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Criminalizing drag shows would target LGBTQ Tennesseans on and off the stage, advocates warn

Drag queens perform at Play on Church Street.
Rose Gilbert
Drag queens perform at Play on Church Street.

The statehouse is on track to limit LGBTQ rights in Tennessee for the third year in a row.

The first bill proposed for this legislative session would ban gender-affirming health care for minors, including hormone therapy. Henry Seaton from the ACLU of Tennessee says that he knows from personal experience that this will devastate the mental health of trans youth.

“I needed to see myself to understand that I do have a future. You know, I do deserve to exist. And the testosterone was the key ingredient to that,” Seaton says.

But there are two exceptions to the bill. The first would allow minors with “congenital defects” to access gender-affirming care, and the second would allow anyone already taking hormones to continue their treatments. If it passes, family of trans kids would have until July 1 to begin treatment.

“So, I would say start the process. Start the process now. Don’t let the Tennessee state legislature dictate what you do as a family, what you do to support your child. And listen. Listen to your doctor always.”

One other proposed bill would also limit gender-affirming care for minors, but it doesn’t yet have a counterpart in the House. If it’s not filed by early next week, the bill won’t advance this year.

The other bill on the agenda is intended to ban drag shows from public spaces or from the presence of minors. But the wording of the bill defines drag performers as quote “male or female impersonators.”

Seaton says that could target queer Tennesseans outside of drag shows.

“This would basically kind of legalize like, ‘Oh, I see … someone that I don’t think is a woman dressed as a woman right now, and so I can call the cops,'” Seaton says. “It’s … this subtle and sinister way to further criminalize just being trans.”

Drag shows across the state have faced local pushback in recent months. In Murfreesboro, the city told Pride organizers that future permits for LGBTQ events would be denied in order to prevent drag shows. Earlier this week, a Cookeville drag show drew protesters from several right-wing groups, including the Proud Boys.

Both bills have been scheduled for first reading next week.

Marianna Bacallao
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