New Tennessee bill banning ‘male or female impersonators’ in public could criminalize drag performers and trans people

The pre-filed bill, which will be taken up next year, would make it a crime to do drag where it “could be viewed by a person who is not an adult”

Senate Bill 3, filed for introduction the day after the midterm election by Republican state senator and majority leader Jack Johnson, would classify “male or female impersonators who provide entertainment that appeals to a prurient interest” as “adult cabaret performance.” 

If passed, drag artists would be banned from performing “on public property,” or anywhere they “could be viewed by a person who is not an adult,” according to the bill’s wording. It will be debated in the next legislative session, which begins January 10, 2023.

Alejandra Caraballo, an instructor at Harvard Law School’s Cyberlaw clinic, wrote that the bill’s vague language was designed to apply beyond drag performers.

“The language of ‘male or female impersonators’ could be applied to trans people for simply existing as themselves,” she wrote in a tweet. “They’re not just going after drag queens, they are trying to criminalize trans and queer people in public spaces.” 

Activist Erin Reed called the bill “terrifying.”

“This [bill] is so vague that it could be targeted at trans actors, comedians, story hours,” she tweeted.

SB3 proposed that first “offenses” would be classified as a Class A misdemeanour, punishable by up to a year in prison and/or fines of up to $2,500. Second or repeat infractions would be Class E felonies, with prison sentences of up to six years and fines of up to $3,000. 

The bill comes as part of a wider right-wing push to separate children from anything LGBTQ2S+ related. Lawmakers in states like Florida and Texas—both of which also maintained Republican control in the midterms—have brought up legal bans on all-ages drag shows, and right-wing groups and individuals have threatened family-friendly drag events across the U.S. and Canada.

Conservative attacks on drag come on the heels of many Republican-controlled states—including Tennessee—passing legislation that targets gender affirming healthcare or youth sports participation.

Last year saw the Tennessee legislature pass a bathroom bill that bans trans people from using the correct restroom in public schools; laws that bans trans kids from playing on the correct sports team and laws that mandate parents be given a 30-day period to opt children out of sexual orientation or gender identity curriculum.

 

Earlier this year, the state extended the trans sports ban by passing a law to withhold funding from schools that let trans students play as their correct gender. And last month, house lawmakers tried to pressure Vanderbilt University Medical Center into halting gender affirming care for trans youth.

A “bathroom sign law” that passed in 2021—which mandated that establishments who let trans people use the correct restroom had signs announcing that policy—was struck down by the state supreme court in May.

Republicans control all state-level power in Tennessee, holding the Governor’s office, a 21-seat majority in the state senate and a 51-seat majority in the state house of representatives in the wake of Tuesday’s midterm elections. 

On the same day as SB3 was introduced, two other bills aiming to roll back LGBTQ2S+ rights were introduced to the Tennessee legislature. Senate Bill 1 and House Bill 1 would criminalize gender affirming care that allows minors “to identify with, or live as, a purported identity inconsistent with the minor’s sex.” 

While a similar bill to restrict gender affirming care for youth and classify it as child abuse, HB578, failed to pass in 2021, it remains to be seen whether the current anti-LGBTQ2S+ bills will meet the same fate.

V.S. Wells

V. S. Wells is a British writer living in Vancouver, B.C., with bylines in Slate, VICE and Autostraddle. Please stop asking them about Brexit.

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