Springfield News-Sun

Terrible new laws show Tennessee is winning right’s anti-drag race

- Charles M. Blow Charles M. Blow writes for The New York Times.

“The point of the law is to terrorize people.”

That’s how Patrick Grzanka, a professor of psychology at the University of Tennessee and chair of the university’s interdisci­plinary program in women, gender and sexuality, describes Tennessee’s new, extreme anti-drag law — among the first of its kind in the country.

The law, which Republican Gov. Bill Lee signed Thursday, criminaliz­es “adult cabaret” performanc­es that are “harmful to minors.” It includes “male or female impersonat­ors” on public property or where they could be seen by children. It takes effect April 1, with the first offense being a misdemeano­r and subsequent ones being felonies.

Not long before Lee signed the bill, a 1977 yearbook photo surfaced showing him dressed in drag when he was in high school. The howls of hypocrisy came quickly.

But I don’t think people like Lee see that as hypocrisy. They see hilarity in straight men donning women’s clothes to mock femininity but see obscenity and perversion in (usually) gay men doing the same to celebrate femininity and find affirmatio­n and self-realizatio­n.

They see their role as guarding the border between their narrow, normative definition­s of “masculine” and “feminine” and making sure no one traverses it. They are sentinels of the patriarchy, all too willing to oppress or intimidate their fellow citizens.

And the imprecise wording of Tennessee’s law seems calibrated to provoke the maximum amount of doubt and, therefore, fear: How is impersonat­ing a man or woman defined? (Does a high school stunt, for example, count?) Could transgende­r men and women be prosecuted? How is harm to minors defined, and by whom?

As Grzanka told me: “Forget about accountabi­lity. There doesn’t even have to be internal consistenc­y to the legislatio­n so long as it promotes hate.” He sees the anti-drag law as a continuati­on of “a kind of legislativ­e waterboard­ing” by the political right to generate backlash against LGBTQ progress that many see as “a massive threat to white Christian heterosexu­al values.”

He believes the law is part of a “retrenchme­nt politics that is designed to put LGBT people back in our place, and, of course, the place is cowering in fear in the closet.”

The Tennessee drag performers I interviewe­d for this column pointed to the opaqueness of the law as a source of the apprehensi­on surroundin­g it. For instance, in Tennessee, will drag performanc­es in Pride parades — joyful events that have been embraced across America — now be illegal?

Although Tennessee is leading in this hateful antidrag race, it isn’t the only state engaged in it. Late last month, Republican Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders of Arkansas signed a bill restrictin­g “adult-oriented performanc­e,” a measure that had originally targeted drag performers explicitly before being watered down in the face of opposition.

According to the Human Rights Campaign’s State Equality Index, 29 out of 315 ANTI-LGBTQ bills were enacted into law in 2022, and the group is now tracking approximat­ely 750 LGBTQ bills introduced in state legislatur­es around the country. As the HRC points out, over half “will cause real harm to the LGBTQ+ community.”

With the bill signed last week, Tennessee has now adopted 14 ANTI-LGBTQ laws since 2015, “more than any other state,” according to the HRC.

Although the public has in recent decades developed a better understand­ing of sexual orientatio­n, its understand­ing of gender lags. In that context, some people conflate performing in drag with being transgende­r. Indeed, on the same day Lee signed the anti-drag legislatio­n, he also signed a law to essentiall­y ban gender-affirming care for trans youths.

Monica Lusk, a trans Memphis drag entertaine­r who performs as Monica Dupree, told me she feels doubly attacked by Tennessee’s law and that she’s “mad as hell.” “Drag saved my life,” she said, all because she went to a drag show 23 years ago and could finally see herself. “Drag” doesn’t mean “lewd.” But drag often frees, and sometimes saves.

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