it was wrong “Conflating something like that to sexualised entertainment in front of children, which is a very serious subject.”

Additionally, one of the bill’s sponsors, fellow Republican Chris Todd, told the Tennessean that he believed the bill to be a “common sense” approach to tackling what he termed “child abuse”.

In response to the new law, the Human Rights Campaign wrote that the “fight isn’t over” in preventing anti-LGBTQ+ bills, and the American Civil Liberties Union told Tennessee lawmakers: “We’ll see you in court.”

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