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Banning Drag in Tennessee

March 22, 2023

On March 2, 2023, Tennessee became the first state in the country to enact a law that restricts, among other things, “adult-oriented performances” that are “harmful to minors” in public or in the presence of children. Performances cannot occur within 1,000 feet of schools, public parks, or places of worship. Those who violate the law face misdemeanor charges, punishable by a fine up to $2,500 and/or up to a year in jail.

The law doesn’t explicitly refer to drag performances, but members of and advocates for drag performers fear that in practice, drag will be under attack. Notably, the law does explicitly refer to adult-oriented performances that involve “male or female impersonators.” In other words, with this cruel and offensive language, many think legislators mean to include drag shows. And LGBTQIA+ advocates note that this language is broad enough to include trans and gender-nonconforming folks.

This criminalization of the LGBTQIA+ community will surely have devastating effects. Drag, a form of “expressive conduct” or “symbolic speech” under the First Amendment, will likely be forced underground. Henry Seaton notes that trans and gender nonconforming folks will likely have increased contact with the police and criminal legal system. (And Natasha Lennard reminds us that “certain trans and other gender-nonconforming people are already policed and treated as criminal without the need for new laws.”)

The law’s consequences are real, material, and devastating. We at the Woodhull Freedom Foundation firmly oppose the criminalization of drag and LGBTQIA+ folks, and we encourage you to take action. Donate to ACLU’s Drag Defense Fund here.


A photo of a drag queen performing.

A person performs in drag, wearing a long sleeved red leotard. (Mickey Bernal/Getty Images)

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