Why the Drag Ban in Tennessee Is So Dangerous for the LGBTQ+ Community
Restricting drag is an infringement of the First Amendment right to free expression, and the rhetoric set forth by such a ban is contagious. That is, the ramifications aren't sequestered to the cities and states where officials propose and sign these bills, and they're not limited to drag shows alone. The whole community—including it's youngest members will feel the impact.
“This is an all-out attack on the most vulnerable people within Tennessee’s queer community, and the ripple effects will be felt throughout the country," says Colorado-based drag queen Jessica L’whor. "I’m afraid to even do all-ages shows here in Denver." She says she feels under the watch of hate groups, who pose a threat to her, other drag queens, and allies.
How the Tennessee drag ban stands to harm Pride
Part of Tennessee’s new law specifies that drag can’t take place on public property or where children will be present. That begs the obvious question of whether children or drag performers will be banned from Pride events.
Furthermore, can Pride exist without drag or children? Should this be a decision we have to make? Having children at Pride events and allowing them to be exposed to drag while seeing all forms of other LGBTQ+ expression and representation is s good thing. It helps teach empathy to children, showing the various ways people may exist outside of their own homes.
It's incredibly disempowering to have people outside the LGBTQ+ community dictate how and where we can celebrate our history, our heroes, ourselves.
Pride is and has always been a powerful display of well—pride—for the LGBTQ+ community. It's incredibly disempowering, then, to have people outside the community dictate how and where we can celebrate our history, our heroes, ourselves.
"It's banning Pride, public drag, and trans performance, even though it's their 'normal' presentation. The consequences [could involve] being charged as a felon." Eureka O'Hara, a drag queen from Tennessee who was on seasons nine and 10 of RuPaul’s Drag Race wrote in a statement, adding that felony convictions disproportionately hold back underrepresented and oppressed communities on the basis of race, sex, and gender expression: "It's going to affect jobs, ways of life, and personal security for individuals trying to live—and barely survive—in this state of Tennessee, and it's extremely shameful to see!"
Pride aside, other Tennessee-based events are left trying to figure out what the drag ban means for them. Bonnaroo, for example, released a statement promising inclusivity and protected self-expression for all folks. While the festival has made no mention of plans to move to a more inclusive geographic venue, who knows what the future holds. Furthermore, what options are available to businesses that aren’t as theoretically portable as a music festival—like a theme park—for instance?
The Drag ban is in Tennessee—are other states safer?
Along with events seeking more inclusive state laws like Bonnaroo, some people may feel inclined to move to a home in a different state. But for many folks, it’s not an option that’s feasible for reasons of finances, job security, or the sense of safety derived from having an established community. Additionally, given that a number of states having already introduced drag bans not dissimilar from that of Tennessee's, finding a safe place to be oneself can seem like an ever-moving target.
Given that a number of states having already introduced drag bans not dissimilar from that of Tennessee's, finding a safe place to be oneself can seem like an ever-moving target.
Beyond debating their own laws banning drag performances, states are suing doctors offering gender-affirming care, and even calling affirming parents perpetrators of child abuse. In Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis is proposing crackdowns on everything from books to sports to transition care.
DeSantis is even going after businesses when they dissent to his extreme agenda. He took a swing at Disney after the company spoke out against his “Don’t Say Gay” bill, revoking the company's self-governing status in Florida, and ensuring in the process that the area would fall in line with exclusionary values. Who is suffering? Florida’s most vulnerable residents—including the LGBTQ+ community.
“The impacts of Florida's anti-LGBTQ+ legislation have been all-consuming,”says Brandon Wolf, Equality Florida’s Press Secretary and LGBTQ+ activist. “Threats against drag shows and the venues that host them have put performers out of work and led to small businesses rethinking whether or not they can operate in our communities.” That, too, contributes to the future of LGBTQ+ Pride, and the youngest members of the community meant to carry the torch into the future.
What's to expect for this year's Pride
Right now, there are only nine states in the country that haven’t proposed an anti-LGBTQ+ bill this year—yet. If you are in Alabama, California, Delaware, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, New York, or Pennsylvania, you are (so far) one of the lucky ones.
With 400 anti LGBTQ+ bills proposed around the country in 2023 alone, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to remain hopeful that an all-out attack on LGBTQ+ rights isn’t imminent. Per the spreadsheet, which mirrors information put out by the Equality Federation, activists are feeling safe in states like Colorado and Connecticut when it comes to discriminatory laws, but other states don't stand to fare so well.
At their most basic, these proposed bans and laws will chip away at Pride, at our personal freedoms, and at our ability to make choices for our children as simple as what they read in school.
At their most cruel, they put children in mortal danger. A recent study from the Trevor Project found that transgender youth with access to gender-affirming care have lower rates of depression and are at a lower risk for suicide. Alternatively, another Trevor Project survey found that nearly two-thirds of LGBTQ+ students reported negative mental health impacts as a result of discriminatory policies.
From the lens of mental- and physical health, it seems clear that legislation like the Tennessee drag ban is introducing harm to the lives of so many. The law won’t go into effect until July, which falls after Pride, so time will tell what unfolds through the coming months.
That said, it bears remembering that Pride began as a protest in the summer of 1969, largely with the help of trans drag queen Marsha P. Johnson. It looks like members of the LGBTQ+ community may be heading back to our roots, as we have again and again. We've achieved the right to marry by overturning section three of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), to be able to adopt, and every other humiliating right we’ve had to fight for. This Pride, we’ll surely protest again—simply for the right to be who we are, however we want to express and be it.
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