Voices: Why the Tennessee ban on drag shows should terrify us all

Eureka O’Hara from Tennessee  speaks at Universal Studios Backlot on June 11, 2022 in California (Getty Images For CTAOP)
Eureka O’Hara from Tennessee speaks at Universal Studios Backlot on June 11, 2022 in California (Getty Images For CTAOP)

Several weeks ago, I went to Walmart wearing a long, flowing dress. “Excuse me, sir,” a woman said to me, before taking a second look. “I mean, ma’am.”

“You were right the first time,” I told her, laughing. “I’m just a man in a dress.”

“Oh!” she exclaimed. “Well, you’re still pretty.”

Most folks here in East Tennessee have a similar reaction to me, a gender nonconforming gay man with both Dolly Parton and Karl Marx stickers on his car. There’s a real “live and let live” mentality among most of our people, who are good and decent and strong believers in individual liberty and minding one’s own business. Most of the state even supports equal marriage. The people of Tennessee are not foaming-at-the-mouth bigots.

This week, the governor signed a bill banning public drag performances in the Volunteer State. The first offense is a misdemeanor and the second a felony. This will affect not only the oft – and incorrectly – maligned drag queen story hours of far-right nightmares, but, as critics have pointed out, could be used against transgender people performing in any shows as well LGBT+ Pride parades. Democratic State Representative Johnny Ray Clemmons even warned that the bill is so vaguely worded that it could lead to the arrest of musical artists like Beyonce when they perform in Tennessee.

The ACLU of Tennessee has correctly reminded lawmakers that “dance, fashion, and music – essential components of a drag performance – are all protected by the First Amendment,” calling the bill “a malicious attempt to remove LGBTQ people from public life.” I agree. This bill, which will likely be signed by reactionary Republican Governor Bill Lee, already has me questioning whether I wish to or even can remain in the state.

That is no doubt part of the point. It is a legislative gay bashing. It is not the only point, though. This law is a full-frontal assault not just on the LGBT+ community, but on liberty itself.

This is an attack on individual freedoms of speech (drag is a form of speech). It is an attack on collective freedoms of assembly, and could ban Pride parades. It is an attack on parental rights, something the right purports to care about yet ignores the fact that no one is forcing parents to take their kids to drag queen story hours. Some parents might choose to expose their children to gender non-conformity – something that in itself is not “prurient,” a word lifted directly from the bill and which is so subjective that it opens the doors to all kinds of abuses of state power and oppressive interpretations.

That is, of course, the point. This bill is not being passed solely to limit the rights of drag performers, gender non-conforming folks, and transgender people – though that is of course a happy consequence. It is designed to allow the Republicans who possess a stranglehold on Tennessee government and law enforcement agencies to use state power to curtail the rights of their political opponents. The verbiage is vague because it is meant to be.

None of this is accidental, an oversight of an over-aggressive homophobic and transphobic legislature. It is all part of a wider authoritarian takeover of the United States. The Tennessee drag ban is but one example of the far-right testing the limits of what it can and cannot get away with.

On Friday, The New York Timespublished an op-ed from North Dakota writer Taylor Brorby on that state’s House Bill 1205, which would ban libraries from holding or lending “books that contain explicit sexual material,” which could include books about puberty. Senate Bill 2360, meanwhile, would ban “objectionable materials” from being shown to minors – a seemingly innocuous goal, except the definition of “objectionable materials” is so vague that “a photograph or even written description of the Venus de Milo could – depending on the eye of the beholder – be out of bounds,” Brorby points out. Librarians who violate the law could end up in jail.

In Florida, meanwhile, Governor Ron DeSantis’ targeting higher education in that state was trending on Twitter. As Jeremy C Young, the senior manager of free expression and education at the PEN America Foundation, tweeted in a thread explaining the contents of the Florida bill, DeSantis’ plan “would end academic freedom, shared governance, and university independent in [Florida] public higher education in favor of one man’s authoritarian control of public university decisions.”

These bills do not exist in isolation from one another. Rather, they show a Republican Party that is determined to impose harsh limits on speech, expression, and assembly on the rest of us. These states are testing grounds for a national authoritarian crackdown on anything the far right dislikes, from gay pride parades to diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives to, eventually, free and fair elections themselves.

Which brings me back to Tennessee and the woman I encountered in Walmart. I firmly believe that the majority of my neighbors are good and decent patriots who believe in the First Amendment as strongly as I do. The problem is that Republicans have so badly gerrymandered Tennessee and states like it that they’ve essentially turned us into one-party state. One-party states love to curb the rights to assembly and speech of its opposition, so this authoritarian drag ban is a logical progression for a party that has ensured its grip on power is ironclad.

They haven’t (yet) stolen all our rights, though. Students in Florida showed all of us – whether in North Dakota, Tennessee, or anywhere else in America – how to fight back. Yesterday, hundreds of them walked out of class to protest DeSantis’ autocratic takeover of higher education in the Sunshine State.

We must emulate their action across the nation. Authoritarianism is on the march, so we must be too. We cannot allow the right to continue this national assault on liberty and our constitutional rights. This is about individual liberty and protecting the right to free expression and a robust exchange of ideas in the public square.

Whether you like drag or not, whether you’re gender non-conforming or not, whether you want to attend college in Florida or will never use a North Dakota library, these laws should alarm and outrage any freedom-loving American. We must stand up against these unreasonable and frankly fascistic assaults on our hard-won, long-held rights. This is a battle for the very democracy our forefathers fought and died for, for the freedoms they won us.

So, it is time that we take to the streets in droves, whether we are gay or trans or drag queens or not. It is time that musical artists, major corporations, and sports teams speak up and – if this bill is signed into law – boycott Tennessee, because take it from someone who lives here, a boycott is the only language this legislature might listen to. And it is time for the rest of us to fight like hell for the rights our forefathers and foremothers fought and bled and died for.

This is our state and our country, too, and I will not surrender my sacred rights to a bunch of reactionary bigots who insist on imposing their own limited and hateful ideology on the rest of us. Bill Lee, Ron DeSantis, and Republicans everywhere are openly assaulting American liberty and democracy. Freedom-loving patriots are ready to meet this moment, though, just as Americans of past generations have been called to do from Seneca Falls to Selma to Stonewall.

I’m here. I’m queer. I’m an American. And you will have to pry the Constitution out of my cold, dead, perfectly manicured hands.