Drag show law leaves Chattanooga area performers, officials confused

Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / Chase Peace Demoanz holds a sign and hugs Cameron Rigler during a pride rally at Miller Park on March 1.

Drag performers and venue operators in the Chattanooga area say they're confused and afraid after a bill was signed into law March 2 to regulate drag shows.

The law will prohibit adult performances of a sexual nature in public spaces and in places where children may be present. A first conviction would be a misdemeanor, and all following violations could be charged as felonies.

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

Another bill, which passed one of Tennessee's two legislative chambers last week, would require drag performers to register and get permits before being paid.

"Drag is a freedom of expression act," said longtime Chattanooga drag performer and activist Kyelani Sayers said by phone Wednesday. "Why are we targeting it with multiple bills? It's an attack on freedom of expression and safe spaces."

GOP Gov. Bill Lee was asked late last month during an event in Hendersonville why he supported the bill he would sign into law March 2.

"I think that the concern is what's right there in that building (children), that are potentially exposed to sexualized entertainment, to obscenity. We need to make sure they're not," the governor said, pointing to the William Burrus Elementary School, where he had just wrapped up a tour.

Local enforcement

Local officials said it's still unclear how the law will be enforced in and around Chattanooga. The county's top prosecutor said last week that drag queens performing in front of children could be charged with a misdemeanor.

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

Children are already barred from most drag shows in the area, according to performers and venue operators.

A lack of guidance from the state put law enforcement officers in a "difficult, quasi-judicial role," Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly said in a statement to the Chattanooga Times Free Press on Wednesday. In a public statement, Kelly said he wants to ensure Chattanooga remains a welcoming city for all.

"I want to assure our LGBTQ+ community that I won't compromise on these fundamental values," Kelly said in the statement, posted to social media. "Your safety and well-being are paramount, and I won't tolerate violence or discrimination against you or any other resident."

In a statement on social media Friday, organizers of Chattanooga Pride praised Kelly for being the first Tennessee mayor to speak out on the bill.

"Chattanooga seems to be a pretty accepting place for LGBTQ+ individuals," Chattanooga Pride representative Noah Corbin, who is also a drag performer, said by phone Friday. "In other, smaller cities, I worry about it (the law) being used strictly to discriminate."

Hamilton County District Attorney Coty Wamp said rumors that Tennessee is banning drag altogether are misleading.

(READ MORE: Hamilton County DA Wamp says drag performers will only be prosecuted for performing sexually around kids)

"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," Wamp said in a statement Thursday.

Wamp said officers, as well as prosecutors in her office, can use their discretion on those cases.

"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."

The law is set to go into effect April 1, two months before the start of many Pride celebrations in June. That gives local law enforcement and prosecutors less than a month from the bill being signed to determine how to enforce it. In Hamilton County, performers said they wonder whether a child seeing a performer in drag walking into a venue or through a window during a performance could be considered a violation of the law.

"I don't think any thought was given to how much of a strain that's going to put on local governments," Corbin said.

Most new laws in Tennessee typically go into effect July 1, or at the start of a year, but sponsor Sen. Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, moved up the implementation of Senate Bill 3 in a January amendment to the bill.

"We had events planned for April, May and June that we've had to stop and re-evaluate," Elizabeth Haley, an owner of Chattanooga's Seed Theater, said by phone.

Last year, Chattanooga's Pride Week was in September and October. A date hasn't been set for this year's event, Corbin said by phone Friday.

Another bill moving through the statehouse, House Bill 30, would also require drag performers to get a permit before being paid for performances. That bill passed the House and will be discussed in the Senate's State and Local Government Committee on Tuesday.

Requiring permits would likely create a database of all drag performers in Tennessee, Haley said -- a database she and performers say could make performers vulnerable to attacks if made public. Haley said she also worries about the cost of permits and administrative hurdles keeping drag performers from working.

The draft of that bill would require venue operators to obtain a license, $500 at first then renewed for $100 a year. Permits for performers would be $100, with $15 annual renewals. Sayers, who regularly performs in Chattanooga and around the state, said requiring a license for drag performers but not other entertainers would be "preposterous."

"For many of these people, drag is a way of life for them," Haley said, "but they can't necessarily come up with that money out of pocket."

Performers and venues

The law's restrictions are already taking a toll on performers' livelihoods, said Sayers, who performs under the name Eden Apple.

"We are seeing mass numbers of our shows taken and cut from us," she said.

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

Sayers said drag performers, like any other entertainer, already know what is acceptable for shows where children are present.

"This is part of how I survived, I became who I am through the performance community," Sayers said. "The idea that every bit of that work was inappropriate and adult is nonsense. Sure, some of it was, but, of course, there are performances we would never do around kids."

Haley, at the Seed Theater, estimates she's lost around a third of her regular performers.

"People are just scared," she said Wednesday. "Anytime the media does anything about it (the law) passing, I lose more."

Not everyone is clearing their books. Wanda Lee, one of the owners of Gate 11 Distillery in Chattanooga, said the venue hasn't had to change its schedule because all of the shows are already adults-only.

The one change the distillery plans to make, Lee said, is installing drapes to cover the space's windows on nights when drag performers are present.

"I don't think anybody is maliciously trying to snare children into anything," Lee said. "I don't understand that attitude."

Though the majority of drag shows in the Chattanooga area are adults-only, two recent all-ages shows drew protesters and backlash.

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

In September, an out-of-context video of a child feeling the front of a performer's sequined mermaid costume at a Chattanooga Pride event circulated on social media, prompting death threats to event organizers. Many on social media took the performer to be in drag, but she was a biological woman.

At a November all-ages drag brunch at the Seed Theater, a group of around 30 people, including apparent members of white supremacist group Patriot Front, protested across the street.

(READ MORE: Chattanooga drag brunch draws protesters)

Haley and her partner opened the theater last year after failing to find a space like it for queer and trans young people in Chattanooga, she said. Sayers said it's also become a place where queer parents can bring their children, and one of few in the area not focused on alcohol. Now, all drag shows at the theater will have to be limited to adults, Haley said.

"I can't really put into words how important it is for kids to be exposed to people like them all grown up," Haley said.

The theater has weekly 18-and-up shows, Haley said, and typically hosts one or two all-ages events per quarter. The theater has a five-page guide for what is allowed at all-ages shows versus adults-only performances, Haley said, which ensures children aren't seeing sexual or suggestive content or hearing curse words at the shows they're allowed to attend.

"We have been policing our own for a long time," Haley said.

Beyond drag

Members of Chattanooga's drag community said they're worried the law, along with one signed last week barring people under 18 from receiving gender-affirming health care, are signs the state could potentially pass further restrictions affecting queer people.

"It really does open the door for anything," Corbin said.

Sayers, who works with other performers and queer activists through her organization, Sanctuary Action Network, said the laws feel like an attack on free expression and art.

"It doesn't feel safe or good to be here and be queer in Tennessee," Sayers said.

Sayers said she knows many members of the local queer community have considered moving out of Tennessee, spurred by the string of bills restricting drag and gender-related health care.

Since moving to Chattanooga for college, Sayers said she's seen acceptance of queer and trans people grow in the area. But roughly since the start of the pandemic, she said, she has noticed more public targeting of trans people -- including herself.

"All that work done still matters, but it does hurt to see and feel regression," Sayers said. "That's why our people are afraid, suicidal, hiding -- stuck in fight, flight or freeze."

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

  photo  Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / Kyelani Sayers speaks during a pride rally at Miller Park on March 1.