Having banned abortion and trans medical care, Tennessee is “upping their shame game” with the nation’s first (ludicrously ambiguous, likely unconstitutional) law criminalizing drag shows as part of the GOP’s histrionic assault on all things trans, queer or “other.” As critics blast the move as hateful “political theater” meant to “legislate gender non-conformity out of existence,” the country-punk band Vandoliers took a more direct, hairy approach, donning dresses for a Tennessee show and declaring, “Fuck a drag bill.”
Arriving amidst a nationwide deluge of over 300 anti-LGBTQ+ bills passed or introduced by a malignant GOP last year—most taking aim at trans youth by restricting health care, sports participation, bathroom use or Medicaid coverage—last week’s signing of the Tennessee anti-drag bill led the way for at least 10 other GOP-led states pushing similar moves to restrict/ban male performers from playing with gender norms by—sweet Jesus—dancing, singing, or lip-synching in often-flamboyantly feminine dresses and make-up. Using inflammatory rhetoric about “groomers,” supporters of these noble efforts—it turns out “straight from history’s playbook”—inevitably frame them as “protecting the children,” who are clearly averse to the notion of dress-up and who could be scarred for life by too much glitter and greasepaint; in happy contrast, they’ll be just fine seeing classmates gunned down in cold blood by a school shooter.
Tennessee’s bill restricts “adult cabaret performances” in public or in the presence of children; it defines such performance as featuring topless dancers, go-go dancers, exotic dancers, strippers or “male or female impersonators who (appeal) to a prurient interest.” Because even GOP lawmakers, who control the state House and Senate, have evidently heard of the First Amendment and aren’t eager to enter the legal morass that comes with violating it, they didn’t try to ban such shows outright, but carefully added revisions requiring it be “harmful to minors.”
Still, many argue the effort, in fact rooted not in rectitude but bigotry and performative outrage, remains legally iffy. Experts say that, even with its sly go-arounds, it probably violates the First Amendment; given the state’s existing obscenity laws, it doesn’t ban anything that wasn’t already illegal, and drag queens reading Go Dog Go at story hours are unlikely to meet that legal definition; other statutes place a high enough bar on “harm” to kids—imminent risks like violence or abuse—to similarly ensure family-friendly drag brunches don’t cause it; and the law is so constitutionally vague it may not be enforceable.
Most ominously, critics suggest it’s designed mostly as a scare tactic—to make business owners and performers uncertain of their rights, and to criminalize queer or trans people for simply being in public. In short, it enters enough uncharted territory that, for example, it could target the guy who last week signed it into law: GOP Gov. Bill Lee, who in a now-famous photo in his 1977 Franklin High Yearbook, appears in dress, wig and pearls as one “Hard Luck Woman.” At a recent press gathering, Lee was livid when The Tennessee Holler asked about the photo, fuming, “What a ridiculous, ridiculous question that is,” huffily arguing it was totally different from “sexualized entertainment in front of children” even though everyone knows drag isn’t sexual and Lee was, at the time, on school grounds. As Lee fled to his car, the intrepid reporter followed. “Is this you, Governor?” he asked. “Is it only illegal when gay people do it?”
By way of defiant response, enter the Texas-based, six-piece, manly-man Vandoliers—“Socially punk. Fiscally country”—who in a “small act” of solidarity performed their set at a Maryville, Tenn. smokehouse, juke joint and Harley shop last week in dresses, and generous beards and tattoos be damned. Recently returned from the Outlaw Country Cruise and now on tour, they hit the stage the same day Lee signed the bill to Shania Twain’s “I Feel Like a Woman!” and launched into a set-list that included, “Don’t Tell Me What To Do.” A few bigots left, but “tons of old timers and alpha bros (came up) saying, ‘Man, that was fun.'” “Friends and fans in the LGBTQ+ community (are) a big part of my heart,” said singer Joshua Fleming. “(This was to say) we see you, we stand with you, and we’ll fight alongside you.” Still, he acknowledged, “It was a terrible drag show—the drag community is much better than us.”
Afterwards, they auctioned off all six dresses, raising $2,277 for Knox Pride and the Tennessee Equality Project. Online, their fans cheered: “This is the original definition of outlaw,” “Y’all are the best,” “This…is…everything.” The Liberal Redneck also did a drag show fundraiser, in high school in “my beloved Tennessee…No, I did not win. My most redneck-ass buddy won by totally slutting it up.” Today, he slams his state for “throwing the funnest people you know in jail for dressing like Dolly Parton.” “These people’s bigotry is ancient,” he says. “It’s not the practice they hate, it’s the person. A guy in a dress must be kidding, a gay in a dress must be stopped. But we know what they’re doing—they’re trying to legislate these people out of existence.”
ON TENNESSEE BANNING DRAG SHOWS pic.twitter.com/64woa2eK7P
— Trae Crowder (@traecrowder) February 27, 2023
Common Dreams has been providing breaking news & views for the progressive community since 1997. They are independent, non-profit, advertising-free and 100% reader supported.