Tennessee restricts drag shows, bans gender-affirming care for youth

Tennessee Governor Bill Lee delivers a State of the State Address on February 6.
Office of Governor Bill Lee/Flickr

Tennessee Governor Bill Lee signed a pair of bills significantly restricting drag shows and barring gender-affirming care for transgender youth, marking the latest development in a series of devastating legislative attacks on LGBTQ individuals nationwide.

The bill targeting drag performances bans “adult cabaret” performances featuring “topless dancers, go-go dancers, exotic dancers, strippers, male or female impersonators” and stipulates that such performances cannot be held within 1,000 feet of places of worship, public parks, or schools. Violators of the law will face a misdemeanor charge on the first offense and felony charges for any additional violations.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) denounced the law but insisted that it does not amount to a ban on drag shows because the bill’s language relies on barring performances “harmful to minors.”

Stella Yarbrough, who is the legal director of ACLU of Tennessee, said the organization is “disappointed” that the governor signed the bill.

“However, I want to be abundantly clear: the law that was just signed does not make it illegal to perform in drag in Tennessee,” Yarbrough said. “The law bans obscene performances, and drag performances are not inherently obscene.”

The ACLU and Lambda Legal are also planning to target the state after the governor approved a ban on puberty blockers, hormones, and gender-affirming surgeries for trans youth. The ban is slated to take effect on July 1.

“We will not allow this dangerous law to stand,” Lambda Legal, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the ACLU of Tennessee said in a joint statement. “Certain politicians and Governor Lee have made no secret of their intent to discriminate against youth who are transgender or their willful ignorance about the life-saving health care they seek to ban. Instead, they’ve chosen fearmongering, misrepresentations, intimidation and extremist politics over the rights of families and the lives of transgender youth in Tennessee. We are dedicated to overturning this unconstitutional law and are confident the state will find itself completely incapable of defending it in court. We want transgender youth to know they are not alone and this fight is not over.”

As for Lee, a 1977 yearbook photo showing him dressed in drag in high school recently resurfaced, prompting reporters to ask the governor if he remembered the photo. Lee immediately grew defensive, calling it a “ridiculous question” and accusing the reporter of “conflating something like that to sexualized entertainment in front of children, which is a very serious question.”

Tennessee has sought to pass other anti-LGBTQ bills in recent years, as well. In May of 2021, the state enacted a law requiring operators of facilities with public restrooms to install signs disclosing when their policy allows individuals to use bathrooms in accordance with their gender identity. That law quickly faced legal challenges, however, and it was struck down by a federal judge in May of last year.