Mar 6, 2023 - News

New Tennessee law targeting drag draws criticism

A drag queen performing on stage.

Drag queen Kameron Michaels performing at the Ryman Auditorium in 2022. Photo: Danielle Del Valle/Getty Images

Musicians, local institutions and the White House have condemned Tennessee's new law designed to restrict some drag performances.

The latest: White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre slammed the legislation as "unnecessary" and "dangerous." She criticized Gov. Bill Lee for supporting it.

  • "How is that going to help people's lives who are thinking about the economy, who are thinking about making sure their kids … are going to be safe when they go to school or their communities are safe?"

Lee responded to similar criticism from California Gov. Gavin Newsom by saying many people are moving to Tennessee "to live in a low-tax state that supports families."

  • Lee's spokesperson tells Axios he sees the bill as an effort to "protect children."

Zoom out: The measure emerged as lawmakers in several states sought to restrict drag performances.

State of play: The law makes it a crime to perform "adult cabaret" in public or where minors could see it.

  • "Adult cabaret" refers to "adult-oriented performances that are harmful to minors" under the state's obscenity code. The law says those performances might include "male or female impersonators."

Yes, but: "The legal definition for 'harmful to minors' in Tennessee is very narrow and only covers extreme sexual or violent content with no artistic value," the ACLU of Tennessee said in a statement.

  • The ACLU says that because drag performances "are not inherently obscene" and wouldn't be considered "harmful to minors" under the obscenity code, they should not be affected by the new law.

Between the lines: LGBTQ+ advocates worry that, regardless of the narrow wording, the law will be used to stop drag performances or target transgender residents.

  • "The murkiness of this law is causing a lot of people to be on edge," Micah Winter, a performer and board member of a theater company in Memphis, told the New York Times.

What they're saying: ACLU-TN legal director Stella Yarbrough said in a statement the group would challenge enforcement "used to punish a drag performer or shut down a family-friendly LGBTQ event."

Meanwhile: Country-punk band The Vandoliers protested by performing in dresses in East Tennessee.

  • Shania Twain told GLAAD "we need drag queens to share their talent."
  • Bonnaroo responded by pledging the festival would remain "a safe haven for people of all walks of life."

Get more local stories in your inbox with Axios Nashville.


Support local journalism by becoming a member.

Learn more

More Nashville stories

No stories could be found


Get a free daily digest of the most important news in your backyard with Axios Nashville.


Support local journalism by becoming a member.

Learn more