Suppression of Expression: Tennessee’s Anti-Drag Laws

“Topless dancers, go-go dancers, exotic dancers, strippers, and male or female impersonators,” reads Tennessee’s House Bill 9. Which of these is not like the others?

On February 23, Tennessee passed a bill to ban all of these groups from providing entertainment that appeals to a “prurient interest,” whether intentional or not, where minors may be present. The bill is an amendment that adds the aforementioned groups to the definition of “adult cabaret” in Tennessee’s existing obscenity laws. Twelve other states have proposed similar legislation that will restrict performances that include “male and female impersonators.” A proposed bill in West Virginia would even require parents who bring their children to drag performances to attend parenting classes. If male and female impersonators were actually inherently sexual, there would be no need to specify the allegedly explicit content of drag shows, as they would be banned by existing obscenity laws. These bills may be proposed as protecting the children, but the only accomplishment is the stigmatization of gender fluidity and LGBTQIA+ identities. 

Supporters of these bills have typically argued that drag shows are dangerous to children because gender fluidity is somehow confusing. “We’re not banning drag, drag is fine,” Jack Johnson, Tennessee’s State Senator, says in an interview on News Max, “but if anyone crosses the line into something that is sexually graphic and explicit, then it should be age-restricted.” However, what’s confusing is not drag queens, but the vagueness in these bills that will lead to homophobic interpretations and unfair convictions. Who’s to say what a “male or female impersonator” is? Not only does this bill target drag shows, it also targets anyone who does not align with gender stereotypes. Plenty of theater performances include male actors dressing as women, from prominent Shakespeare plays such as As You Like It, to contemporary Broadway shows like Matilda the Musical. Are those performances crimes? If a man dresses up as a woman for a lighthearted school event, would that be a crime? If so, Governor Bill Lee, who excitedly endorses this bill, should be charged for dressing in a cheerleader’s uniform and a wig. Yet when confronted with a photo of himself dressed in “drag,” he simply claimed that it was ridiculous to equate a high school tradition to “sexualized entertainment.” Lee’s response begs the question: is drag only a crime when the LGBTQIA+ community participates? Clearly, these claims are not about protecting children so much as they’re about targeting the LGBTQIA+ community. Drag is not about displaying sexual orientation. Its intent is to allow people to express themselves and feel good in their bodies — a facet of every variety of performance. 

The real solution to a child’s potential confusion is education, not censorship. Politicians who are concerned about a child’s ability to comprehend gender fluidity should be supportive of discussing these topics in a classroom setting, rather than prohibiting them. Instead, politicians have been implementing restrictions on when gender and sexuality can be mentioned in schools. Five out of the ten most-banned books in America are banned for their inclusion of LGBTQ+ identities. Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law prohibits the discussion of gender identity or sexual orientation in grades kindergarten to third, and the state government is currently looking to expand this to grades kindergarten to 12th. However, the topics of gender and sexuality are inevitable discussions in every person’s life. Gender identity is relevant in every person’s existence whether they are transgender or cisgender. Censoring topics that will become relevant in a child’s life bullies them into believing that their identity is somehow “wrong,” therefore robbing their ability to process their feelings in the context of their identity. 

Drag is an expression of art, and its tool is gender. It allows people to question the social constructs of what gender can look like, while empowering them to retract negative stereotypes surrounding femininity. Being comfortable within one’s skin and gender is important to understanding our place in the world, and feeling like we all actually belong somewhere. This comfort is only amplified by the tight-knit community that drag has woven together — a community which will not be torn down by hateful Americans. No matter how hard politicians try to prevent gender fluidity, it will continue to continue to exist with the passion of this community. The fact that so many politicians are devoting their time to restricting the right to self expression is absurd, embarrassing, and simply unconstitutional.

If politicians were genuinely worried about American children, they would be worried about preventing their deaths rather than encouraging laws that stigmatize their identities. According to the Trevor Project, approximately 45 percent of LGBTQIA+ youth have seriously considered suicide. They are four times more likely to attempt suicide than straight children in the United States of America. With so many children at such great risk, our country should be working to accept and understand other identities. These bills will not “save the children.” This lie, whether intentional or not, stigmatizing LGBTQIA+ identities and makes this country more dangerous for its youth.

Ultimately, stigmatizing the discussions of gender identity and sexual orientation does not prevent children from thinking about these aspects of identity. From firsthand experience, I can tell you that children in grades kindergarten to third are beginning to grasp ideas of gender and apply them to their classmates — whether or not teachers facilitate discussions. I have dressed in opposition to the “stereotypical girl” for as long as I have been able to make decisions, and frequently been mistaken for a boy because of it. From as far back as early elementary school, I was questioned by kids who were confused why someone who “looked like a boy” was using the girls bathroom. I was not trying to confuse anyone — I just wanted to cut my hair short and wear Spiderman shoes. Similar experiences continued throughout my life, and only made public bathrooms stressful. This bill, then, is a personal issue for me, because people have considered me a male impersonator. Throughout my life, I have been made to choose between the women’s bathroom, where I’d risk someone’s unwelcome comments, or the men’s bathroom, where I’d be a teenage girl surrounded by grown men. Avoiding discussions about gender did not shield me from the complications of gender stereotypes and roles in our society. In fact, the absence of these conversations only hindered my ability to accept my identity and understand how the world perceived me.

Now, I’ve become confident enough in myself to know that I shouldn’t be targeted for the way I choose to express myself. But that took me years to recognize, and this process can be much easier for so many children. Criminalizing drag only makes the process of realizing that more difficult. Leaders in this country should be worried about helping young kids understand that gender is fluid and no one’s identity is wrong. That’s what we’ve really needed all along.