At least 9 GOP-led state legislatures want to restrict or criminalize drag shows
Wendy Williams has owned her bar, Club Temptation, in Cookeville, Tenn., for six years. She regularly holds space for drag performances, including drag brunches and bingo. Williams also performs drag herself.
"Our drag shows are popular. It's an important part of the entertainment factor of the bar," she said.
But this very kind of entertainment has become a target in Williams' state.
The Tennessee House's Criminal Justice Subcommittee recently heard testimony on a proposed bill that would categorize drag shows, or "male or female impersonators who provide entertainment that appeals to a prurient interest," as "adult cabaret performance." It would make it a criminal offense for a drag artist to perform on public property or in a location where the show could be seen by a minor. Further, it prevents local ordinances from superseding this if it were to become state law.
Williams' bar doesn't allow entry to minors, so a child wouldn't be able to see any of the shows her establishment puts on anyway, she said. But given the bill's wording, she is starting to wonder whether her bar will have to be re-categorized as, essentially, a strip club.
"It's very vague. So I don't understand how it's gonna affect me, which worries me," Williams said.
While Tennessee continues to work on its own proposal, other state legislatures across the U.S. are moving along with similar versions. For example, North Dakota recently advanced a bill that would criminalize performing drag in front of minors or in public spaces.
Critics say these proposals and others like it don't just threaten the increasing popularity of drag; they're also thinly veiled attacks against the LGBTQ community as a whole.
This is just the latest wave of anti-drag legislation
Drag, a mainstay in LGBTQ nightlife, is considered performance art that celebrates gender fluidity, self expression and self acceptance. Performers often impersonate both men and women. In recent years, it's grown in mainstream popularity, as drag brunches and story hours have popped up throughout the country.
It's not the first time legislation targeting these performances has been introduced in state legislatures. Last year, Republican lawmakers in Florida and Arizona tried to crack down on drag shows to no avail.
But this legislative session seems different, lawmakers and critics said. Just a few weeks into 2023, legislators in other states have filed strikingly similar proposals to those in Tennessee and North Dakota. They've popped up in Texas, West Virginia, Nebraska and South Carolina, to name a few. Many of the bills are also broad in scope and would effectively restrict drag show performances.
The pieces of legislation introduced so far aim to do this in a number of ways. Many would limit where drag shows can be held, recategorize them as akin to strip shows and ban the use of state funds (including those given to a nonprofit) to go toward them.
"It's clearly a priority," Emerson Sykes, a senior staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union, said of the rush of anti-drag proposals.
"These bills threaten businesses, libraries, performers and the people they serve by putting the power to decide what's appropriate in the hands of politicians," he said. "To be honest, we expect these to sail through many legislatures."
Attempts to ban drag shows are part of an anti-LGBTQ agenda, critics say
This wave of drag show restrictions comes as Republican-led statehouses push other legislation targeting the transgender community.
"This year, we are seeing the most, by far, pieces of anti-transgender legislation that we've ever seen in a single year," Erin Reed, an independent legislative researcher and activist, said.
Last year, 315 anti-LGBTQ bills were filed during state legislative sessions. However, only 29 became law — indicating strong pushback against some of these restrictions, even in Republican-led state governments, according to the Human Rights Campaign.
Drag bans, a subset of these kinds of bills, are essentially lawmakers' answer to drag queen story hours, Reed said. The events, during which a drag queen reads books to kids, have popped up around the country. They have become a subject of vitriol for the far-right, with some events becoming targets for opponents.
In Cookeville, where Williams is from, a group of far-right protesters have demonstrated in front of drag shows. Recently, this happened at an 18-and-up drag brunch in town, where protestors held up a Nazi flag and yelled from across the street of the event.
Conservative media and Republican lawmakers have claimed that their opposition to drag shows is about protecting children. They often repeat a homophobic trope that drag queens and the LGBTQ community are "grooming" young children.
Texas state Rep. Nate Schatzline is one Republican lawmaker who opposes drag shows. He introduced a bill in his state that defines a drag performance as when "a performer exhibits a gender identity that is different than the performer's gender assigned at birth."
In an interview with NPR, he described children witnessing drag shows (which he referred to as "indecent exposure") as a "slippery slope" to "the eventual legalization of pedophilia."
Tennessee Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson, the drafter of the state's drag show bill, told NPR in a statement, "Just as current law prohibits strip clubs from admitting children, this legislation would also prohibit sexually suggestive drag shows from being performed on public property, or on any non-age-restricted private property where a minor could be present. This is a common-sense measure that has broad support from Tennesseans."
Broad language doesn't hold up in Arkansas
Restaurants, bars and nightclubs that host drag shows, like Williams' Club Temptation, would have to be recategorized as sexually oriented enterprises under many of these legislative proposals, ACLU attorney Sykes said. This would require businesses to get specific permits and to pay fees in order to stay open in some cases, he said.
Other state proposals have language that defines a drag performer as one who "exhibits a gender identity that is different than the performer's gender assigned at birth." That definition's broadness leaves theater shows or even female comedians dressed in pants at risk of violating these laws, Sykes said.
He, as well as others, noted that under this categorization, Shakespearean productions — for example, As You Like It (which involves a cross-dressing heroine) — could be in violation of the law.
"What they deem appropriate that day is totally up to the discretion of the officials to decide whether this runs afoul of whatever they think is 'decent,'" Sykes said.
South Carolina state Rep. Thomas Beach told NPR that the language in his earlier version of his state's bill was admittedly too broad. But he plans to make to changes to the policy, which he believes will make it more palatable for fellow Republicans concerned about impacts on business. Beach said support is high.
The trajectory of Arkansas' proposed drag ban is a prime example of broad language backfiring on Republican legislators. Last month, the state senate approved sweeping legislation restricting where drag shows could be performed. The legislation would have required locations that host drag shows to be classified in the same way strip clubs and adult entertainment theaters are.
Arkansas lawmakers changed their proposal following bipartisan criticism of the bill's breadth. Those changes effectively gutted the bill of language specifically targeting drag shows, the ACLU of Arkansas said.
But that wasn't before the local economy was impacted.
A deal to have the Miss Gay America Pageant continue its national event at Little Rock's Robinson Center fell apart last month, shortly after SB43 dropped. That's according to Michael Dutzer, the CEO and executive producer of Mad Angel Entertainment, which owns the pageant.
Dutzer said the legislation at the time made it really unclear whether the event — not officially a drag show, but dubbed as a pageant for "female impersonators" — would violate the law. The event involves singing, dancing and lip-syncing, among other performances. Technically, that violated the proposed bill as it was written, Dutzer said.
Even now, he said, with some threats and derogatory statements sent to the organization, as well as lingering uncertainty about the current state of SB43, it doesn't seem possible for the pageant to continue in Little Rock.
"So who takes that risk?" he asked.
It would be a loss for Arkansas, Dutzer said. The event brought thousands of people who filled local hotels, visited local sites and bought from restaurants. The production spent around $70,000 to put the pageant on.
He said, "Everybody seems very thrilled to have us there except the government."
For her part, Williams said she's unsure whether she should bother staying in business, especially if Tennessee's bill is passed as is.
"You don't know what's going to happen. Is it worth continuing running a bar after six years? Is it better that I just put the bar up for sale and do something else? Not because I'm scared, but just cause is it worth the hassle and the headache of dealing with it?," she said. "I don't know if it's worth it to tell you the truth."