Republican Gov. Bill Lee signed a bill into law Thursday afternoon that will restrict public drag show performances in Tennessee, making his state the first to do so this year.
The state Senate passed the bill earlier Thursday along party lines to limit “adult cabaret performances” on public property so as to shield them from the view of children, threatening violators with a misdemeanor and repeat offenders with a felony.
The bill, which the Tennessee House passed last week, defines an adult cabaret performance as a 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.”
Republicans hold supermajorities in both the state House and Senate. The law will go into effect on July 1, 2023.
The Tennessee measure is the first of nearly a dozen such bills currently working their way through GOP-led state legislatures. Republicans say the performances expose children to sexual themes and imagery that are inappropriate, a claim rejected by advocates, who say the proposed measures are discriminatory against the LGBTQ community and could violate First Amendment laws.
As transgender issues and drag culture are increasingly becoming more mainstream, such shows – which often feature men dressing as women in exaggerated makeup while singing or entertaining a crowd, although some shows feature bawdier content – have occasionally been the target of attacks, and LGBTQ advocates say the bills under consideration add to a heightened state of alarm for the community.
Republican state Sen. Jack Johnson, who sponsored the Tennessee legislation, told News84Media on Thursday that the bill was not meant to target drag performances or transgender people.
“For clarification, this bill is not targeting any group of people. It does not ban drag shows in public. It simply puts age restrictions in place to ensure that children are not present at sexually explicit performances,” Johnson said.
Ahead of the bill’s signing, Lee faced accusations of hypocrisy after an unidentified Reddit user posted a photo from a 1977 high school yearbook, which purports to show the future governor dressed in women’s clothing and a wig alongside female students dressed in men’s suits.
News84Media has been unable to verify the authenticity of the photo.
At a news conference on Monday, the GOP governor ignored a question about whether he had once dressed in drag but rejected any comparisons between the purported image and the drag show legislation.
“What a ridiculous, ridiculous question that is, conflating something like that to sexualized entertainment in front of children, which is a very serious subject,” Lee said, according to the News84Media affiliate. WZTV.
A spokesperson for Lee further elaborated to The Daily Beast, saying, “The bill specifically protects children from obscene, sexualized entertainment, and any attempt to conflate this serious issue with lighthearted school traditions is dishonest and disrespectful to Tennessee families.”
This story and headline have been updated for additional developments.