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'War on queer people' | Crowd gathers for rally against anti-LGBTQ bills in Tennessee

Knox Pride said they worked with several other East Tennessee organizations on the demonstration against bills they said would target the LGBTQ+ community.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — A crowd of up to 500 people gathered in downtown Knoxville on Monday to stand against a bill that would ban some gender-affirming care for transgender youth, and another bill that could effectively ban drag performances and other kinds of events in public areas.

"We're out here today because the Tennessee legislature has declared war on queer people, particularly on trans people," said Story VanNess with Knox Pride.

It was part of the "Enough is Enough Rally," largely organized through Knox Pride. They said they worked with several other East Tennessee organizations to create the demonstration including Indivisible Tennessee, ChangeTN and Appalachian Outreach.

The rally was organized quickly after Knox Pride announced that if SB 0003 became law, which is aimed at broadly banning public drag performances, they would cancel the 2023 Pride Festival.

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.

"It has to do with sexually-graphic entertainment and so on. So, if someone wants to have a drag show that is totally fine," said Senator Jack Johnson (R - Franklin). "My legislation doesn't do anything to change that. It's just while you're having your drag show, you can't simulate sex acts, you can't do things that are sexually graphic. And again, it applies to people any type of performance, it doesn't have to be someone that's in drag."

He said things like "drag storytime" are still permitted under the bill, as long as there are no sexual acts or gestures. 

Tom Lee, an attorney and outside counsel for the Tennessee Pride Chamber, said SB 0003 could do more than ban public drag shows. He said it could discourage transgender people from wearing gender-affirming clothing in public and it could also make public Pride parades illegal, due to its broad language.

"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.

He also said prosecutors and law enforcement agencies would have broad authority to determine whether a drag performance, a pride parade, or other kinds of public events that include drag performers would be against state law.

As of Monday, the Knox Pride rally also included SB 0001, as part of the protest. This proposed legislation seeks to ban some gender-affirming care for anyone under the age of 18 years old.

"These types of bills target minority groups and people that don't have voices, we have to kind of lend our voices to those causes," said the president of Knox Pride, John Camp.

It's because of these bills that Knox Pride said they will cancel the 2023 festival, should they become law.

The Pride Festival is usually Knox Pride's biggest fundraiser of the year, attracting thousands of people to the event. They said 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.

Organizers previously said SB 0003 could make the festival illegal since it's held outdoors. They previously said since it's so large, it has to be held outdoors. In 2022, it was held at World's Fair Park.

Supporters of the bill said it is meant to prevent children from seeing adult-oriented and sexual performances.

Knox Pride also said that SB 0001 could also threaten the festival. That bill would prevent some gender-affirming care for minors in the state, such as medication or surgeries. Both bills were introduced by Senator Johnson.

In regard to that bill, Johnson said he primarily wants to ban gender-affirming surgeries for youth, but the bill could impact other types of care, such as medication.

"I don't think that you should be making permanent alterations to a child's body, we shouldn't be doing things that cannot be undone to someone that's just starting adolescence or puberty when their brain has not fully developed," he said.

A study by UCLA showed there is about 3,100 transgender youth in the state of Tennessee who could be affected by this law. Sage Pearson, a transgender woman was at the protest Monday evening. She hopes their protest can prevent the passage of this bill.

"This bill could prevent a lot of people from getting the access to health care that they need, which isn't just gender-affirming, but life-affirming," Pearson said.

She said she struggled with depression as a result of her gender. Since transitioning, she said she has been happy. She's not alone in those feelings. Studies by UCLA show about half of transgender youth contemplate suicide.

"It's just heartbreaking," Pearson said.

She said if these bills pass, she would consider leaving the state.

"This is the first time in that ten to 12 years that I've actually considered leaving the area permanently," she said.

"If you want to make that decision when you turn 18 in the state of Tennessee, you're recognized as an adult. And if that's a decision you make, then that's your right to do so," Johnson said.

The American Civil Liberties Union Of Tennessee and Lambda Legal also said they would bring immediate legal action against the bill if it became law. They said it would ban the only evidence-based care for gender dysphoria for transgender people under 18 years old.

“Trans youth in Tennessee deserve the support and care necessary to give them the same chance to thrive as their peers. Gender-affirming care is a critical part of helping transgender adolescents succeed in school, establish healthy relationships with their friends and family, live authentically as themselves, and dream about their futures,” said Lucas Cameron-Vaughn, ACLU-TN staff attorney.

They also said that the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association, and the American Academy of Pediatrics both oppose the bill.

It was amended to remove language that claimed gender-affirming care would be considered abuse. The bill advanced through the Senate on Monday.


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