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We Need To Talk About The Implications Of Tennessee’s Drag Show Ban

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The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.

Attacks against the LGBTQ+ community have been rampant in the last few months, such as the tragic shooting in Colorado Springs and the Supreme Court case considering the rights of businesses regarding same-sex couples, and members of the community keep hoping that things will get better. However, given the recent legislation in Tennessee, it looks like another attack against the LGBTQ+ community is mounting, this time through a law effectively banning drag shows. 

On March 2, Tennessee governor Bill Lee signed into law a bill that made engaging in an “adult cabaret performance” on public property or “in a location where the adult cabaret performance could be viewed by a person who is not an adult” an offense punishable by a Class A misdemeanor or a felony. While drag performances are not specifically mentioned in the law, which goes into effect July 1, this law is another attempt to censor queer identities and prevent the free expression of queer people under the guise of protecting children. Her Campus reached out to Governor Lee’s office for comment but did not hear back at time of publication.

The premise of the law is to protect children from events that are targeted towards adults, such as drag shows, that the government is claiming are “harmful to minors.” Due to the vague interpretation of the law, those who do drag are at risk of being banned from performing at all in the state. Many conservatives argue that drag is a form of “grooming” and poses a risk to children. Lawmakers are specifically trying to address “nudity, sexual excitement, sexual conduct, excess violence, or sadomasochistic abuse” these shows, as written in the text of the bill, but are failing to recognize that drag is not inherently sexual or harmful — according to PBS, drag does not typically involve nudity or stripping, and performers modify their acts for family-friendly versus adult audiences. 

In a statement, ACLU of Tennessee Legal Director Stella Yarbrough said, “I want to be abundantly clear: the law that was just signed does not make it illegal to perform in drag in Tennessee. The law bans obscene performances, and drag performances are not inherently obscene. However, we are concerned that government officials could easily abuse this law to censor people based on their own subjective viewpoints of what they deem appropriate, chilling protected free speech and sending a message to LGBTQ Tennesseans that they are not welcome in our state.” Drag is not necessarily obscene or harmful, but this law has the potential to classify all shows as such.

The Tennessee law also poses many questions regarding performers’ First Amendment rights. While drag may not necessarily be the entertainment of choice for some, that does not justify these heavy limitations being implemented, and may actually be acting in violation of the First Amendment, which entitles people to freedom of expression. Drag has been an important part of queer culture and the LGBTQ+ movement — for instance, drag queens such as Marsha P. Johnson were present at the Stonewall Riot and helped create the Gay Liberation Front — and continues to be a way to share one’s identity. 

Drag also constitutes an art form that engages in cultural commentary while subverting gender norms. It allows people, regardless of gender identity or sexuality, to explore masculinity, femininity, and androgyny. Beyond that, drag is a form of entertainment that allows for participation as well as spectating. We can observe this through the popularization of drag with shows such as RuPaul’s Drag Race that entertain people of all ages without endangering anyone. Given that drag is an art form protected by the First Amendment, there has already been pushback against the implementation of the law: The ACLU and Lambda Legal, an LGBTQ civil rights organization, plan to challenge the law in court. If you want to support the drag community, you can contact the Tennessee Office of the Governor to advocate against the law, support the Tennessee ACLU in their efforts to challenge the law, or donate to organizations like Lambda Legal.

Drag as an industry and as an art form, as well as its performers and those who profit off of it, are all at risk because of the Tennessee law. The Tennessee government has inputted their personal judgements of appropriateness into their work, and is setting a dangerous precedent for other issues regarding the LGBTQ+ community, such as the recent bills aiming to limit access to transgender healthcare.

Inica Kotasthane

Columbia Barnard '26

Inica Kotasthane is a student at Barnard College in New York City. She's a big fan of writing (duh!), making zines, and curating her Spotify playlists. Prior to becoming President of the Columbia/Barnard Her Campus chapter, she was a National Writer for Her Campus. She is passionate about journalism and politics, and is especially interested in uplifting minority and queer voices in these areas.