jakub | March 12, 2023

A Tennessee Bill Has Banned Certain Drag Performances in the State—Could It Apply to Theatre?


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A Tennessee Bill Has Banned Certain Drag Performances in the State—Could It Apply to Theatre?

Though the bill does not mention the word “drag,” it bans “male and female impersonator” performances in certain venues.


John Cameron Mitchell in Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Peppermint in Head Over Heals

A new state bill was signed into law in Tennessee this week, which bans performances featuring “topless, go-go or exotic dancers, strippers, or male or female impersonators,” from being staged on public property or anywhere a child could potentially see it. Venues that do stage these performances, in order to comply with the bill, would need to redefine themselves as “adult cabaret” venues. 

Though the language of the bill is hazy and the word “drag” is not specifically mentioned in the bill, some speculate that it could be aimed at particularly at drag performances. The bill's wording references “male or female impersonators,” which some view as dog-whistle phrasing targeting drag shows. Such language could even be interpreted as a ban on the presence of trans performers onstage in general, regardless of their character's identity or the plot of the show.

With this bill, any show featuring an artist dressing or performing outside of their gender identity could be prohibited from being staged in certain Tennessee venues, with musicals like Tootsie, Mrs. Doubtfire, Hairspray, and Kinky Boots fitting the description. Even The Phantom of the Opera briefly features a scene—the fictional Il Muto opera—where Christine Daaé dresses as a male servant. 

Still, some legal experts deduce that the application of this bill towards drag performances will not be as easy to execute as some may think. Republican state senator and sponsor of the bill Jack Johnson claimed in an interview with CNN that the bill is not meant to target drag performers, but to “put age restrictions in place to ensure that children are not present at sexually explicit performances.” But others are gravely concerned for just how many different types of performances can fall under this umbrella, due to the bill's broad wording.

Actor's Equity Association has issued the following statement regarding the bill:

“We want to be extremely clear that performing artists across our country are protected from government overreach by the First Amendment. We are prepared to defend our right to safe and harassment-free workplaces. For centuries, performers have worn costumes that society deems inconsistent with the sex they were assigned at birth. The Ancient Greeks did it, Elizabethans performing Shakespeare’s plays did it and contemporary artists do it too. We will not stand quietly by while our traditions or our work – in shows like Peter Pan, Hairspray, Chicago, Rent, Angels in America and too many more to name – are reclassified as obscenity by ridiculous politicians. Culture wars are not bloodless, and they are rarely isolated. Escalating rhetoric can quickly lead to unsafe conditions. Right now, the harm in Tennessee is focused on both personal and performance-based gender identity. We will not tolerate gender-based threats or violence…We stand in solidarity with drag performers. We also stand with young Tennesseans who are affirming their own gender. We see you, we value you and we know you will remember this when you’re old enough to vote. To everyone else in Tennessee: your beautiful state deserves better. Please stop electing these people.”

The bill is part of a larger anti-trans and anti-queer legislative movement in Tennessee and across the country, particularly in conservative states. Tennessee Governor Bill Lee has also approved legislation that prevents gender-affirming healthcare for trans youth, and another proposed bill calls for a ban on the ability to change one's gender on a driver's license. 

This legislation also arrives on the heels of numerous states implementing book bans in schools, and in the recent memory of the theatre community, the cancellation of a high school production of Paula Vogel's Indecent due to what students believe was an act of anti-LGBTQ+ censorship.

The bill will take effect on July 1. You can read the full legislature here.





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