Chattanooga mayor, police unsure how to enforce new restrictions on drag shows

Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / Jeremy Coylewright, a counselor with Journey Mental Health, left, speaks during a pride rally at Miller Park on March 1.

It's unclear how Chattanooga will enforce state laws passed last week that regulate public drag performances and gender-related medical treatments for people under 18, officials say.

One law makes "adult cabaret" performances, including drag shows, illegal to hold in public or any place where children may be present.

The other bars the provision of gender-related health care for minors, such as hormone replacement therapy and surgery.

(READ MORE: Chattanooga rally calls on Gov. Lee to veto bills limiting drag shows, transgender procedures for minors)

But it's not clear how the state wants local agencies to enforce those laws, Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly said in a statement to the Chattanooga Times Free Press on Wednesday.

"These new regulations adopted by the state of Tennessee have unclear enforcement standards, putting our officers in a difficult, quasi-judicial role," Kelly told the paper.

Chattanooga Assistant Police Chief Jerri Sutton told reporters Wednesday that the department is still working with the mayor's office to determine how the law restricting drag performances will be enforced in city limits.

(READ MORE: Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee signs drag show restrictions into law, becoming first state to severely limit the performances)

Kelly said the police will continue focusing on violent crime and resident safety, "including our vulnerable members of the LGBTQ+ community."

"Your safety and well-being are paramount, and I won't tolerate violence or discrimination against you or any other resident," Kelly said in a statement posted to social media Wednesday.

The law, signed last week by Gov. Bill Lee, goes into effect April 1. A first offense is a misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail and/or a fine as high as $2,500. Any violations after that would be felonies, according to the law.

(READ MORE: Could Tennessee's drag bill repel Broadway shows and other Chattanooga area events?)

The law limiting health care for transgender minors is effective July 1, and gives anyone under 18 currently receiving gender-affirming care until the end of March 2024 to stop treatment.

Decisions on how to prosecute cases under the new laws would fall to District Attorney Coty Wamp's office. Wamp did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

Contact Ellen Gerst at or 423-757-6319.