Charlie Brown with Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens receiving the city’s Phoenix Award at the mayor’s Pride reception on Oct. 4, 2022 at Atlanta City Hall. / Courtesy photo

Tennessee’s Drag Ban is Far More Dangerous than Anything I Ever Faced in the 1970s

Here’s why…

 

Way back in 1971 at start of my drag career at the Watch Your Hat and Coat Saloon in Nashville, we had to enter and leave the club on Second Avenue with our drag concealed in a garbage bag. We were equally careful to enter the club as men in our street clothes and to scrub our faces free of makeup before leaving each night.

Otherwise, you could encounter a redneck looking for an excuse to beat up a faggot in a dress.

Now, over 50 years later, reading the news coverage of the drag ban that goes into effect April 1 in my home state of Tennessee, I feel sick to my stomach. The hate-filled redneck bullies are no longer lurking in the alley waiting to beat us up after work. In 2023, they’ve been elected to the Tennessee state legislature. They work at the state capitol. They reside in the governor’s mansion.

And I’m here to tell you as someone who performed in drag on stage 50 years ago in Nashville at the Watch Your Hat and Coat and later, at The Cabaret in Printer’s Alley and The Carousel in Knoxville, Tennessee’s new law is far more dangerous than anything we ever faced back in the 1970s. I say that as a drag queen who was on stage in 1973 when someone intentionally set fire to the Watch Your Hat and Coat and burned that packed club to the ground.

Under this new Tennessee law, drag performers could face six months in jail on a misdemeanor charge for a first offense. The second time, it’s a felony punishable by up to six years in prison. So, if you ride on a float in a pride parade or read a storybook to children in a public library, you’re risking arrest and jail  — for entertaining people. (Editor’s note: On March 31, hours before the new law was set to begin, a federal judge temporarily halted the ban, citing concerns about the constitutionality of the new law).

In contrast, aside from requiring all performers to get an entertainer’s license from the City of Nashville and making us put a Mr. in front of our stage names so our audiences knew we were men in dresses, the cops didn’t really mess with us back in the 1970s. In fact, they used to sit in the audience. Hell, the mayor of Nashville himself, Beverly Briley would bring guests to our shows.

Now at age 73, as someone who has performed in drag all over the world, it tears me up to see things slide backwards. I’m currently working on my memoirs, so I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting lately. Back in the early 1980s, Atlanta hosted Much Ado About Midtown, which was a family-friendly weekend-long street party. And Illusions, the drag show bar on Peachtree Street where I worked at the time, was ground zero for the festivities.

All weekend long, we entertained families at special afternoon drag shows. The material was completely clean and family-friendly. I went out and performed Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5” and the kids loved it. Seeing the expressions of amazement and joy on their faces made getting into a wig and a dress while the sun was up all worth it. I have no idea if they knew we were men in dresses or if they thought we were Disney princesses. All I know is they laughed, clapped and had a good time. We weren’t backstage thinking, “Hey, there are kids out there. Let’s go groom them!” Honestly? All I was ever concerned about was making sure none of the more colorful words in my vocabulary I routinely used in the late-night show accidentally popped out of my mouth at three o’clock in the afternoon.

Like our drag sisters in Tennessee, we’re now strategizing here in Georgia as well. I’ve told my entertainers at the Atlanta Eagle to start saving their money. Why? Because these hate-filled culture war bills are spreading like wildfire in state legislatures across the country. And just like Tennessee Governor Bill Lee immediately signing the new drag ban, Georgia Governor Brian Kemp couldn’t get the cap off his pen fast enough to sign Georgia’s new ban on gender-affirming care for transgender kids under 18. I told my girls last weekend at our Saturday night show at the Eagle, it’s coming. Be prepared. It’s only a matter of time before Georgia follows Tennessee’s lead on criminalizing drag entertainers and attempting to deny us an opportunity to make a living doing what we love — making people happy.

Here’s some free advice for Governor Kemp: There are hundreds of thousands of queer voters in the state of Georgia. The economic repercussions of a drag ban could be far-reaching. For example, each weekend I perform in the drag brunch at Lips Atlanta where we entertain hundreds of straight women celebrating their birthdays and bachelorette parties with us. Such a ban would impact them as well. And with your lofty future political aspirations beyond the governor’s mansion, how many of us tax-paying voters do you want to risk alienating? Oh, and please remember this — us drag queens are very good at organizing, especially when our civil rights are on the line. If you doubt that, I have one word for you — Stonewall.

As the grandson of a Tennessee Missionary Baptist preacher, I would ask the legislators passing these hate-filled laws in my home state to consider the following: In March, a Memphis youth pastor was sentenced to 45 years in federal prison for exploiting children. In Chattanooga, a youth pastor and former PTA president has been charged with three counts of child molestation. Meanwhile, a youth pastor in Knoxville was arrested for sexual battery and is now listed on the Tennessee Sex Offender Registry. And in Nashville, a person with a small arsenal of weapons just shot their way into a Christian school and killed three nine-year-olds sitting in their classrooms.

Drag queens are the least of your problems.

Editor’s note: This op-ed was republished with permission from Eldredge ATL.