Tennessee drag ban thrown out by Trump-appointed judge

A person holds up a sign reading 'drag is not a crime' amid a protest against surging anti-LGBTQ+ bills in the US like Tennessee's drag ban

A Trump-appointed federal judge has ruled that Tennessee’s first-in-the-nation law banning drag in public spaces is unconstitutional.

Tennessee’s oppressive Adult Entertainment Act (AEA) – the first anti-drag to pass through a US state legislature and be signed into law – would have into effect in April and prevented drag performances from being allowed anywhere a minor might see them.

But judge Thomas Parker, a nominee of former president Donald Trump, passed a temporary injunction to block the law from being enacted. 

The decision came after Friends of George’s, a Memphis-based LGBTQ+ theatre group, filed a federal lawsuit against Shelby County district attorney Steve Mulroy and the state. The group argued drag is an art form and that the AEA was unconstitutional under the First Amendment. 

In the new 70-page ruling on Friday (2 June), Parker said the court concluded Tennessee’s drag ban is “both unconstitutionally vague and substantially over-broad”.

“The AEA’s ‘harmful to minors’ standard applies to minors of all ages, so it fails to provide fair notice of what is prohibited, and it encourages discriminatory enforcement,” the judge wrote. 

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“The AEA is substantially over-broad because it applies to public property or ‘anywhere’ a minor could be present.”

Parker added the anti-drag law is a “content- and viewpoint-based restriction on speech”. The federal judge said the AEA was passed for the “impermissible purpose of chilling constitutionally-protected speech”, and the “secondary effects doctrine does not save it from strict scrutiny review”. 

“The court concludes that the AEA fails strict scrutiny review,” the ruling said. 

“Tennessee has a compelling state interest in protecting the physical and psychological well-being of minors, but defendant has not met his burden of proving that the AEA is both narrowly tailored and the least restrictive means to advance Tennessee’s interest.”

A person holds up a sign reading 'drag is freedom' amid a protest against surging anti-LGBTQ+ bills in the US like Tennessee's drag ban
Drag artists, celebrities and LGBTQ+ rights advocates have fought back against the rising number of anti-LGBTQ+ bills in the US – including gender-affirming healthcare bans and laws restricting drag. (Getty)

Mark Campbell – aka Camille Collins, resident company member and president of Friends of George’s – welcomed the ruling as the queer group “chose to take a stand against bigotry to defend drag artistry and our right to creative expression”.

“The stage should remain a sacred platform where actors and performers can inspire others in a shared space,” Campbell said.

“Our country is built on the bedrock of free speech, and the court affirmed this right through today’s decision.

“We will keep advocating for our fellow drag performers and for the well-being of the entire LGBTQ+ community.”

Friends of George’s added the legal win “represents a triumph over hate” as their First Amendment rights were “affirmed today as drag artists and makers of theatre”.

The group said the “victory for drag artists in Tennessee” would have happened if not for “unwavering allies standing up” for them.

“While today is a moment worth celebrating as we kick off Pride month, our work is not finished,” Friends of George’s said.

“As the onslaught of hatred against the LGBTQ+ community continues around the country through the passage of anti-trans, homophobic and draconian laws that seek to silence expression and identity, we will remain vocal and vigilant.”

GLAAD president and CEO Sarah Kate Ellis described Tennessee’s drag ban as a “malignant throwback to a dark and shameful time” in US history.

“This year Tennessee has led the way on indefensible and discriminatory anti-LGBTQ legislation, and draconian laws are rightfully being scrutinised,” she said.

“This ruling is a turning point and we will not go back. Every anti-LGBTQ elected official is on notice that these baseless laws will not stand and that our constitutional freedom of speech and expression protects everyone and propels our culture forward.”

Conservative politicians have been increasingly targeting trans people, drag queens and queer culture in recent months. LGBTQ+ rights advocates and celebrities aren’t letting it slide. 

Artists like Paramore’s Hayley WilliamsLizzo and Hayley Kiyoko have spoken out against the surge in anti-LGBTQ+ bills in Republican-led legislatures, particularly in Tennessee. 

Memphis-based drag queen Bella DuBalle told PinkNews that the anti-drag ban felt like society had been “dragged 54 years back in time to Stonewall again”

The performer said the law was a clear attempt by Republicans to hide anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination and could inspire further violence against the community. 

“To hear these baseless accusations coming up again, it reminds us of the 60s and 70s when everyone was yelling: ‘They’re paedophiles. They’re sickos. They’re freaks. They need mental help’,” she said.

The queen continued: “We moved away from that, and then you put someone like Trump back in power who says all the ignorant, hateful things that he thinks and it whips people into a frenzy.

“Then suddenly, we’re living in this fallout of stochastic terrorism [where hate speech against groups inspires individuals to mount terror attacks] where it’s totally OK to say baseless lies and hateful rhetoric about a group of people.”