Health Care

Tenn. becomes first state to limit drag shows

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee delivers his State of the State Address in the House Chamber, Monday, Feb. 6, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Zaleski)

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee (R) on Thursday signed into law a first-of-its-kind measure barring drag shows and performances on public property and where minors might be present, a move LGBTQ rights groups warned represented the most aggressive step in a new campaign to roll back civil rights.

Lee, who easily won re-election to a second term in November, signed a measure finalized by the deeply conservative legislature in late February. The bill categorizes drag shows, which include “male and female impersonators,” as “adult-oriented performances that are harmful to minors.”

It includes such performances in the state’s obscenity law. Under that statute, drag shows would be banned from public spaces where minors might be present.

Lee’s office did not release a statement on the measure, though he had said he would sign it shortly after the legislature gave it final approval last month. In an email, Lee’s press secretary, Jade Byers, said Lee appreciated the work Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson had done “to protect children.”

Civil rights organizations condemned the new law, which takes effect in July, as government overreach meant to chill speech.

“[W]e are concerned that government officials could easily abuse this law to censor people based on their own subjective viewpoints of what they deem appropriate, chilling protected free speech and sending a message to LGBTQ Tennesseans that they are not welcome in our state,” said Stella Yarbrough, legal director at the ACLU of Tennessee.

Yarbrough pledged to challenge enforcement of the law if it is used to target drag performances.

Lee also signed legislation Thursday barring gender-affirming care for transgender youth, a measure that will prohibit prescribing medication to or performing medical procedures on those under the age of 18. The law gives those who are currently taking medication until the end of March 2024 to stop taking those drugs.

Tennessee joins Utah, South Dakota and Mississippi in banning medical treatment for transgender youth. The bill Lee signed specifically bans any medical treatment of gender dysphoria, gender identity disorder and other diagnoses common to transgender people.

The ACLU, the ACLU of Tennessee and Lambda Legal, a pro-LGBTQ group, said in a joint statement they planned to bring a lawsuit challenging the legality of the new law. Major American medical associations support gender-affirming care as evidence-based treatments for a population that faces higher-than-normal risks of depression and suicidal ideation.

“Neither of these laws are about protecting youth,” said Sarah Warbelow, legal director at the Human Rights Campaign. “They are about spreading dangerous misinformation against the transgender community; they are about doubling down on efforts to attack drag artists and transgender youth.”