Tennessee to become first US state to legally ban drag shows

Tennessee is also likely to become the fifth US state to ban gender-affirming healthcare for minors.

Drag performer wearing red costume reading to during a drag story hour as Tennessee becomes first US state to legally ban drag shows
Image: Twitter @OpenPlans

On Thursday, February 23, Tennessee lawmakers passed a bill that prevents drag shows from happening in public spaces and forbids minors from being in the audience.

The bill expands an existing state law that prevents “adult businesses” from operating within 1,000 feet of schools, public parks, and places of worship. The new legislation includes all “adult cabaret performances,” which are defined as performances with “male or female impersonators who provide entertainment that appeals to a prurient interest”.

The bill passed by a margin of 74 to 19 in the Tennessee House. If the Republican governor, Bill Lee, signs the bill into law as expected, Tennessee will become the first US state to legally criminalise drag performers.

Those in violation of the law could be charged with a Class A misdemeanour for a first violation, punishable by one year of jail time and up to $2,500 in fines. Subsequent offences would be considered a Class E felony, which could result in a sentence of up to six years in prison.


In recent months, US Republicans have drafted legislation that attempts to ban drag shows in at least 15 US states. The Tennessee bill was brought forth by Republican Chris Todd who filed a court claim in 2022 in response to a family-friendly drag show that was organised by an LGBTQ+ Pride event.

After the politician’s complaints, the performance was moved from a public park to an indoor location and minors under the age of 18 were not allowed to attend. He then went on to draft the bill outlawing drag performances in the state from happening anywhere that could be viewed by minors.

Following the passing of the bill, activists have expressed concern about how the broad language could be interpreted to include anything from a performer reading during a drag story hour to any trans or genderqueer artists dancing in a Pride parade.

Human Rights Campaign Legal Director Sarah Warbelow released a statement saying, “By passing House Bill 9, the Tennessee legislature has done nothing but spread hate, misinformation, and extremism. Drag is a longstanding, celebratory form of entertainment and a meaningful source of employment for many across the state.

“Yet, rather than focus on actual policy issues facing Tennesseans, politicians would rather spend their time and effort misconstruing age-appropriate performances at a library to pass as many anti-LGBTQ+ bills as they can…We urge Governor Lee to veto this discriminatory bill.”

Drag Race season 15 queen, Aura Mayari, warned that the bill “…wrongfully targets our trans community by calling out ‘cross-dressing’ in public,” and echoed worries that trans people could be arrested for dressing differently from the biological sex marked on their government ID.

The National Coalition Against Censorship wrote a policy brief opposing the banning of drag story hours saying, “…Drag Queen Story Hour intentionally promotes a message of diversity and inclusion…when a public library has a policy of inviting people to read to children, it cannot exclude them because some politicians or patrons dislike their message.”



In addition to banning drag shows, Tennessee is likely to become the fifth US state to ban gender-affirming healthcare for minors after House legislators passed a measure to ban trans youth from accessing gender-affirming care with a vote of 77-16.

Kasey Suffredini, Vice President of Advocacy and Government Affairs at The Trevor Project, said, “Decisions about transgender medical care should be made between trans patients, their doctors, and their families…We urge the governor to reject this harmful bill and, instead, work to expand access to best-practice medical care for young people across Tennessee”.

Leading medical organisations consider gender-affirming care to be safe and medically necessary for transgender youth, and the ACLU of Tennesee has promised to fight this legislation.


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