On a Tuesday evening opening for Betty Who at Nashville’s Brooklyn Bowl, drag superstar Shea Couleé decided not to mince words when introducing herself. “Some of you may know me from a little show called RuPaul’s Drag Race,” she cheekily began her comments towards the cheering audience. “Have you ever heard of it?”
She steeled herself for what she knew was coming next. “Well, I’m not going to claim that anymore, because I guess technically it’s not really cool to do drag in Tennessee — according to the Governor Bill Lee,” she said, as the audience loudly booed the mere mention of their governor. “Yeah, what the f–k?”
Coulee was just one voice among a chorus of dissent regarding Tennessee’s newly passed law that prevents drag artists from performing in public spaces. While the scope of the latest in a series of laws targeting the LGBTQ community remains to be seen, queer performers, venue owners and tour promoters are already being forced to make difficult decisions about their future.
Senate Bill 3 was signed into law on March 2, 2023 by Gov. Lee and will officially take effect on April 1, 2023. The law prohibits “adult cabaret” performances from taking place “on public property or in a location where the adult cabaret performance could be viewed by a person who is not an adult.” The legislation defines these displays as any performance that “features topless dancers, go-go dancers, exotic dancers, strippers, male or female impersonators who provide entertainment that appeals to a prurient interest, or similar entertainers, regardless of whether or not performed for consideration.”
First offenses under this law are Class A misdemeanors, resulting in up to $2,500 in fines or jail time of up to 11 months and 29 days. Any subsequent violations are Class E felonies, carrying fines of up to $3,000 or 1-6 years of jail time.
Todd Roman, the co-owner of Nashville’s premiere drag venue Play Dance Bar, says that under the wording of the state’s new statute, his acclaimed bar is now technically categorized in the same way as a strip club. “We are not now, nor have we ever been an adult entertainment business,” an audibly exasperated Roman tells Billboard over the phone. “It’s extremely offensive to have our girls categorized in the same way that you would a stripper.”
Kate Ruane, the Sy Syms director of U.S. free expression at legal advocacy group PEN America, tells Billboard that on its face, the bill shouldn’t change much about existing obscenity laws in the state. “‘Prurient interest’ is a term often used by courts, including the Supreme Court, to describe obscene material,” she explains. “That should be an incredibly narrow category of sexually explicit performance. That should mean that most drag shows, which are not remotely sexually explicit, should arguably fall outside this statue’s scope.”
If that’s the case, then why are so many people in the LGBTQ community concerned regarding the new law’s ramifications? As Ruane explains, it comes down to interpretation. “There is a risk, given some of the recent rhetoric around drag shows that we’ve heard from these lawmakers, that these laws will be enforced more broadly than would be constitutionally permissible,” Ruane explains. “That’s the Tennessee bill in a nutshell: What does it ban? Theoretically, not much. What’s it going to impact? So very, very much.”
ACLU of Tennessee agrees with Ruane’s assessment of what’s at stake here. In an official statement released alongside the news of the law passing, legal director Stella Yarbrough said that while “the law bans obscene performances, and drag performances are not inherently obscene,” there remained significant concern “that government officials could easily abuse this law to censor people based on their own subjective viewpoints of what they deem appropriate, chilling protected free speech and sending a message to LGBTQ Tennesseans that they are not welcome in our state.”
The impact of this bill is already being felt not just in Tennessee, but across the U.S. Voss Events, the creative agency behind some of the largest drag shows in the world (like RuPaul’s Drag Race Live!), already had to make a major change to one of their most successful touring shows, Werq the World.
“It’s something that we’ve always considered to be family-friendly, and we’ve encouraged teenagers and kids who are fans of Drag Race to come to the show,” Brandon Voss, the founder of Voss Events, tells Billboard. “We’ve had to make all of our U.S. shows 18+, because we don’t want our audience to have to deal with protesters. That’s the biggest effect all of this has had on us.”
As more anti-LGBTQ laws continue to pass in Tennessee than in any other state, according to the Human Rights Campaign, queer artists and fans alike are left wondering where they are and are not allowed to perform or simply be themselves. Roman explains that even the Play Mates — Play’s rotating cast of drag performers — find themselves at a loss when it comes to what is permitted under this new law.
“At first, it was a great deal of confusion. Then it went to actual fear of not knowing whether they were going to have a job,” Roman says. “We spent a lot of time keeping them abreast of the direction everything was going to try to give them some comfort. But even now with the way this law was done, they are still in a constant state of being unsure what their future holds.” Roman adds that for the near future, “Play will continue to operate as Play has always operated,” but says that the “general sense of fear” isn’t going away any time soon.
Part of what’s driving that general sense of fear is the potential chilling effect that a law like this could have not only on queer performances, but public gender expression writ large. Ruane explains that, even if the law is not enforced as broadly as many fear it will be, it could very easily still scare touring companies, promoters, buyers and theater owners out of featuring performances that would potentially violate the law.
“Drag performers are now concerned that if they continue to do what they have the constitutional right to do and conduct drag performances, they are now exposing themselves to potential liability, even criminal charges,” Ruane explains. “So they may stop doing that. The bars and libraries and venues that host them are may also feel concern that they will experience legal liability as well. And so they will stop hosting these performances.”
It’s a question Voss has already struggled with in recent years — as threats of protests continue to rise against drag shows around the U.S., he wonders whether major players like AEG and Live Nation will still be willing to take the “risk” of putting on their shows. “Are they so inclined to buy our show when they have the Proud Boys or whoever the hell showing up to protest?” he asks. “We’ve definitely had theaters tell us, ‘Hey, this show has to be 18+’ — when it never has been before.”
AEG told Billboard in a statement that they were “disappointed” by Tennessee passing their public drag ban, adding that “our company remains committed to hosting live performances celebrating diversity and inclusion at all of our venues, and this misguided law does not change that commitment.” Live Nation did not respond to a request for comment from Billboard.
That chilling effect could also manifest in peoples’ daily lives — with no clear definition of what constitutes a “male or female impersonator,” opponents of the new law point out that trans and gender non-conforming individuals have a right to be scared about their public gender expression being at risk, regardless of whether they’re performers. “I worry about that,” Ruane says. “I worry about people feeling afraid that they cannot live their lives or get dressed and express themselves like we all do. Can this bill apply to that? It shouldn’t on its specific terms, but people are reasonably afraid.”
The question remains: Where do we go from here? Roman says he approaches this kind of discriminatory legislation with the same philosophy he urges managers at Play to use: “Don’t try to rationalize with an irrational person,” he says. “That’s where we find ourselves today; there is not a rational argument here. They’re absolutely trying to frame this as being about children, but from a logical, realistic perspective, this is nothing other than a direct attack on the LGBTQ community.”
For her part, Couleé made sure to call out the hypocrisy coming from Republican lawmakers during her Nashville performance. “I think that it’s funny that people try to use us as a scapegoat for their own agendas, when really your elected officials should be out there actually protecting you,” she said. “Statistically, the number one cause of death in adolescents is guns. Not drag queens. We are not a threat to your children.”
On the legal side, ACLU of Tennessee has already committed to “challenge enforcement of this law if it is used to punish a drag performer or shut down a family-friendly LGBTQ event,” encouraging event organizers and business owners to report undue enforcements of the new law.
Ruane says that should that challenge take place, the courts will have a responsibility to strike down Tennessee’s law. “From a free expression standpoint, we have long ago decided that you cannot do this — you cannot prohibit this sort of expression, because the First Amendment says that you can’t,” she says, taking a breath. “It is just un-American on so many different levels, I lose track of them.”