Hamilton County DA Wamp says drag performers will only be prosecuted for performing sexually around kids

Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / District Attorney General Coty Wamp speaks as part of a press conference in front of the District Attorney General office on Jan. 31. Wamp said Thursday that Tennessee's new law restricting drag performances is not as complex as it seems.

Hamilton County drag performers could only be prosecuted under a new Tennessee law if they perform sexually in front of children, District Attorney Coty Wamp said in a statement Thursday.

The new law, signed last week and effective April 1, prohibits "adult cabaret" performances including drag shows that "appeal to a prurient interest," which under Tennessee law essentially means performances of a sexual nature.

(READ MORE: Chattanooga mayor, police unsure how to enforce new restrictions on drag shows)

That language, Wamp said, will shield performers who are acting or playing roles with no sexual connotations.

"Pursuant to this legislation, if a stripper were to perform in front of a child, the stripper could be prosecuted for an A misdemeanor offense," Wamp said. "If a drag queen performs in front of a child, the drag queen could be prosecuted for an A misdemeanor offense."

Wamp said the law is less complicated than some have made it out to be, and District Attorney's Office will handle cases just like any other.




"What it boils down to is very simple, except for on public property, adults can engage in any of the listed behavior," Wamp said. "The legislature has decided that children should not be present at strip clubs, locations where there are active go-go dancers and exotic dancers, or locations where there are active drag shows."

In and around Chattanooga, the majority of drag shows already bar people under 18 from attending, performers and venue operators said.

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

Wamp clarified that only people, not businesses or venues, can be prosecuted under the law. A first offense is a misdemeanor, and all following violations of the law would be charged as felonies.

Another bill that would require paid drag performers to obtain permits before shows also passed the Tennessee House this week and is set to be heard Tuesday in a Senate committee.

"My hope is that the listed performers will continue to express themselves and perform in front of any adult audience that they so choose," Wamp said in her Thursday statement.

Wamp said refusing to comply with any Tennessee criminal statute would go against her oath, and said she plans to continue enforcing state laws justly and fairly.

The district attorney declined to clarify whether all drag shows would fall under the law's definition of prurient interest or only ones with sexual content.

"General Wamp is not a policymaker," said spokesperson Jay Price in an email following Wamp's statement Thursday. "For questions regarding legislative intent, we would refer you to our local legislators."

Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly told the Chattanooga Times Free Press in a statement Wednesday that law enforcement officers are put in a difficult and "quasi-judicial" position by the unclear enforcement standards of the law. Chattanooga officers will continue to uphold state law, Kelly told the paper, "within the bounds of our limited resources."

(READ MORE: Tennessee bill banning transgender youth surgeries, procedures headed to Gov. Lee's desk)

Wamp said law enforcement officers and prosecutors in her office will also use their discretion on these cases, just like with any other law.

"The Chattanooga Police Department will continue to prioritize the prevention of violent crime and the safety of every resident, including our vulnerable members of the LGBTQ+ community," Kelly said in a statement posted to social media Wednesday.

Assistant Police Chief Jerri Sutton said the department will follow the city government's position on enforcing the law.

Spokespeople for Hamilton County Mayor Weston Wamp and the Sheriff's Office did not respond to requests for comment.

Contact Ellen Gerst at egerst@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6319.