VICE News spoke with six drag queens about the rise in drag bans, the motivations behind them, and what it’s like to live in Tennessee today as the state becomes increasingly hostile to LGBTQ people. Though Republicans have framed drag queens as a threat, and falsely equated their work with pedophilia and grooming, the drag queens believe that the bans aren’t about the children at all; they’re part of a broader GOP, and often evangelical, attack on LGBTQ people, especially those who are trans and gender nonconforming. Beyond the drag ban, the state has pushed aggressively to introduce even more anti-LGBTQ legislation: Last month, the state banned gender-affirming care for youth, while a bill that would allow teachers to misgender trans students is making its way through the legislature.
“Panic really set in and I was like, ‘Wow, do we really have a job here anymore? Do we even have a safe space here anymore?”
Tennessee also already has indecency laws that prohibit public nudity and sexual activity. “I don't really understand how it's any different than what we've already been abiding by this entire time,” Perplexity added.
The language in the Tennessee drag ban is vague, which has led queens to worry about what enforcement will look like.
Tennessee GOP Rep. Chris Todd sponsored the bill that restricts drag, after he fought against a Pride drag event and referred to it as “child abuse”—even though he admitted he had no idea what would go on at the show.
Several drag queens also pointed out that the bill's language—namely, “male or female impersonators”—could be used to target trans people.
“We have been advised by our attorneys that we are able to continue to perform and drive through the streets of Nashville, Tennessee, exactly how we had been doing and how we planned on doing,” Cloud said, adding that’s partly because the performances take place inside a private vehicle, as opposed to a public space, and the performances aren’t “lewd.” Cloud also pointed out that in Tennessee, it could be easier to take your kid to Hooters or Twin Peaks, a local chain where servers are dressed in busty crop tops and short shorts, than it is to take them to a drag event. “If parents want to take their kids (to Hooters), that's up to them. They have a kids menu. Great, take your kids there, and that's your decision to expose them to that,” Cloud said. “It is the same thing: If parents want to bring their kids to a drag show, then number one, that's their decision.” (Not to mention, the very politicians who are outlawing LGBTQ existence in Tennessee have themselves worn drag or supported LGBTQ entertainers.)“If we're going to talk about protecting the kids. My question is, what about the queer kids? What about the trans kids? These children are far more at risk of suicide, mental and physical health issues,” said Bella DuBalle, a drag queen from Memphis. “These kids are not more at risk because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. They're at risk because we live in this country that allows people to share hateful rhetoric and spread shameful lies over really large platforms.”
“I'm always going to perform. I'm not going to let this slow me down. I’m not stopping. I’m not going to stop protecting my trans brothers and sisters. We're not going anywhere.”