Restrictions On Drag Shows Have A History In The U.S. : Consider This from NPR Tennessee passed a bill last week restricting drag shows. The law specifically bans "adult cabaret performances" in public or in the presence of children.

In more than a dozen states, Republican lawmakers have been pushing similar bills.

Historian Jules Gill-Peterson of Johns Hopkins University says laws that target drag have a long history in the U.S, and LGBTQ people have fought back before.

In participating regions, you'll also hear a local news segment to help you make sense of what's going on in your community.

Email us at considerthis@npr.org.

Restrictions On Drag Shows Have A History In The U.S.

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1161452206/1200108985" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

There's a similar story playing out in more than a dozen Republican-controlled state houses across the country. You can see it in Kentucky.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LINDSEY TICHENOR: There has been an onslaught of attack on the innocence of our children. And that is why I wrote this bill.

SHAPIRO: That's Republican State Senator Lindsey Tichenor. The attacks she's talking about...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TICHENOR: I have some examples of what we are trying to stop and prevent from coming to the state of Kentucky - drag queen Christmas...

SHAPIRO: ...Drag shows. Tichenor's bill would ban them from public property or anywhere they could be viewed by children. It advanced out of committee last week as opponents chanted, shame. Another bill in Idaho would allow parents of children who've witnessed live shows featuring, quote, "sexual conduct" to sue for $10,000. Critics say the language explicitly targets drag shows. Here's Republican State Representative Jaron Crane.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JARON CRANE: Do you think it would be reasonable that a parent or a child would have the ability to go to a park and not have to see these shows, whoever's performing them?

SHAPIRO: That bill passed out of committee last week too. And last Thursday...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Ayes, 26 - 6 nays.

BILL LEE: Senate Bill 3, having conferred in Amendment No. 1, is adopted. Without objection, motion to reconsider is hereby tabled.

SHAPIRO: ...Tennessee became the first state to pass one of these laws. Republican Governor Bill Lee signed a bill that bans adult cabaret shows in public spaces. Civil rights groups say the consequences of this legislation go way beyond drag shows. Here's Henry Seaton with the ACLU talking about the Tennessee law which targets, quote, "male or female impersonators."

HENRY SEATON: That can easily be a trans person. You know, there's the phenomenon of walking while trans where, specifically, like, trans women of color, while just existing, oftentimes get the police called on them just for, like, being trans.

SHAPIRO: And in the same sitting where Governor Lee signed that drag show bill, he signed another one. It banned gender-affirming care for minors in Tennessee. In fact, many of the proposed state laws restricting drag shows are accompanied by similar restrictions on health care for trans children and teenagers. Drag performers in some of these states say they're not backing down. After all, this is not the first time laws in the U.S. have targeted drag or cross-dressing. Drag queen Marissa Kage in Texas talked to NPR last year.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

MARISSA KAGE: They're not going to bring us down. We are such a strong community, and we've seen it throughout the years and throughout history. Like, we're going to live our life.

SHAPIRO: CONSIDER THIS - since long before the Stonewall riots of 1969, authorities in the U.S. have tried to punish gender nonconformity, and queer people have fought back. After the break, how the past can help us understand the present.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAPIRO: From NPR, I'm Ari Shapiro. It's Monday, March 6.

It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. So to understand this political moment with Republicans in more than a dozen states pushing bills that would restrict drag shows, it helps to look to America's past. There is a long history of laws targeting drag. I spoke with historian Jules Gill-Peterson of Johns Hopkins University to understand the context behind the current wave of bills.

To start in the present day, how do the Tennessee law and other bills like it aim to restrict drag?

JULES GILL-PETERSON: The Tennessee law is a very narrowly conceived law. It really is almost like a zoning statute. It declares where drag performance is allowed to take place, how far it has to be from schools, places of worship, things like that and who's allowed to be in the audience. Specifically by equating drag with sexual performances such as stripping or exotic dancing, it really prohibits, you know, children from being present in the audience. It's the first one to pass.

And a lot of the other legislation in other states have much more expansive definitions of drag and sort of a definition of drag that essentially means being transgender in public, which is to say, you know, someone who, according to the law, dresses or wears makeup or acts in any way that supposedly reflects a gender identity different from the gender that they were assigned at birth. These other bills, I think, really raise a lot of alarm in the sense that they really sort of start to get to the point where imagining just walking down the street in public as a trans person technically might be breaking the law.

SHAPIRO: And we as a country have, in a way, been here before. So tell us about the history of these kinds of laws. It's far from the first time that dressing in a way that doesn't conform to gender norms has been banned in the U.S.

GILL-PETERSON: That's right. We actually have almost 150 years' worth of laws in this kind of zone. So in 1863, San Francisco was actually the very first place to enact what it called a sort of cross-dressing or masquerade ordinance, which prohibited someone from being out in public if they were wearing clothing that was different from their sort of legal sex or assigned sex. And those kinds of laws really took off in the late 19th century as a way of enforcing racial segregation, of confining LGBT people to certain neighborhoods and really, you know, empowering the police to harass and target people based on their appearance. And they were really used for many, many decades, well into the 20th century. So we're talking about a really long history here.

