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Drag queens take on Tennessee bill seeking to restrict their performances

Tennessee is one of at least five states considering bills to limit the centuries-old art form, which has gained mainstream popularity in recent years.

At 5 Points Diner & Bar in Nashville, Tenn., drag performer Veronika Electronika can often be seen strutting between brunch tables. Her big hair, glitzy outfits and quick wit keep patrons on their toes.

Veronika’s lighthearted performances are a staple of Tennessee’s drag scene, but on a recent Saturday in December, she abruptly stopped her show to address a heavy subject: a proposed state bill seeking to ban drag acts — like the one she was performing at that moment — from public view. 

“If that law passes, I would be committing a potential felony,” Veronika said, as the audience booed the bill. “If you’re not a fan of that bill, I highly suggest you contact your state legislator.” 

Tennessee is one of at least five states where Republican lawmakers are considering bills to restrict drag performances. The measure, known as Senate Bill 3, was introduced by Tennessee Republican Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson in November. 

Tennessee Republican Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson.
Tennessee Senate Republican leader Jack Johnson.Andrew Davis / NBC News

“The intent of the legislation is just to simply say that you cannot have sexually explicit entertainment … in a public venue where kids might be present,” Johnson said.

Critics like Veronika, whose name off-stage is Steve Raimo, say the bill targets the LGBTQ community and that the subjectivity of what is considered “sexual” could effectively ban drag in many settings.  

“I don’t know who will be the drag police to judge whether my performance was adult-oriented,” Veronika said.

Chris Sanders, executive director of the Tennessee Equality Project, a statewide LGBTQ advocacy group, said other art forms use many of the same imagery and movements of drag without being considered adult content.

“What does it mean when someone who is dancing shakes their hips?” he asked. “Cheerleaders clearly do it. Dance teams clearly do it. If a drag queen does it, does that suddenly make it sexual?” 

Johnson maintains that his proposal is a common-sense bill.

“We’re protecting kids and families and parents who want to be able to take their kids to public places. We’re not attacking anyone or targeting anyone,” the senator said. “I’ve heard references to this bill that it will ban drag shows? Well, no, it won’t. It just says you can’t do something that’s sexually explicit. It won’t prevent someone dressed in drag from being in a parade or being in public.”

Even if the bill doesn’t overtly ban drag, Sanders argues, its language — which references drag performers as “male or female impersonators” — could create dangers for many members of the LGBTQ community.

“I would not assume that all of our law enforcement entities around the state have a good understanding of who trans people are,” he said, noting that differences between a person in drag and someone living as transgender or nonbinary may not be immediately apparent to every officer.

To complicate things, Sanders added, Tennessee does not allow trans people to change the sex designation on their birth certificate.

“This can go down a very bad path quickly,” he said. “You could be harassed increasingly for being trans and nonbinary in public.”

The battle over Senate Bill 3 and other similar bills across the U.S. comes as drag has gained increased mainstream popularity. “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” the Emmy-winning drag competition show, saw a 30% jump in viewership for its newest season, according to Deadline. And Drag Story Hour — a nonprofit that sets up drag queen storytelling events for children at libraries, schools and bookstores — has grown from one chapter in 2015 to 45 in the U.S. today, according to a representative for the organization. 

But that rapid growth has also thrust drag into the center of America’s culture wars: In 2022, there were 141 protests and threats targeting drag events, according to LGBTQ media advocacy group GLAAD. And those incidents have skyrocketed year over year since 2018, according to data from the Crowd Counting Consortium.

In December, far right groups including the Patriot Front and Proud Boys contributed to the cancellation of an Ohio drag storytime event. Many demonstrators showed up armed, while others held up signs with slogans like: “Groomers not welcome” and “Groomers are Child Abusers.”

According to Politifact, “The weaponization of the term 'grooming' is tied to a history of longstanding false claims that gay, lesbian and bisexual people — and gay men in particular — molest children at higher rates than people who are not LGBTQ. Research shows that the idea is false.” 

In Tennessee, a video posted on Twitter in September showing what appears to be children handing a drag queen dollar bills sparked outrage in conservative circles.

“There have been news reports about some of these events taking place where parents are there with their kids, and they were mortified,” Johnson said. “That’s who reached out to me and some of my colleagues and led us to pursue this legislation.” 

So far this year, there have been hundreds of anti-LGBTQ state bills proposed across the U.S., according to LGBTQ advocacy groups that track such bills, including the Human Rights Campaign and Freedom for All Americans. Tennessee has proposed 31 anti-LGBTQ bills this year, the most of any state, according to Freedom for All Americans.

Veronika says the outrage surrounding social media videos of drag performances represents a misunderstanding of the art form, where tipping is not sexual. 

“We tip our servers, we tip our bartenders, we tip our hair stylists, and we tip our drag queens,” she said. “It is not, ‘I’m giving you this dollar bill, so will you show me this?’ It is just a tip of appreciation.”

Johnson said he plans to move quickly on Senate Bill 3 after the New Year. And in a state where Republicans control both houses of the Legislature and the governor’s office, it very well could become law. 

If it becomes law, Sanders said, he questions whether it could be challenged as a violation of the First Amendment. 

California attorney Katherine Read, who wrote an article titled “Dressing the First Amendment in Drag” for the Journal of Race, Gender & Poverty in 2019, thinks a First Amendment challenge is possible. 

“If you were going to go see Lady Gaga or Taylor Swift in concert, no one would argue that that isn’t art. I mean, it clearly is. And I think in this context, too, with drag queens, it certainly is art as well, which is protected by the First Amendment,” Read told NBC News.

Read also said she sees drag as a form of symbolic speech that comments to audiences on femininity and other important societal topics, which would make it protected speech. 

Some past cases offer an encouraging outlook for drag performers and their supporters. 

“Most lower courts in the United States have nullified cross-dressing statutes as being vague and not providing proper notice to citizens as to what is being criminalized,” Read wrote in her journal article. 

There are multiple potential legal grounds for opposing legislation like Senate Bill 3, Read explained, but it would need to be challenged to find out how specific courts in today’s current political and legal climate would assess the notion that drag performances are protected under the First Amendment.

As for Veronika, she said she’s determined to rally enough opposition to scuttle Tennessee’s drag bill before it becomes state law.

“So many amazing drag performers that are certainly famous have all either started or come through Nashville,” she said in her dressing room the day of the drag brunch performance. “I would hate to think that a simple piece of legislation like this would minimize the effect that art can have on our community‚ and drag is literal, moving, living art.”