Tennessee and drag shows: Will those shows become criminalized in some form?

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Posted at 1:08 PM, Jan 31, 2023

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — A bill that would no longer allow cabaret shows — and now drag shows — on public property or for those under 18 has moved forward in the Tennessee legislature.

Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, brought forward the legislation in late 2022 in conjunction with his bill that would limit gender-care surgeries for anyone under 18. Rep. Chris Todd, R-Jackson, sponsored the bill in the House. Todd said in the hearing he never once mentioned drag shows in the subcommittee, but it has been addressed as such outside of Cordell Hull by lawmakers.

"It clears up confusion in the law that it will never be held on publicly owned property," Todd said. "This is a common-sense child safety bill. There's confusion in the law of what performances are covered. This clarifies what is crossing the line that is harmful to minors."

The issue arose in Middle Tennessee, at least in Franklin. The city's Board of Mayor and Alderman fielded complaints that the drag show at the pride event on public property at the Park at Harlinsdale was not suitable for children because of a drag show. Franklin Mayor Ken Moore wrote an open letter to the community that District Attorney Kim Helper wouldn't pursue charges based on the complaints that a criminal act happened at the event.

Steve Ramo, a drag performer and ordained minister, said he was in opposition to the bill. No one for the bill spoke during testimony.

"I have been blessed to do what I do. I am surrounded by people I love all the time. When I met with my state senator Mr. Pody, we had a very constructive meeting. I was proud to share that," Ramo said. "He told me that I should testify. I am here to say I am following the advice of my elected representative. He said don't be emotional — state the facts. But I can't leave emotion out of this. This morning I heard a transgender friend of mine was leaving this country to seek refugeeism in Canada. Not all drag performers are gay or bisexual or transgender. This bill does target our community. And guess what? There are gay wrestlers, too."

David Taylor — who owns LGBTQ businesses — spoke before the committee, saying that his performers shouldn't be considered as adult cabaret performers. He said he doesn't allow minors in their establishments, but was afraid about his bus that drives throughout the city.

"We are proud of our performers. Our shows are fun, lively and joyous. Our performers aren't adult cabaret licenses, and we are bound by Tennessee liquor laws. They prohibit lude behaviors and the Tennessee ABC hasn't perceived us as that. It's frustrating that that drag queen lipsyncing cheerleader through a bus window singing Tina Turner would be criminalized. What are the unintended consequences of the bill?"

Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, said the bill had unintended consequences. She questioned how it would affect the community and that it was directed "at hate." She further said this bill would be duplicated in obscenity laws.

"Is it just harmful to children that they aren't wearing clothes aligned to their sex?" Johnson asked. "Would you consider men in tights to fall under this? I am curious as to why dancing. There's nothing sexual in nature. I have been to drag shows. I haven't seen what people are saying are happening. How many drag shows have you been to? People have more clothes on than in wrestling."

Republican legislators asked if entertainers like Miley Cyrus would be subject to handcuffs, because of the definition of "other entertainers" in the bill. Entertainment in the amendment is defined as adult-only in Tennessee in an adult establishment, like adult cabaret entertainment.

Scotty Campbell, R-Mountain City, asked if that meant wrestling of bra and panties at the county fair was illegal.

Rep. John Gillespie, R-Memphis, asked if it would affect other event venues that just hold a show but also have a variety of shows. Todd said it would affect private businesses.

One legislator asked if it would affect watching a movie like "Mrs. Doubtfire." Todd said it would not.

The bill will now go before the full Criminal Justice Committee.

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