The US state of Tennessee on Thursday passed a law banning all “adult cabaret” performances featuring “topless dancers, cubists, exotic dancers, strippers, or male or female impersonators” in public spaces or where it is likely that are seen by minors under the age of 18. Even if the law doesn’t speak openly about drag queens and drag kings – artists and artists who dance, sing and do imitations wearing often deliberately exuberant clothes and makeup to extreme the femininity or masculinity of their character – the lawmakers who have worked on it have said more times that the main purpose of the measure is to limit “sexually suggestive drag queen shows” deemed inappropriate for children.
The Republican governor of Tennessee has 10 days to sign the bill and has promised to do so. After it goes into effect, the law provides for a lesser penalty for the first violation, and higher penalties for those who repeatedly violate it.
Since the beginning of the year, 20 US bills have been introduced to restrict drag shows in 15 states, all run by Republicans: some aim to force venues hosting drag events to be registered as “adult businesses”. ”, others want to block them in public places, such as libraries and parks. The measures are part of a larger wave of bills that restrict the freedoms of the LGBTQ+ community, and especially trans people, in various ways. And they’re linked to a sharp increase in violence and threats against drag show organizers and participants: In 2022 alone, rights group GLAAD calculated that more than 120 events featuring drag queens in 47 states several were attacked with targeted attacks and intimidation.
“Behind this spike in new laws is a growing conservative objection to a type of performance that has exploded into pop culture in recent years and even spilled over into hundreds of libraries through events like Drag Queen Story Hours, which aim to teach children gender diversity and acceptance through book readings and performances,” wrote Kimberly Kindy in the Washington Post. “Many Republican lawmakers pushing for these bans say their efforts are aimed at limiting children’s exposure to drag shows, not the events themselves.”
Tennessee Republican Senator Jack Johnson, the first to introduce a bill against drag shows, said he “isn’t trying to ban drag shows and he’s not trying to take away anyone’s right to free speech. But one should be able to take one’s children to a public park or library and not be surprised by a sexually explicit show.” However, drag shows usually involve neither nudity nor striptease.
The American Civil Liberties Union, a historic organization that fights for civil rights, told the New York Times that the law passed in Tennessee theoretically applies to a very limited number of performances, ie those “obscene” that include violent or overtly sexual without artistic value: since drag shows do not fall into this category and are protected by the First Amendment (the one that protects free speech), they should be excluded. Stella Yarbrough, legal director of ACLU Tennessee, however, stressed that the law could still be interpreted much more broadly to censor people and “communicate Tennessee’s LGBTQ community that they are not welcome in their state”.
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