Bills Introduced in Tenn. to Ban Drag Shows, Gender-Affirming Care

Drag Queens at pride parade
Drag Queens at pride parade

One day after the 2022 midterm elections proved that Republicans' efforts to paint LGBTQ+ people as groomers and dangerous to children failed, Tennessee lawmakers doubled down on their anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment by introducing two bills targeting the community.

State lawmakers introduced Senate Bill 1 and Senate Bill 3 on Wednesday. SB 1 would prohibit doctors and families from making necessary lifesaving health care decisions to support transgender youth. Meanwhile, SB 3 would make performing drag in public where children can see it a crime.

Tennessee Majority Leaders William Lamberth and Jack Johnson introduced HB and SB 1, called the Protecting Children From Gender Mutilation Act.

Any medical intervention that alters a child's hormonal balance and any procedure that enables them to identify as a different gender than that assigned at birth would be illegal under this bill, and anyone who violates its enforcement would face a $25,000 fine.

Under SB 3's broad language, it is illegal for an adult cabaret performer to perform on public property or in a place where minors can witness it. It includes topless dancers, go-go dancers, exotic dancers, and male or female impersonators who provide entertainment that "appeals to prurient (sexual) interests" during adult cabaret performances.

First offenses would be treated as Class A misdemeanors and second offenses as Class E felonies, according to the bill.

LGBTQ+ and civil rights organizations reacted to the news of the two bills with outrage.

"[SB 3] demonstrates a failure to understand the fact that drag performances have taken place for decades as a form of entertainment that varies widely between audiences," Sarah Warbelow, Human Rights Campaign legal director, told The Advocate in a statement. 

"A drag performance at a bar for adults is very different from a drag story hour at a library; the first is theatrical entertainment and creative validation, while the second is about diversity and inclusion," she said.

"This proposal as written should not impact drag story hours and similar events because they are not 'prurient' performances, but it is evident that the legislation aims to mislead the public and intimidate LGBTQ+ people by perpetuating false, offensive narratives," Warbelow added.

American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee transgender justice advocate Henry Seaton condemned the introduction of SB 1 in a statement to The Advocate.

"Denying health care to transgender youth can be life-threatening," Seaton said. "This legislation takes away the ability of families and medical professionals to provide life-saving care for transgender youth. Trans young people deserve love, respect and dignity, and the ACLU of Tennessee is deeply committed to protecting trans young people from physical and emotional harm."

Transgender youth whose families support their gender identity report significant decreases in suicidal thoughts and attempts and significant increases in self-esteem, according to ACLU data.

"Everyone should have access to the healthcare they need to survive and thrive," said Seaton. "We will be bringing the full force of our organization to bear in fighting this legislation."

Tennesee Equality Project Executive Director Chris Sanders also criticized the bills. The fact that they are among the first filed for the new legislative session is outrageous, Sanders said in a statement to The Advocate.

"The very introduction of such legislation will bring more pain to trans and nonbinary people in particular and to the community as a whole," he said. "The threat level is extremely high because Tennessee typically sees more anti-LGBTQ bills than other states. In the last few years, more of them have passed. The fact that the majority leaders in both chambers are involved should concern everyone."

A senior attorney with Lambda Legal, Sasha Buchert, told The Advocate in a statement that Johnson's decision to prioritize legislation banning drag queen story hours in the state is simply an attempt to censor LGBTQ+ people and their expression.

"Rather than seeking to ban drag queens from reading to kids or trying to ban health care for trans youth and their families, Sen. Johnson should be focusing on real issues impacting Tennessee youth and their families, such as the quality and safety of their schools," she said.

According to Buchert, the bill seeks to stoke outrage and induce moral panic.

She added, "It is disappointing that the Senate majority leader has chosen to focus on this when there is so much actual work to be done on behalf of Tennessee youth."

Tennesse's 113th General Assembly will convene January 10.