On March 2nd, 2023, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee signed a bill into law that makes public drag performances illegal. The law classifies “male or female impersonators” as an “adult cabaret performance” and bans them from public property or anywhere they could potentially be seen by minors. People convicted of their first offense would face misdemeanor charges, punishable by up to a year in prison, while anyone convicted a second time would face felony charges and could be jailed for up to six years.
Many organizations, such as the ACLU, have publicly condemned this law by saying that its terms are vague and that it deliberately seeks to harm the LGBTQIA+ community. The law makes no differentiation between people in drag and transgender people, meaning that it would be possible for a trans person in Tennessee to be arrested for doing anything that could possibly be classified as “harmful to minors.” There is also no distinction between a “male or female impersonator” and an actor, meaning someone performing a role of a different gender in a play could receive criminal charges.
“The language is vague enough that…They could say I, just going about my daily life, am an ‘impersonator,’’ said Dahron Johnson, a trans outreach worker, in an interview with the New York Times.
Performers across America have been affected by this law. A New York drag queen who goes by Monalisa said that, “I’m performing not for myself but for my sisters and brothers in the LGBTQIA community in Tennessee–legislation was just passed that will essentially force our community back into the closet.”
Gov. Bill Lee also recently signed a ban into law on gender-affirming healthcare being given to minors in the state.
The law states, “that medical procedures that alter a minor’s hormonal balance…are harmful to a minor when these medical procedures are performed for the purpose of enabling a minor to identify with… a purported identity inconsistent with the minor’s sex.”
This bill only states that gender-affirming care is harmful for trans children and teenagers. Cisgender minors are still permitted to receive hormone therapies, which are common among both cis and trans teenagers. Gender-affirming care for trans teenagers has been shown to reduce suicide rates by up to 73%. Groups like the ACLU and the Trevor Project, a nonprofit focused on suicide prevention for queer youth, have condemned this law.
The Trevor Project stated that, “decisions about transgender medical care should be made between trans patients, their doctors, and their families. Politicians have no business deciding these personal matters.”
Despite the 2015 Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, which legalized same-sex marriage throughout the United States, Tennessee also recently passed a bill allowing individual county clerks to deny marriage licenses to queer couples based on religious beliefs. It also threatens the rights of interracial couples, whose marriages were legalized nationwide in the 1967 Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia, and anyone else whose relationship could potentially go against a clerk’s personal “conscience or religious beliefs,” according to the language of the bill.
Tennessee’s recent new laws are indicative of a wider pattern across the United States. 487 anti-trans bills have been introduced in a total of 46 states in 2023 alone.