Anti-drag legislation surges across America

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Wednesday Night Drag Show with Ariel Versace

The Tennessee House of Representatives passed an anti-drag bill intended to block “adult-oriented” performances from public premises or near a person who is below the age of 18, as reported by The Tennessean. Specifically, it was Tennessee state Republicans that voted for its passage as all state Senate Democrats voted against the measure. The bill was signed into law by Republican Gov. Bill Lee but is currently on hold due to a lawsuit.

Tennessee is no exception to anti-drag legislation that has been sweeping the nation. The Washington Post reported that 26 anti-drag bills have been introduced in multiple states this year. All of these bills have been proposed by state Republican lawmakers.

As documented in a legislation tracker by civil rights attorney and trans activist Alexandra Caraballo, the states proposing anti-drag bills include: Arizona, Arkansas, Kansas, Kentucky, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and West Virginia.

Many of the bills being proposed are like the one in Tennessee; aimed at classifying drag performers and the venues that host them as adult entertainment. As documented by USA Today, the intended effect though is banning or making it extremely hard to have drag performances.

Some of these bills define drag so broadly that anyone dressing with the gender they weren’t assigned at birth could possibly be targeted.

In West Virginia for instance, there’s a bill that would expand the definition of the types of obscenity prohibited in schools or near children to include, “any transvestite and/or transgender exposure, performance, or display,” as reported by Them. By expanding this definition, state Republican lawmakers are falsely claiming that this bill will protect children. If the bill were to pass through, a possible scenario could be criminalizing a trans or nonbinary person for simply existing near a child.

While the rise of anti-drag legislation is new, the art of drag itself isn’t, as CBS News described. Drag may have begun in the Shakespearean era, where male performers would play female roles on stage. As a performance art that has grown in popularity and visibility — and now increasing vitriol from Republican lawmakers — in the modern age, drag is both an embrace and celebration of gender fluidity and expression. As such, drag is loved by many within the LGBTQ community and many drag performers identify as LGBTQ themselves, although not every performer does.

Since drag is a versatile art form, performers can entertain either adult or young audiences. A drag performer’s talent is well-versed, including but not limited to the person singing, dancing, and doing comedy stand-up routines. What has additionally grown in popularity — and conversely drawn the ire from conservatives — are drag queen story hours. This is where a drag queen reads books to a group of children as a fun activity for both themselves and their families.

Many of these bills would prohibit children from attending drag performances or enforce venues that host drag performances as adult-oriented businesses, effectively banning drag by creating barriers to this art form. In Arizona, the anti-drag bills being proposed would also prohibit funding for venues that host drag performances. This would include schools and libraries that host drag queen story hours.

“Drag performances have been part of mainstream entertainment for a long time,” said Sarah Warbelow, legal director for the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), in a statement regarding an anti-drag bill, HB 359, that passed in the Montana House. This bill would block any Montana resident under 18 from attending a drag performance within the state. “It is pathetic that extremist politicians are now targeting drag performances as a way to attack the LGBTQ+ community, instead of working on crafting real solutions to the problems facing Montana families today.”

These bills are coming off the heels of last year’s deadly mass shooting that took place at Club Q, an LGBTQ nightclub in Colorado Springs. A far-right terrorist killed 5 people and injured 25 others when the club was hosting a drag show the same night, as NPR reported. The same club was planning an additional drag performance the following day for Transgender Day of Remembrance.

As such, there are some LGBTQ organizations who have voiced increasing alarm over these anti-drag bills as they are fearful that this could lead to more violence and acts of terrorism.

“Targeting drag performances is just another means of spreading anti-LGBTQ+ propaganda to rile up an extremist base — a strategy we know leads to violence against LGBTQ+ people, and especially against nonbinary and transgender people,” said Warbelow in a separate statement for HRC.

“It’s disheartening because it’s just telling the public that drag is dangerous, and I don’t want another shooting,” said Noelle Cañez, a drag king who organized a protest back In January against anti-drag bills under proposal in Arizona. Hundreds of people attended this protest in support of drag performances. “It’s just art. It’s just self-expression. It’s just love.”

If not attacked or threatened in state legislatures, many drag shows this year and the past year have been attacked or threatened by far-right and conservative agitators. A report by GLAAD documented at least 141 protests and serious threats aimed at drag events or shows in 2022, three of which happened in New Jersey.

There are currently no anti-drag bills being proposed within the New Jersey state legislature.