Dolly Partom (Photo by By Curtis Hilbun, My News Desk)
Drag is art, not grooming, experts say
KIMBERLEE KRUESI and JEFF McMILLAN
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — “If I hadn’t been a girl, I’d have been a drag queen.”
Dolly Parton has uttered those words famously and often. But if she really were a drag queen, one of Tennessee’s most famous daughters would likely be out of a job under legislation signed into law by Republican Gov. Bill Lee on March 2. Lee signed off on the legislation without issuing a statement or having a public ceremony. The bill goes into effect July 1.
Across the country, conservative activists and politicians complain that drag contributes to the “sexualization” or “grooming” of children. Several states are considering restrictions, but none has acted as fast as Tennessee. The efforts seek to extinguish popular “ drag story hours “ at which queens read to kids. Organizers of LGBTQ Pride events say they put a chill on their parades. And advocates note that the bills, pushed largely by Republicans, burden businesses in an un-Republican fashion.
The protestations have arisen fairly suddenly around a form of entertainment that has long had a place on the mainstream American stage.
Milton Berle, “Mr. Television” himself, was appearing in drag on the public airwaves as early as the 1950s on Texaco Star Theater.
“Drag is not a threat to anyone. It makes no sense to be criminalizing or vilifying drag in 2023,” said Lawrence La Fountain-Stokes, a professor of culture and gender studies at the University of Michigan and author of Translocas: The Politics of Puerto Rican Drag and Trans Performance.
“It is a space where people explore their identities,” said La Fountain-Stokes, who has done drag himself. “But it is also a place where people simply make a living. Drag is a job. Drag is a legitimate artistic expression that brings people together, that entertains, that allows certain individuals to explore who they are and allows all of us to have a very nice time.
“So it makes literally no sense for legislators, for people in government, to try to ban drag.”
Drag does not typically involve nudity or stripping, which are more common in the separate art of burlesque. Explicitly sexual and profane language is common in drag performances, but such content is avoided when children are the target audience. At shows meant for adults, venues or performers generally warn beforehand about age-inappropriate content.
The word “drag” does not appear in the Tennessee bill. Instead, it changes the definition of adult cabaret in Tennessee’s law to mean “adult-oriented performances that are harmful to minors.” It also says “male or female impersonators” now fall under adult cabaret among topless dancers, go-go dancers, exotic dancers and strippers.
The bill then bans adult cabaret from public property or anywhere minors might be present. It threatens performers with a misdemeanor charge, or a felony if it’s a repeat offense.
The bill has raised concerns that it could be used to target transgender people, but sponsors say that is not the intent.