Tennessee and Knoxville made it into the national media this week regarding a proposed law to delineate accepted behaviors in and limiting attendees to drag shows.
As is the case in states with one-party control of both legislative bodies (supermajorities in our case) and the governor’s office, after any substantive changes in state policy are addressed, the party turns its attention to more cultural issues or issues that appeal to its hardest-core base. In Tennessee, this has meant, for example, many laws regarding gun ownership, possession, and carry in recent years. It has also led to discussion of increased control of curriculum and books available in public schools.
Recently, the attention has turned to issues surrounding transgender citizens. Current bills related to the topic include:
- HB1/SB1 – “As introduced, prohibits a healthcare provider from performing on a minor or administering to a minor a medical procedure if the performance or administration of the procedure is for the purpose of enabling a minor to identify with, or live as, a purported identity inconsistent with the minor’s sex.”
- HB306/SB1237 – “As introduced, authorizes a private school to create a policy to regulate a student’s participation in the school’s athletic activities or events based upon a student’s biological sex.
- HB1215/SB1339 – “As introduced, prohibits any managed care organization that contracts with the bureau of TennCare to provide medical assistance from providing reimbursement or coverage for a medical procedure if the performance or administration of the procedure is for the purpose of enabling a person to identify with, or live as, a purported identity inconsistent with the person’s sex, or treating purported discomfort or distress from a discordance between a person’s sex and asserted identity.”
- HB1269/SB0466 – “As introduced, specifies that a teacher or other employee of a public school or LEA is not required to refer to a student using the student’s preferred pronoun if the pronoun is not consistent with the student’s biological sex . . .”
- HB1147/SB1469 – “As introduced, clarifies that prescribing hormone treatment for minors is not a standard medical practice when the treatment is for the purpose of enabling a minor to identify with, or live as, a purported identity inconsistent with the minor’s sex or treating purported discomfort or distress from a discordance between a minor’s sex and asserted identity.”
The proposed laws are clearly alarming to Tennessee’s transgender citizens, but, whether you agree with the idea behind these bills is only one question. It is also legitimate to ask whether this much attention is warranted to this issue when, by many national measures, Tennessee has a wide range of very serious problems that our legislators might better address (IE. We are 7th in the U.S. in murders, 10th highest in gun deaths, 12th highest in child poverty, 14th highest in infant mortality).
Finally, whatever your feelings on this issue, the wisdom of legislators determining what is acceptable between doctors and their patients, as in the case of three of these bills, is certainly open to debate. Traditionally, Republicans have been opposed to government intrusion in personal life, but these bills trend in the opposite direction.
It’s against this backdrop that our legislator’s concerns have expanded to include drag shows. While being transgender and cross-dressing are not the same thing, our legislators have determined drag shows to be another area of great concern. This is part of a national push by conservative groups and it recently found expression in Knoxville with a small protest outside the Tennessee Theatre’s “A Drag Queen Christmas.”
The current bill in question on the topic is:
- HB0009/SB0003 – “As introduced, creates an offense for a person who engages in an adult cabaret performance on public property or in a location where the adult cabaret performance could be viewed by a person who is not an adult.”
While the bill summary doesn’t use the words “drag show,” the body of it does, including the clarification that, “‘adult cabaret performances” are performances featuring “topless dancers, go-go dancers, exotic dancers, strippers, male or female impersonators who provide entertainment that appeals to a prurient interest, or similar entertainers, regardless of whether or not performed for consideration.’” Of course, an open question is when does entertainment “appeal to a prurient interest?” It’s likely, as in the famous quote regarding pornography, a situation where “I’ll know it when I see it.”
All of the above prompted Knox Pride, the presenters of both the Pride Parade and Pride Fest, both massive events for many years in Knoxville, to issue a statement suggesting they will potentially cancel Pride (scheduled in October) if the bill becomes law. Governor Lee has suggested he will sign it if it reaches his desk. The Knox Pride statement, in turn, resulted in coverage on CNN and a number of other outlets across the country.
In the CNN article, Molly Gormley, press secretary for the Tennessee Senate Republican Caucus stated, “The bill does not ban drag shows in public. Under the bill, only performances that are overtly sexual would be age restricted. There has been a lot of inaccurate information claiming that the bill would ban drag shows or ban drag shows in public. The bill is specifically targeted at restricting sexually explicit performances.”
The issue of what constitutes “sexually explicit performances,” or “appeals to a prurient interest,” is a serious one. Penalties for the law include jailtime and a fine of up to $2500, with a second offense potentially carrying a six year prison sentence. That is a lot of risk based on an arresting officer and a judge’s definition of those phrases.
There are also historical overtones that may not be known to those outside or with little connection to the LGBTQ community. Homosexuality or the appearance of it was illegal in many states as late as the 1980s. The appearance of it was sometimes measured in how many pieces of the other gender’s clothing a person wore. Drag queens, while perhaps a novelty or oddity to those outside the community, played a special role in defending gay rights.
At, arguably, the the spark that ignited the entire modern gay rights movement, the Stonewall Riots in 1969, drag queens played a large role. Whether a queen threw the first brick (or whether a brick was even thrown) is debatable and probably will never be known, but that queens are admired or even revered for their role is an important point.
Given the history, a law with gender-approved clothing at its core and with the intent of determining the moral behavior of the person wearing it, is going to raise serious concerns within the gay community. And they have reason to be concerned with the ongoing environment, given deadly assaults such as that at Pulse in Orlando and, more recently (three months ago), the shooting at a gay night club in Colorado Springs.
All of the above resulted in a rally (pictured here) on Krutch Park this past Monday to protest the imposition of this range of laws. As for the Pride festival, the latest statement on the Knox Pride Facebook Page says:
We have no interest in canceling Pride Fest 2023, but we will have a long road ahead of us to figure out how to best represent our entire community not only for a weekend in October but year-round. Once we have a better idea of what we can do legally and make sure everyone in our community is represented, we will release more info on Pride Fest 2023 and the Parade. In the coming weeks, we will have more rallies, phone banks, and community engagement to lend our voice and see our way through to celebrate our community!!!
Knox Pride is urging those who are concerned, angered, or wish to support the community to:
- Visit the TN General Assembly website.
- Contact their State House Representative ASAP to demand they do not support House Bill 9 as it attempts to advance.
- Call and hold their State Senator accountable for this vote.
- Run for office against elected officials who don’t support the LGBTQIA+ community.
Editor’s Note: I realize this article brings forth strong emotions on the part of everyone involved. Please offer any opinions in a spirit of humility and community. If you attack anyone, I will remove your comment. Express your opinions with kindness or take them to another forum.