Tennessee has become the first U.S. state to pass a law intended to restrict drag performances. Additionally, it recently banned gender-affirming health care for transgender youth. Both laws will be challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union in court.
The law was signed by Gov. Bill Lee (R) on Thursday, and it prohibits “male or female impersonators who provide entertainment that appeals to a prurient interest” from appearing “on public property” or “in places where an individual other than an adult could watch the adult cabaret performance.”
The proposed law will take effect later this year, according to The New York Times.
ACLU of Tennessee director Stella Yarbrough said in a statement that the ACLU would challenge enforcement of the law if it were used to punish drag performers or shut down family-friendly LGBTQ events.
However, Yarbrough stressed that the law does not make drag performances illegal in the state. In its statement, the ACLU notes that the law bans performances that are "harmful to minors," but "the legal definition of 'harmful to minors' in Tennessee is rather narrow and encompasses only extreme sexual or violent content without artistic value." The First Amendment protects drag performances because they do not inherently fall into this category."
“We are disappointed that Governor Lee chose to sign a bill that politicians intended to censor drag performances,” Yarbrough said. “However, I want to be abundantly clear: the law that was just signed does not make it illegal to perform in drag in Tennessee. A drag performance is not necessarily obscene under the law, which bans obscene performances."
The statement urged performers, event organizers, and business owners who are negatively affected by the law to contact the ACLU of Tennessee.
Similar bills banning or restricting drag performances have been introduced in other states, including Montana, Pennsylvania, Arizona, and Arkansas, but Tennessee’s is the first to be signed into law.
Earlier this week, Lee was criticized for supporting the anti-drag bill after a photo of him in drag surfaced from his high school yearbook. Activist Zachary Heath has since launched a GoFundMe campaign to purchase billboards acrossTennessee featuring the photo alongside the state’s foster care system statistics. Lee signed a law in 2020 that allows Tennessee adoption agencies to discriminate against gay and lesbian parents.
Lee also signed into law banning Tennessee doctors from providing gender-affirming care, including puberty blockers and hormone therapy, to anyone under the age of 18. As Common Dreams reports, Lambda Legal, the ACLU, and the ACLU of Tennessee have said they will sue over the law. Every major U.S. medical and mental health association has said that such care is essential to the health and well-being of trans youth.
In a joint statement, the organizations said they would not allow the law to stand.
“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,” the group said.
Tennessee is now the fourth state to ban gender-affirming care for minors. Mississippi passed a similar law earlier this week, following Utah and South Dakota earlier this year. Other similar laws passed in Arkansas and Alabama have been halted by court challenges.
Last April, the Department of Justice (DOJ) sued Alabama to block S.B. 184, a state law signed by Gov. Kay Ivey (R) last year that would criminalize gender-affirming medical care for trans youth. Previously the DOJ had filed a brief in 2021 supporting doctors and transgender families suing the state of Arkansas for a similar ban.