“The purpose of the law is to terrorize people.” That’s how Patrick Grzanka, professor of psychology at the University of Tennessee and chair of the interdisciplinary program on women, gender and sexuality, describes the state’s radical new anti-drag law — one of the first of its kind in the country.
The text, which Republican Governor Bill Lee signed on Thursday (2), criminalizes “adult cabaret” performances that are “harmful to minors”. Includes “male or female impersonators” on public property or where they can be seen by children. It goes into effect April 1, with the first offense being a misdemeanor and subsequent offenses being felonies.
Not long before Lee signed the law, a 1977 yearbook photo surfaced showing him dressed as a woman when he was in high school. Accusations of hypocrisy came quickly.
But I don’t think people like Lee see that as hypocrisy. They see hilarity in straight men wearing women’s clothing to mock femininity, but see obscenity and perversion in (usually) gay men doing the same (only better!) to celebrate femininity and find a sense of affirmation and self-actualization.
They see their role as guardians of the boundary between their narrow, normative definitions of “masculine” and “feminine”, ensuring that no one crosses it. They are sentinels of the patriarchy, all too willing to oppress or try to intimidate their fellow citizens.
And the imprecise wording of the Tennessee law seems calibrated to provoke maximum doubt, and therefore fear: How do you define imitation of a man or a woman? (Does high school acting, for example, count?) Can transgender men and women be prosecuted? How is harm to minors defined, and who defines it?
As Grzanka told me, “Forget about accountability. There doesn’t even need to be internal consistency in legislation as long as it promotes hate.” He sees the anti-drag law as a continuation of “a kind of legislative flood” by the right to generate backlash against LGBTQIA+ progress that many see as “an enormous threat to straight white Christian values.”
He believes the law is part of a “containment policy designed to put LGBT+ people back in their place, and of course the place is cowering in the closet”.
The Tennessee drag performers I interviewed for this column pointed to the opacity of the law as a source of the apprehension surrounding it. For example, in the state, will drag performances in gay pride parades — gay events embraced across the US — now be illegal?
As Cameron Wade, a drag performer from Nashville who performs under the name Justine Van de Blair, told me, this vagueness was primed to allow for abuse, and the message the project sends is that “LGBTQIA+ survival is not important and that We’re welcome here.”
While Tennessee is leading this hateful anti-drag race, it’s not the only state involved in it. Late last month, Republican Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders of Arkansas signed into law a bill restricting “adult-oriented performances,” a measure originally targeted explicitly at drag performers before being watered down in the face of opposition.
According to the Human Rights Campaign’s (HRC) State Equality Index, 29 of 315 anti-LGBT bills were passed into legislation in 2022, and the group is now tracking nearly 750 pro-community bills introduced in state legislatures across the country. country. As the HRC points out, “more than half are bills that will cause real harm to the LGBT+ community.”
And Tennessee doesn’t seem to be done. As I wrote this column Monday, state lawmakers were working to require paid “adult-oriented” performers to obtain a license and to ban children from attending such performances. With the bill signed last week, Tennessee has already adopted 14 anti-LGBT laws since 2015, “more than any other state in the country,” according to the HRC.
Michelangelo Signorile, radio host and author of the prescient 2015 book “It’s Not Over: Getting Beyond Tolerance, Defeating Homophobia and Winning True Equality” [Não acabou: indo além da tolerância, derrotando a homofobia e conquistando a verdadeira igualdade]told me that conservative politicians are “seeing this as the issue they need to completely outdo each other in the culture war” because they think that’s what their base wants.
Signorile points out that the anti-drag bills further entangle existing political ties on the right, lumping child indoctrination and abuse with anything LGBT-related to sow distrust and fanaticism. These efforts contribute to the fear of abusers, which dovetailed with Florida’s passage of the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law.
According to an HRC report released in August, hateful tweets by just ten people about “abusers” of “were viewed about 48 million times, equivalent to 66% of the reach of the top 500 tweets”. Those ten people included Republican Representatives Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Lauren Boebert of Colorado.
Conservatives, having suffered losses in recent years on LGBTQIA+ rights issues, have found a smaller and more vulnerable subset to attack: those fighting for gender identity rights.
While the public has developed a better understanding of sexual orientation over the past few decades, its understanding of what gender is is lagging behind. In this context, some people confuse performing in drag and being transgender.
In fact, on the same day that Lee signed the anti-drag legislation, he also signed a bill to essentially ban gender-affirming treatments for transgender youth.
These laws pose a real threat to both drag performers and the trans community. One criminalizes artistic expression; the other criminalizes people for being who they are. Together, they further embolden hate groups already mobilized on gender issues.
This hatred and the oppression it breeds is dangerous and potentially deadly. All people deserve to live their lives in the fullness of their truths.
Monica Lusk, a drag and trans performer from Memphis who performs under the name Monica Dupree, told me that she feels doubly attacked by Tennessee law and that she is “mad as hell.” “Drag saved my life,” she said. All because she went to a concert 23 years ago and finally got to see herself. “Drag” does not mean “indecent”. But being drag often liberates and sometimes saves.
Translated by Luiz Roberto M. Gonçalves
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