The June 9 show “Drag Down South,” hosted by the Atlanta Eagle, showed support for the Atlanta’s drag community in light of the anti-LGBTQ legislation passed in many states nationwide. / Photo by Russell Bowen-Youngblood

Across the Country, GOP-Led State Legislatures Push Anti-Drag Legislation

On March 2, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee signed into law Tennessee Senate Bill 3, commonly referred to as the “Anti-Drag Bill.” While the bill never explicitly mentions drag performances, the carefully constructed language is undeniably meant to target drag performances, banning “adult cabaret performance” as well as “male or female impersonators who provide entertainment that appeals to a prurient interest,” from being performed in public or spaces where children are present. Had the bill gone into effect, it would have stopped any drag performances at festivals or parades, as well as drag story hours for children, which have become an increasingly popular way of showing kids a more diverse portrait of their communities.

 

While the bill was supposed to go into effect on April 1, Tennessee district judge Thomas Parker blocked its enforcement on the basis that the bill’s language is “unconstitutionally vague and substantially overbroad,” as stated in Parker’s decision ruling. Any law that seeks to restrict free speech must be precise and state exactly why that form of speech violates the First Amendment, which the Tennessee Republican Party failed to do.

 

Last year, Florida governor and 2024 presidential candidate Ron DeSantis tried to pass a law restricting minors from attending drag shows, even threatening to require Child Protective Services to investigate parents who took their children to drag shows, but the bill was unsuccessful. DeSantis proposed another bill in 2023, which was also struck down by a Florida judge.

 

But while Tennessee’s law has been temporarily blocked, the bill came incredibly close to being put into effect, with the judge’s decision handed down only days before it would have been enforced. While Tennessee’s attempt at banning drag has failed, it has not stopped other GOP-led state legislatures from using similar language and methods to author and bring forth other antidrag laws. In Florida, West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona, South Carolina, and Kentucky — among others — similar bills have been brought to the house floor and are being discussed.

 

The similarities between the various bills are apparent and concerning to many members of the LGBTQ community and its allies. Language such as “adult performances,” “adult cabaret,” and “sexually explicit performances” are used in all these bills in an attempt to target drag shows. The ACLU has condemned the bills and started a Drag Defense Fund to help support lawsuits that challenge the proposed laws. They also partnered with the hit TV show, “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” which highlighted the need to combat these bills on the season 15 finale in April.

 

In a news and commentary piece published on the ACLU website, digital producer Johanna Silver explicitly condemned these bills.

 

“These bills censor a fundamental human right to freedom of expression and attempt to remove LGBTQ people from public life,” Silver wrote.

 

Other activists have critiqued these bills for trying to ban what is essentially an art form in the LGBTQ community, and one that has a long history in the United States.

 

The use of the word ‘drag’ to refer to drag performances can be traced all the way back to the 1870s. In the 1880s, William Dorsey Swann — a formerly enslaved man who was freed after the Civil War — was the first person recorded in the United States who referred to himself as a drag queen. In recent decades, drag has become more widely accepted and popular, thanks in part to shows such as “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” which have shown drag to wider audiences and helped normalize an art form that was kept under wraps for so long.

 

Additionally, California and Arizona governors Gavin Newsom and Katie Hobbs have both called out GOP state legislatures for what Newsom described as an “assault on the Gay Lesbian Bisexual and Trans community.” Governor Hobbs has vowed to veto an antidrag bill that has been advanced to the Arizona Senate.

 

Apart from politicians, many celebrities are also taking up the mantle of activist alongside RuPaul in speaking out against antidrag and anti-LGBTQ laws, such as Mark Ruffalo, who shared on his Mastodon account:

 

“We can’t sit back and watch our trans brothers and sisters and favorite drag artists be attacked,” he said.

 

In May, big Hollywood names such as Charlize Theron, Jesse Eisenberg, and Billy Eichner — among many others — participated in the “Drag Isn’t Dangerous” telethon, which raised more than $500,000 to be donated to LGBTQ charities and organizations.

 

While these bills are being proposed across the country, along with other anti-LGBTQ bills, organizations like the ACLU have made it clear that they plan to fight in every state to ensure that every resident in America maintains their rights to freedom of speech and expression.