KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — On Thursday, the Tennessee Senate advanced a bill that could criminalize drag performances in public areas across the state. Knox Pride said that if it is signed by Governor Bill Lee, they would cancel the 2023 Knox Pride Festival in October.
The festival is Knox Pride's biggest fundraiser. In October 2022, around 66,000 people attended the event. They said the funds go to support programs that help survivors of domestic abuse, provide resources through food pantries, provide classes on different life skills, help young people experiencing homelessness, and many other kinds of programs.
“If this moves forward into law, the Knox Pride Festival, and potentially the Parade, would be against the law in the ways we have presented entertainment in support of the LGBTQIA+ community. You can no longer say you’re an ally if you are not helping us fight this,” said John Camp.
He said the bill could make the festival illegal since it's held outdoors. But he said since it's so large, it has to be held outdoors. In 2022, it was held at World's Fair Park.
"We wouldn't be able to have drag performances, and that's a huge part of us celebrating who we are and our community, is having that performance aspect and standing in solidarity with our drag brothers and sisters. It doesn't make a lot of sense," said Camp.
He also said the bill's boundaries were ambiguous to Knox Pride and could prevent transgender people from wearing gender-affirming clothing in public.
"I think that's purposeful to confuse people or they just, you know, I think a lot of our elected officials don't think people care or they don't think they're intelligent enough to keep up and they just vote with buzzwords," he said.
Knox Pride said Friday it will be holding a rally at the Krutch Park Extention on Feb. 13 at 5 p.m. in coordination with Pride organizations across the state in Memphis, Chattanooga, Nashville and the Tri-Cities.
The bill is SB 0003 and was introduced by Senator Jack Johnson (R - Franklin). It was recently amended to say that "adult-oriented performances" could only be held in adult-oriented venues. Tom Lee, an attorney and outside counsel for the Tennessee Pride Chamber, said it would include drag performances as "adult-oriented performances."
"Drag is Tootsie drag is Mrs. Doubtfire. Drag is a Tom Hanks 'Bosom Buddies' TV series on ABC. It is just another means of expressing a character in the arts," he said. "It is and always has been a way of self-expression that is protected by the Constitution, just as every other means of self-expression is constitutionally safeguarded."
Drag performances have appeared at the Tennessee Theatre for many years, such as a late 2017 performance of "Kinky Boots," which prominently features men in women's clothing. During the show, a down-on-his-luck businessman revives his father's failing shoe company with the help of a drag queen.
The amended bill would legally define "adult cabaret entertainment" as harmful to minors. According to Tennessee State Code, something is harmful to minors if "the average person applying contemporary community standards to appeal predominantly to the prurient, shameful or morbid interests of minors."
It also says the performance is harmful to minors if it lacks "serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value." Many all-ages drag performances feature performers reading stories to children or performing magic tricks.
"What's a prurient interest? That's a term that's also in existing law, and it's an existing obscenity law. The definition is worth reading. It's quite sad. It is a 'morbid interest' in sexuality. It isn't sexy. It's something that's really awful, such that it is obscene. In other words, it's not 'sexiness.' It's not dressing in a sexually provocative way. It is morbidly, that is to say deathly, odd," said Lee.
Sen. Johnson claimed that "prurient interest" is well understood in Tennessee case law during the Senate session on Thursday. He also pointed to videos that were shared on social media, claiming those drag performances were "overtly sexual."
It would also prevent business owners from hosting all-age drag shows on their property. Sen. Becky Duncan Massey (R - Knoxville) also asked if a drag performer could still sing Whitney Houston songs, "with none of the sexual parameters involved," in public if the bill were made into law.
Johnson said they could still perform. He also said it would not prevent high school performances of plays like "Newsies."
Johnson said it would be enforced "like any other law on the books," with law enforcement and prosecutors. However, he did not give a specific example of when it could be applied. He also did not directly address how the bill would impact drag shows.
"This just highlights the absurdity of attempting to police people's thoughts," said Senator Heidi Campbell (D - Nashville). "As a matter of fact, this is the beginning of the same policies women in Iran are risking their lives to oppose, by being forced to wear burkas."
Campbell emphasized that obscene behavior is already covered under federal law.
"I'm sure most of us also saw the videos of self-proclaimed Nazis who were protesting drag shows. Is that who we want to align ourselves with?" she said. "These are the stirrings of fascism. Leveraging the fear of others may be politically advantageous, but it's the antithesis of good governance."
Senator Raumesh Akbari (D - Memphis) also asked if the bill would prevent a drag brunch event in their district. Johnson read the obscenity statute again and did not directly answer her question, and instead asked if the event included sexual themes. He later said lawmakers should direct constituents who ask questions to the statute.
"Part of drag is the act of empathizing, literally taking on another role that is unfamiliar and new to you, and attempting to understand and portray what it's like when that happens," Lee said. "We have a shortage of empathy in our culture right now. And I would hate to see it made criminal."
The bill will next be discussed by the House Criminal Justice Committee on Feb. 14. It passed the Senate in a vote of 26-6. Almost every East Tennessee Senator voted for the bill except for Lieutenant Gov. Randy McNally did not vote.