Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee signed a new bill into law Thursday that will criminalize some drag performances.
The first of its kind legislation will prohibit «adult cabaret entertainment» on public property or in places where it can be viewed by minors. Such entertainment, according to the measure, includes «topless dancers, go-go dancers, exotic dancers, strippers, male or female impersonators, or similar performers.»
The law, which takes effect April 1, requires first-time offenders to be punished with misdemeanors. Subsequent offenses would be classified as felonies and could result in prison terms of up to six years.
Lawmakers in at least a dozen other states have proposed measures that would similarly restrict drag performances, according to an NBC News analysis.
Supporters say the legislation is needed to protect children from exposure to inappropriate entertainment.
One of the bill’s main Republican sponsors, Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson, did not respond to a request for comment. On the other hand the celebrated the signing on Twitter.
“The bill gives parents confidence that they can bring their children to a public or private performance and that they will not be blindsided by a sexualized performance,” he wrote.
When asked for comment, Jade Byers, press secretary for the other major sponsor, Rep. Chris Todd, wrote in full: «The Governor signed the bill today and appreciates Leader Johnson’s work to protect children.» .
Several drag performers in the state argue that the legislation broadly portrays drag as overtly sexual and unfairly targets the underground art form, which has deep roots in the LGBTQ community.
“Drag has never turned a child into a prostitute or anything negative, it just gave them an opportunity to express happiness,” said Denise Sadler, 38, who has performed as a drag queen for more than 20 years in Nashville. «If happiness is against the law, then what kind of world do we live in?»
Some also point out that the state already has laws against obscenity.
«For them to pass more legislation governing this ‘raunchy’ art form of drag, it serves no purpose other than to agitate people who already hate us and make it harder for us to exist in the world.» said Luke Conner, a Memphis drag queen whose stage name is Anyanka. “It is no longer about protecting children. This is about silencing an entire group of people.”
LGBTQ advocates are also concerned that police will enforce the law against transgender people who walk in public, falsely painting them as «male or female impersonators.»
“They are giving the police every right… to attack me and attack me when I am doing nothing but living my life,” said Sadler, who is transgender. «For this to be the land of the free, I shouldn’t have to walk around scared because I’m black or because I’m trans.»
Regina Lambert Hillman, a law professor at the University of Memphis who was part of a legal team that challenged Tennessee’s ban on same-sex marriages in 2013, similarly described the bill’s language as «intentionally vague.» and said he understands the concern of the trans community. However, she said, the law cannot prevent trans people from dressing in public as the gender they live.
“You still have the First Amendment protections,” he said. “What that means is how a person dresses or what a person says, that doesn’t change. The government cannot suppress speech, including expressive conduct, just because it finds it offensive or doesn’t like the content.»
Hillman said that, in his opinion, the purpose of the law is to «warn people.»
“This is more like you have a law looking for a problem rather than a problem looking for a law,” he said.
Tensions over the legislation further flared over the weekend after an image was shared on Reddit and Twitter that appears to show Lee, the governor, dressed as a high school student.
Responding to questions from reporters on Monday, Lee would not confirm or deny whether the image, which appears to show him in a short-skirted cheerleader uniform, pearl necklace and wig, was really of him.
“What a ridiculous question that is,” he said in an exchange that was recorded and shared on Twitter by The Tennessee Holler, a local news site. «Combining something like that with sexualized entertainment in front of children, which is a very serious issue.»
After the photograph appeared, Lee was greeted by protesters in Memphis on Tuesday. Two people were arrested.
Marina Pepe, 32, who co-hosts a weekly drag brunch with Sadler in Nashville, said she’s concerned the new legislation will spark more unrest and fuel the recent surge in violence against drag performers.
“When that window opens, especially from a higher voice, if someone thinks, ‘OK, well, that government or the politicians said this is wrong and it’s okay to act against it,’” Pepe said. «People act on that.»
There were more than 140 significant protests and threats targeting drag events in 47 states last year, according to a report by the LGBTQ media advocacy group GLAAD. In one extreme case, a donut shop in Tulsa, Oklahoma, was torched with a Molotov cocktail in October after hosting a resistance event, according to KFOR and KJRH, the NBC affiliates in Oklahoma City and Tulsa. Anti-drag protesters have even found a place in liberal enclaves, like New York City, in recent months.
NBC News previously reported that the incidents, along with the mass shooting at a Colorado LGBTQ nightclub, Club Q, in November, prompted several high-profile drag performers to beef up their security apparatus. Several previously revealed that they have hired armed guards to escort them on the tour.
Pepe said he is also considering hiring full-time security for his show’s weekly presentations at a Nashville bar.
In addition to legislation that would limit dragging, state lawmakers across the country have introduced more than 300 bills that target LGBTQ rights, according to a American Civil Liberties Union count.
A large proportion of the bills seek to ban transition-related care for transgender minors, including one that Lee also signed into law Thursday. Tennessee is now one of seven states, plus Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, South Dakota, Utah and Mississippi, where governors have enacted such measures. However, the laws have been temporarily blocked by judges in Arkansas and Alabama, pending the results of the lawsuits.