KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Governor Bill Lee signed a bill into law that effectively bans public drag performances. Opponents of the bill said it could have far-reaching effects on the state's LGBTQ community. It will go into effect on April 1.
It was introduced by Senator Jack Johnson (R - Franklin). The amended version of the bill says "adult-oriented performances" could only be held in adult-oriented venues. It defines those performances as ones harmful to minors, as defined in the Tennessee state code.
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."
Knox Pride previously said that if the bill became law, they would cancel the 2023 Knox Pride Festival in October. They said the annual Pride festival would be against the law.
It's 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.
"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.
They said that the festival would have to be held outdoors because of its size. Last year, it was held in World's Fair Park.
Organizers 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. 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.
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 performances are 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.
Organizers of drag performances also said they act as a safe haven for LGBTQ people. One organizer, Jason Jenkins, previously said that drag can be a way for young LGBTQ people to know it's okay to be who they are. They said it's a way to boost their mental health and inspire people to live "true and authentic lives."
The performances also give LGBTQ people a place where they can safely meet others and discuss issues the community uniquely faces.
"Part of what we do is showing the spectrum of life and celebrating the spectrum of life," said Jenkins.