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Drag performers on what Tennessee's ban on public performances means to them

UPDATE: After this story was published, a federal judge temporarily blocked Tennessee's new drag ban the day before it was set to go into effect.

Tennessee will become the first state in the country to ban drag performances in public spaces and anywhere in the presence of someone under 18 years old when its new law takes effect April 1.

Senate Bill 3 broadly defines these performances as being "topless dancers, go-go dancers, exotic dancers, strippers, male or female impersonators who provide entertainment that appeals to a prurient interest, or similar entertainers."

The law was passed by the state's Republican-controlled legislature and signed into law by Republican Gov. Bill Lee on March 2. New laws in Tennessee typically take effect July 1 but legislators amended the bill to take effect April 1. The timing ahead of Pride month in June has drag performers and advocates especially concerned about how to plan celebrations that won't violate the new law.

"We have Pride to worry about because Pride is one of the only places that we can perform for the general public," said Jordan Allen, a trans man and drag king in Nashville. "Pride's going to change, the face of Pride's going to change in a lot of ways, not just the performances at Pride itself."

Under the new law, a first offense would be classified as a Class A misdemeanor — punishable by up to nearly one year in jail and a fine of $2,500. Subsequent offenses would be classified as a Class E felony — punishable by up to six years in prison and a fine of up to $3,000.

As the law takes effect, groups such as the American Civil Liberties Group have vowed to challenge it.

"We will challenge enforcement of this law if it is used to punish a drag performer or shut down a family-friendly LGBTQ event," said Stella Yarbrough, the legal director for ACLU of Tennessee.

Aside from the real risk of criminal prosecution, drag performer Bella DuBalle from Memphis says this type of legislation will harm LGBTQ+ youth throughout the state who will lose opportunities to see representation of their community.

"If a kid is going to be queer and they see a drag queen or a queer person or this representation, they see a future. They see themselves," she said. "If a kid who is destined to be straight sees a drag queen or a queer person, the worst that happens is that it sensitizes them to the idea that the world is full of different people."

A national survey of LGTBQ+ youth by The Trevor Project — a nonprofit focused on suicide prevention among LGBTQ+ youth — found that 48 percent of LGBTQ+ people ages 13-24 in Tennessee "seriously considered suicide" in 2022. That number rose to 58 percent among transgender and nonbinary youth. Both numbers are higher than the national average, which is 45 percent.

Several other states have proposed similar legislation against drag performances, including Arizona, Arkansas, Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas and West Virginia. All of those states, with the exception of Kansas, have higher rates of LGBTQ+ youth who have seriously considered suicide than the national average, according to the Trevor Project.

The bans against drag performances come amid a wave of bills targeting the LGBTQ+ community in state legislatures across the country. Several states have passed and signed some of those bills into law, including Arkansas' bathroom ban and Kentucky's ban on gender-affirming care. According to numbers by the ACLU, there were 435 anti-LGBTQ+ bills across the United States as of March 29.

READ MORE: Majority of Americans reject anti-trans bills, but support for this restriction is rising

DuBalle argues that while critics often say that they believe drag is a danger to children, it's important that all kids in Tennessee, including trans kids, be seen and protected.

"They're at risk because they live in this society that spreads these baseless lies and hateful rhetoric about them. It dehumanizes them, it denigrates them," DuBalle said. "And if one person in these kids life affirms them, that risk for suicide goes down. So for me, I have to fight for those kids because I grew up queer in Tennessee and I barely survived it."

Performer Replika Queen in Knoxville says using the protection of children as a defense of the ban is hypocritical.

"I would really kind of look deeper into where actual predators lie because it's not in the drag community," she said. "It is in churches, in schools and daycares. It's places where your kids have more access to adults than just a drag queen who's performing a Disney number at a brunch."

Allen sees the potential for law enforcement to use the vague wording of the bill around male or female impersonators to attack everyday transgender Tennesseans.

"I know trans men and women who are servers at restaurants and they go up to a table to serve," Allen said. "If they go up to a table to serve a table and there's a child there — there's a possibility that they can literally be charged with a crime for doing their job and serving the table. It's 2023. How did we get here?"

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