Opinion: Tennessee and the anti-drag race

Photo/Mark Zaleski/The Associated Press / Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, shown here delivering his State of the State Address in the state House chamber on Feb. 6, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn., has drawn criticism for signing a bill that criminalizes “adult cabaret” performances deemed harmful to children.
Photo/Mark Zaleski/The Associated Press / Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, shown here delivering his State of the State Address in the state House chamber on Feb. 6, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn., has drawn criticism for signing a bill that criminalizes “adult cabaret” performances deemed harmful to children.

"The point of the law is to terrorize people."

That's how Patrick Grzanka, a professor of psychology at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and chair of the university's interdisciplinary program in women, gender and sexuality, describes Tennessee's new, extreme anti-drag law -- among the first of its kind in the country.

The law, which Republican Gov. Bill Lee signed Thursday, criminalizes "adult cabaret" performances that are "harmful to minors." It includes "male or female impersonators" on public property or where they could be seen by children. It takes effect April 1, with the first offense being a misdemeanor and subsequent ones being felonies.

Not long before Lee signed the bill, a 1977 yearbook photo surfaced showing him dressed in drag when he was in high school. The howls of hypocrisy came quickly.

But I don't think people like Lee see that as hypocrisy. They see hilarity in straight men donning women's clothes to mock femininity but see obscenity and perversion in (usually) gay men doing the same to celebrate femininity and find a sense of affirmation and self-realization.

They see their role as guarding the border between their narrow, normative definitions of "masculine" and "feminine" and making sure no one traverses it. They are sentinels of the patriarchy, all too willing to oppress or try to intimidate their fellow citizens.

And the imprecise wording of Tennessee's law seems calibrated to provoke the maximum amount of doubt and, therefore, fear: How is impersonating a man or woman defined? (Does a high school stunt, for example, count?) Could transgender men and women be prosecuted? How is harm to minors defined, and who defines it?

Grzanka believes the law is part of a "retrenchment politics that is designed to put LGBT people back in our place, and, of course, the place is cowering in fear in the closet."

The Tennessee drag performers I interviewed for this column pointed to the opaqueness of the law as a source of the apprehension surrounding it. For instance, in Tennessee, will drag performances in Pride parades -- joyful events that have been embraced across America -- now be illegal?

Although Tennessee is leading in this hateful anti-drag race, it isn't the only state engaged in it. Late last month, Republican Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders of Arkansas signed a bill restricting "adult-oriented performance," a measure that had originally targeted drag performers explicitly before being watered down in the face of opposition.

According to the Human Rights Campaign's State Equality Index, 29 out of 315 anti-LGBTQ bills were enacted into law in 2022, and the group is now tracking approximately 750 LGBTQ bills introduced in state legislatures around the country. As the HRC points out, "over half are bills that will cause real harm to the LGBTQ+ community."

With the bill signed last week, Tennessee has now adopted 14 anti-LGBTQ laws since 2015, "more than any other state in the country," according to the HRC.

Michelangelo Signorile, a radio host and the author of the prescient 2015 book "It's Not Over: Getting Beyond Tolerance, Defeating Homophobia and Winning True Equality," told me that conservative politicians are "seeing this as the issue they need to completely outdo each other in the culture war fight" because they think that is what their base wants.

Signorile points out that the anti-drag bills further weave together existing political threads on the right, lumping together child indoctrination and abuse with anything to do with being LGBTQ to sow distrust and bigotry. These efforts play into the "groomer" scare, which dovetailed with the passage of Florida's so-called Don't Say Gay law.

Per an HRC report issued in August, hateful tweets about "groomers" from "just 10 people were viewed an estimated 48 million times, equivalent to 66% of the reach of the 500 most-viewed tweets." Those 10 people included Republican Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Lauren Boebert of Colorado.

Conservatives, having suffered losses in recent years on LGBTQ rights issues, found a smaller, more vulnerable subset of the queer community to attack: those fighting for gender identity rights.

Although the public has in recent decades developed a better understanding of sexual orientation, its understanding of gender lags. In that context, some people conflate performing in drag with being transgender.

Indeed, on the same day Lee signed the anti-drag legislation, he also signed legislation to essentially ban gender-affirming care for trans youths.

These laws pose a real threat both to drag performers and the trans community. One criminalizes artistic expression; the other criminalizes people for being who they are. Taken together, they further embolden hate groups already mobilized on gender issues.

Monica Lusk, a trans Memphis drag entertainer who performs under the name Monica Dupree, told me that she feels doubly attacked by Tennessee's law and that she's "mad as hell." "Drag saved my life," she said, all because she went to a drag show 23 years ago and could finally see herself. "Drag" doesn't mean "lewd." But drag often frees, and sometimes saves.

The New York Times