SHAPIRO: I'm curious what this could mean for, I don't know - for example, Pride Month in Nashville in June when this law will be in effect. If there's a drag queen on a float and children in the audience, like, is the effort going to be to cover up and conceal or is the effort going to be to throw bricks? - not encouraging violence, just making a reference to Stonewall.

GILL-PETERSON: Exactly. I think this is the big question. And on the one hand, this all feels very familiar, but on the other hand, we are in uncharted territory. The notion that the police might arrive at Pride and start arresting drag queens or, frankly, anyone - right? - who could be just sort of dressed in a costume because there could be children in the crowd is really, you know, kind of an incredible thing to imagine happening. But I think this is the sort of uncertainty of how these laws are written. But certainly some of the other laws being considered in other states definitely would. And so the question is, what is going to be the newfound danger that folks are going to face at a popular family-friendly event like Pride?

SHAPIRO: And so as a historian, what lessons do you draw from your research that you think may be applicable to this next phase of life for LGBTQ people in America?

GILL-PETERSON: Yeah. I think the return of these kinds of anti-drag bills in their updated form, you know, is really painful for a lot of LGBT people. There are plenty of people alive today who remember what it was like to live under these laws. And so in that sense, it's a really discouraging moment. But at the same time, that means that there's a lot of expertise and knowhow in the community about how to deal with these laws but also how to successfully oppose them. They have been repealed before. And to me, that, you know, reminds us that no matter what kinds of legislation are being passed today and how cruel or devastating the impact is, these aren't foregone conclusions. And so even if there isn't an inevitable progress for LGBT people in this country, by the same token, we're not necessarily locked into the terrain that these new laws prescribe. They could always be opposed, and they could always be overturned.

SHAPIRO: Johns Hopkins historian Jules Gill-Peterson. I mentioned at the top of this episode that these bills may have impacts beyond drag performances - one possible example? High school theater programs - NPR's Elizabeth Blair explains.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: Some of the most popular musicals performed by high school students have characters who either cross-dress or perform in drag, like Angel in "Rent."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'LL COVER YOU")

WILSON JERMAINE HEREDIA: (As Angel, singing) Live in my house. I'll be your shelter. Just pay me back with 1,000 kisses.

BLAIR: Other times, out of necessity, boys play girls and vice versa. For example, girls often end up playing boys in "Newsies."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KING OF NEW YORK")

NEWSIES ENSEMBLE: (As characters, singing) Look at me. I'm the king of New York.

BLAIR: Nontraditional casting happens routinely, but for teachers, it takes just one parent to make it an issue.

JENNIFER GUFFIN: I had a parent who complained about me a few years ago during "James And The Giant Peach" of all things.

BLAIR: Jennifer Guffin teaches theater at Shades Valley High School in Birmingham, Ala. She says some of the boys in the show played little old ladies.

GUFFIN: And the parent was very upset that I was going to have her son cross-dressing. And she called the board and complained about me, and I had to have multiple meetings about it to explain, like, this is not a drag show. This is, like, I'm putting you in a costume for 30 seconds so that you can sing in a silly little part.

BLAIR: The bills might not be directed at high school theater, but they're having a chilling effect on teachers, says Jennifer Katona, executive director of the Educational Theatre Association.

JENNIFER KATONA: Teachers are really feeling that their classrooms or their theater spaces are true safe havens for our students, particularly our trans students and our LGBQTIA students. Yet much of the atmospheres that they're teaching in and working in are not supporting them in those ways.

BLAIR: In choosing what to perform, teachers often look at what shows students already like. And teens have long gravitated towards material that pushes boundaries like "Ride The Cyclone," a musical that was written years ago but recently became a viral sensation among teens on TikTok.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE BALLAD OF JANE DOE")

EMILY ROHM: (As Jane Doe, singing) And I'm asking, why, Lord, if this is how I die, Lord, why be left with no family and no friends?

BLAIR: "Ride The Cyclone" is a dark comedy in which a group of teens die in a roller coaster accident. Each character takes a turn singing about who they are or how they'd like to be remembered. It's so popular among teens that the creators are in the process of writing a version that high schools could perform. But with the drag show bills, that could be a problem, says co-creator Jacob Richmond.

JACOB RICHMOND: There's a whole drag number that we're trying to figure out how to do in a way that you could do in a high school setting.

BLAIR: That drag number is by a young gay man who works at a Taco Bell. He loves Jean Genet and film noir and fantasizes about being a sex worker.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NOEL'S LAMENT")

KHOLBY WARDELL: (As Noel Gruber, singing) For I sing songs until the break of dawn. I embrace a new man every night. My life's one never-ending carnival.

RICHMOND: It's basically just kind of this is who I am inside as well, like - and the idea that the imagination is just as much as a part of us as our daily jobs or what other people define us as.

BLAIR: Richmond says the success of "Ride The Cyclone" on TikTok points out a disconnect in the drag show bills. They might prevent young people from seeing drag performers on stage, but they won't stop teens from finding them online.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Elizabeth Blair. At the top of this episode, you heard reporting from NPR's Lilly Quiroz in Texas and from Marianna Bacallao with member station WPLN in Nashville. It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. I'm Ari Shapiro.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

Copyright © 2023 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.