Tennessee's Anti-Drag Bill Is a Gaudy Public Performance

It’s already illegal to expose minors to obscenity, so what is this bill really for?


Tennessee is on the verge of passing a law banning minors from attending drag shows, but it's not entirely clear—even when you ask its proponents—how broadly it's going to be enforced.

Tennessee's Republican-dominated House on Thursday passed an amended version of S.B. 3, a bill that would ban "adult cabaret performances" in public or anywhere where a minor could view it. The definitions of cabaret performances in the original draft of the bill include "topless dancers, go-go dancers, exotic dancers, strippers, male or female impersonators who provide entertainment that appeals to a prurient interest, or similar entertainers, regardless of whether or not performed for consideration."

The bill makes the first offense a Class A misdemeanor and subsequent offenses a Class E felony, which can carry fines of up to $3,000 and prison sentences of one to six years.

The inclusion of "male and female impersonators" is intended to block children from attending drag performances, but the addition of the clause "that appeals to a prurient interest" makes the meaning vague. The bill's House sponsor, Rep. Chris Todd (R–Jackson), has been clear that he thinks any drag show is inappropriate for children, regardless of content. Last October, he got directly involved in a fight over whether minors should be allowed to attend what was being sold as a "family-friendly drag show" at Jackson, Tennessee's pride event. Todd went so far as to try to get an injunction to halt the show entirely. The event organizers eventually agreed to a compromise to prohibit minors from attending the drag show.

The Tennessean reported that the pride event organizers had thoroughly vetted the show to make sure it was appropriate for children and did not contain any lewd or sexual content. Todd, however, told The Tennessean he never even contacted the show organizers to determine the content before publicly calling it "child abuse." When the outlet pressed him on how he could classify the event as such without even knowing its content, he said, "this type of performance and its intent is the child abuse," accusing drag performers of attempting to "groom and recruit children to this lifestyle."

So Todd's feelings on the matter are clear, but his bill has been less so. After he introduced it in the House—and after the state Senate version was introduced by Sen. Jack Johnson (R–Brentwood)—it was amended. The vague "appeals to a prurient interest" section has been removed and replaced with "performances that are harmful to minors, as that term is defined in § 39-17-901." That's a reference to Tennessee's existing obscenity definitions.

Under the law, "harmful to minors" means representations "of nudity, sexual excitement, sexual conduct, excess violence or sadomasochistic abuse" that appeals to prurient interests, is "patently offensive to prevailing standards in the adult community as a whole with respect to what is suitable for minors," and "taken as whole lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific values for minors."

The amendment further specifies that what's banned is "a performance of actual or simulated specified sexual activities, including removal of articles of clothing or appearing unclothed" in a place where minors can see them.

It appears that the bill that has passed the House and will head to the Senate for a final vote before being sent to Republican Gov. Bill Lee doesn't actually ban minors from drag shows unless these shows violate the state's already existing obscenity laws. State Rep. Gloria Johnson (D–Knoxville) pointed this out on Thursday prior to the bill's passage: "If you're being obscene in front of children, it is already illegal, correct? If you're wearing lederhosen and being obscene in front of children, you'll be arrested, correct?"

In other words, this is a bill that criminalizes something that's already against the law in Tennessee. It's for show. In fact, The Tennessean notes that other Republicans have defended the law by saying it won't affect many of the drag shows that may take place in the state.

But Todd thinks it's going to, and he is probably not alone. Otherwise, why pass a bill at all? The Tennessean notes that LGBT activists worry that the law's passage will serve as a "chilling effect," making venues afraid to allow minors into any drag shows at all out of fear of police enforcement.