Over the past year, conservatives have launched a campaign against drag performances, introducing legislation to restrict them in at least 20 states. When Tennessee became the first state to pass one of these laws in March, NBC’s Antonia Hylton spoke with performers who believe their very existence feels like a political act.
“The agenda is to be able to go to the bathroom without having to worry about being punched in the face,” Story VanNess, a transgender woman and drag performer, told Hylton.
“All we can do is say that it’s bad and it’s wrong. And please don’t do this to us. But they have found us to be a really effective political tool,” a fellow drag performer who goes by “Harri Scari” told Hylton.
When the suspect in a mass shooting at a Christian school in Nashville last month was first identified by police as transgender, VanNess says this only further fed growing anti-drag and anti-trans rhetoric.
“I found out about the identity of the shooter, my whole heart sank,” VanNess said, “it’s just going to be one more thing that they’re going to use to try to exterminate us.”
State Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson sponsored the Tennessee law under the pretense that drag performances can be “harmful to minors.”
“I’m proud that Tennessee is getting recognition for the fact that we don’t think you should simulate sex acts in front of kids in a public park,” Johnson told Hylton in a sit down interview.
Hylton spoke with Toni Stockton, a conservative Christian mother at her home outside of Nashville. When a local library nearby tried to host a Drag Story House, she started the parent group "Riseup4thechildren" and forced the event to cancel.
“The live and let live is very dangerous...when you’re not staying on biblical convictions, people will always go the way of culture," Stockton told Hylton, "somewhere along the way, these people have gotten confused,”
A recent report by an LGBTQ advocacy group found 166 incidents of anti-LGBTQ protests, attacks and threats targeting drag events since early 2022. Jonathan Hamilt, Drag Story Hour executive director, said the growing safety concerns targeting drag performers has become worrisome.
“We’re getting specific bomb threats of places, times, performers, dates. It’s real,” Hamilt told Hylton.
Panda Dulce, a trained social worker and educator who participates in Drag Story Hour, had one of their readings stormed by members of the Proud Boys last June at a public library in California.
“I am not the same person I was before,” Dulce told Hylton, “I got gun trained. I never thought I would touch a gun in my life. I bought weapons. I enrolled in self defense classes. …now every time I go to a drag show or I’m walking out of drag show clenching my keys between my fingers.”
Just hours before the law in Tennessee was expected to take effect last month, a federal judge blocked the law from going into effect until May 26.
For more on the rise of anti-drag extremism, check out the latest episode of Meet The Press Reports.