- The legislation was among the first filed for the 113th Tennessee General Assembly.
Tennessee Senate Republicans on Thursday passed a bill to clarify portions of the state’s obscenity law after controversies over public drag performances.
The bill classifies “male and female impersonators” as adult cabaret performers and bans “adult-oriented performances that are harmful to minors,” as defined in Tennessee’s obscenity law.
The Senate approved the legislation on a 26-6 vote, with all of the chamber’s Democrats opposing the measure.
It’s unclear how exactly the law might be enforced, but it could open up another avenue to challenge drag show performances in court, as some Republicans have suggested drag shows are inherently inappropriate for minors, regardless of a performance’s context or content.
Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, said Thursday performances would be held to a “tight” legal definition limiting overtly sexualized performances.
Sen. Heidi Campbell, D-Nashville, argued Thursday the obscenity standard already exists in the law and called it “inefficient at best.”
Johnson has tried to distance the legislation from drag performances specifically. But the legislation, SB 03, was first filed last year by House sponsor Rep. Chris Todd, R-Madison County, following a controversy in Jackson over plans for a “family-friendly” drag show.
Todd and a group of religious leaders sought court action to stop the event, though eventually negotiations with organizers led to a compromise over restricting minors from attending.
Todd previously characterized the drag show as “child abuse,” though he was unaware of what the show might contain.
The legislation is among several proposals before lawmakers this year aimed at LGBTQ issues and transgender minors and it moved through the Senate’s legislative process with remarkable speed. There was just one Senate committee hearing on the bill.
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Drag has risen as a flashpoint issue among conservatives. Drag supporters argue it is based on bias, as the longtime theatrical performance art has more modern roots in American LGTBQ culture.
Drag shows across Tennessee have faced opposition from local governments in recent months, in addition to protests at recent drag performances at Diskin Cider in Nashville and other locations. In January, masked protestors brandished Nazi slogans and chanted anti-LGBTQ slurs outside a Cookeville event, WPLN reported.
“Is that who we want to align ourselves with?” Campbell asked the Senate on Thursday.
If signed into law, the legislation would criminalize a first offense as misdemeanor. A second offense would be a Class E felony, which could carry between one to six years in prison. Only performers would be subject to the law.
The law could take effect as early as April 1 if passed by the House and signed into law by Gov. Bill Lee.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle last week questioned the potential for unintended consequences with the bill, asking if local professional wrestlers or major artists such as Miley Cyrus could be arrested under the law.
Nashville business owner David Taylor criticized the bill as unnecessary. Taylor owns several businesses that host drag shows, which he said are already subject to “aggressively enforced” state liquor laws that ban nudity and simulated sex acts, and drag performers have never been considered adult entertainers under those laws.
Taylor also criticized the vagueness of what content might be considered harmful, which Johnson acknowledged would be subject to discretion from prosecutors.
Reach Melissa Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org.