Top Tennessee Senate leader files bill to criminalize public drag shows and other performances if minors present

NASHVILLE — A top Tennessee Senate Republican has introduced legislation to criminalize drag entertainers' performances in public or at private venues where minors are present.

Republican Majority Leader Jack Johnson's Senate Bill 3 seeks to amend and redefine portions of an existing state law that already prohibits minors from being admitted to adult-oriented businesses such as strip clubs.

But Johnson's bill adds "adult cabaret performances" to the law. It defines that to include exotic dancers, strippers and "male or female impersonators who provide entertainment" appealing to a "prurient" or excessive interest in sexual matters.

Its effect expands far beyond strip clubs.

"I filed this legislation to protect children," Johnson said in a statement. "There are certain performances, movies and places that are inappropriate for children. Just as current law prohibits strip clubs from admitting children, this legislation would also prohibit sexually suggestive drag shows from being performed on public property, or on any non-age-restricted private property where a minor could be present."

The leader said he introduced the bill following "several reports of controversial drag shows in Tennessee where children were present."

"Many Tennesseans were concerned and had questions about the legality of certain sexually explicit performances," Johnson said. "This bill clarifies the law so that it spells out what performances are not appropriate for children."

Issues regarding drag shows and whether minors should be able to attend erupted in controversy in Chattanooga following the release of a video in September of a youth-oriented LGBTQ+ event.

The moment that attracted the most attention on social media showed a child running her hand along the front of a performer's sequined costume. The performer was dressed as Ariel from "The Little Mermaid." A conservative media uproar suggested the performer was a man dressed as a woman, but the performer was a biological female.

Johnson's bill is one of two LGBTQ-related bills he has introduced following the Williamson County Republican's re-electon this week. While Johnson handily won the general election, he had a tough primary with a conservative activist in his GOP primary.

The second measure he introduced is Senate Bill 1, dubbed the "Protecting Children from Gender Mutilation Act." That bill would prohibit health care providers from performing surgeries or administering drugs or hormone therapies to anyone under the age of 18 for the purpose of "enabling a minor to identify with or live as, a purported identity inconsistent with the minor's sex," or "treating purported discomfort or distress from a discordance between the minor's sex and asserted identity."

Chris Sanders, executive director of the Tennessee Equality Project, an LGBTQ advocacy group, expressed dismay over both bills.

"The content of the bills are really horrible, also the fact the day after the election the first bills filed send a signal about priorities for the state too," Sanders told the Chattanooga Times Free Press by phone Friday. "These are clear attack bills. The bill attacking gender-affirming care has gone beyond what we've seen in previous sessions."

Pride Week

Controversy over Chattanooga's Pride Week came after Cuban-American producer, director and right-wing activist Robby Starbuck released an edited video showing children attending some events. The video showed a girl at a Chattanooga Pride Youth Day at Wanderlinger Brewing Company running her hand along the sequined costume.

"It's NOT hard to redirect a kid away from that area if they grab near your crotch," wrote Starbuck, who sought to run in Tennessee's 5th Congressional District this year but was bounced off the state GOP ballot in a decision later upheld by courts. "We have to stop this madness!"

Angry commenters on social media assumed the person interacting with the child was a man.

(READ MORE: Chattanooga Pride says it's receiving death threats after video circulates of youth event)

But the brewery's owner and the Chattanooga Pride organization said the performer was actually a biological female and there was no crotch-grabbing. The event featured arts and crafts, a drag queen story time and a family-friendly show.

Organizers said they received death threats in response to the uproar.

Under Johnson's bill, a first-time conviction would be a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to 11 months, 29 days in jail and/or fines up to $2,500. Second and subsequent convictions would be classified as a felony, punishable by one-to-six years in prison, as well as a fine of up to $3,000.

The other bill seeks to ban certain gender-affirming medical care.

Johnson and House Majority William Lamberth, R-Portland, together filed the measures, Senate Bill 1/House Bill 1, in their respective chambers.

But Lamberth said Thursday he is not sponsoring a House companion measure to Johnson's Senate Bill 3 measure banning minors at drag shows.

"No, I'm not the sponsor of that in the House," Lamberth said in a brief interview Thursday in the Cordell Hull State Office Building.

Asked why, Lamberth said, "Hey, I've sponsored one bill so far, that's it."

Tennessee Equality Project's Sanders said, "I think there should always be concern when government gets involved in health decisions and artistic decisions. This is not just big government, this is the biggest government."

State Rep. Gloria Johnson, a Knoxville Democrat, sharply criticized legislative Republicans on Twitter.

(READ MORE: Georgia state Sen.-elect Moore calls for legislation against child-focused drag shows)

"The GOP supermajority came out with their 1st piece of legislation the day after election. The bill that was burning their fingers it was so important to TN families. Did they expand Medicaid? Address inflation? Solve the [Department of Children's Services] crisis? No, they made #DragShows a felony. #NoHate."

She said drag shows have been going on in Tennessee for decades.

"Why are they all of the sudden a concern? Go to them if you want, don't go if it's not for you-no one is forced. These [clowns] are going to make the town in #Footloose look like Las Vegas compared to TN."

Contact Andy Sher at Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.