Photo by AP Images for Human Rights Campaign
On March 3, 2023, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee signed Senate Bill 3, a bill that bans public drag shows under the rationale that they are “adult-oriented performances that are harmful to minors.” The first offense would be classified as a Class A misdemeanor, which can result in jail time of up to 11 months and 29 days and/or fines of up to $2500. The second or subsequent offenses would be classified as Class E felonies, which can lead to one to six years in prison and/or a fine of up to $3000.
This bill was sponsored by Republican Representative Chris Todd, who sees it as a “common-sense, child safety bill,” and believes that public drag performances are “clearly meant to groom and recruit children to this lifestyle … this type of performance and its content is the child abuse.” Drag performers worry that this bill could increase the prejudice and violence that they face and strip them of their livelihoods completely.
There’s also uncertainty surrounding the future of inherently public events like Pride parades. Historically, new laws go into effect on July 1 to go along with the beginning of a new fiscal year. However, this bill was amended in January to go into effect on April 1, 2023, which is two months ahead of Pride Month in June.
The potential consequences for drag performers and the future of Pride in Tennessee already make the bill incredibly dangerous, but lawmakers’ decision to define drag performers as “male or female impersonators” makes this a threat to trans and gender nonconforming people as well.
This vague definition makes it incredibly easy for transphobic people who don’t see trans and gender nonconforming people as their lived gender to accuse them of publicly impersonating a gender. Even if this bill didn’t criminalize public gender nonconformity from people who aren’t drag performers, its success could empower transphobic lawmakers to expand this law or create new, more restrictive laws for trans and gender nonconforming individuals.
One of the most sinister aspects of this law is that it comes with nearly a year of potential jail time at the first offense and a felony conviction and potential years of prison time at the second offense. According to the 2015 US Trans Survey, 30% of trans people who had been incarcerated reported physical and/or sexual assault by both prison staff and other inmates during their incarceration. Beyond that, felony convictions majorly affect a person’s life in numerous ways long after they have served their time. Convicted felons are barred from dozens of careers regardless of their qualifications, can be evicted by their landlords and have new landlords refuse to rent to them, ineligible for federal financial assistance, and lose the right to vote.
Tennessee is the first state to pass a bill targeting drag performers, but 13 other states have one or more similar bills waiting to be voted on; as of February 2023, there are at least 26 of these bills total including Tennessee’s. This spike in anti-drag and anti-trans legislation can’t be ignored because these legal attacks will only continue to escalate.
Along with Senate Bill 3, Gov. Lee also signed Senate Bill 1, which completely bans gender-affirming care for trans people under 18; the ban starts on July 1, 2023 for minors who have not received gender-affirming care before that date, and minors who have started care have until March 31, 2024, provided that their healthcare provider is willing to verify that abruptly stopping care would be detrimental to the minor’s physical health.
The ACLU has released a joint statement with the ACLU of Tennessee and Lambda Legal promising legal action against the state of Tennessee in the wake of these new laws.
Donate to the ACLU’s Drag Defense fund here.
Author: Lorely Guzman (They/Them)
Copy Editors: Maya Parra (She/Her), Bella (She/They)