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Tennessee will soon ban drag performances, becoming the first state to do so

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Tennessee has become the first state to restrict drag shows. This week, Governor Bill Lee signed a bill to ban drag shows in public spaces. Under the new law, such performances won't be allowed anywhere a minor might see them. Marianna Bacallao of member station WPLN in Nashville reports.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Her name is Lucid Dreams.

(CHEERING)

MARIANNA BACALLAO, BYLINE: When the music starts, a drag queen in a white jumpsuit and a long, white wig steps out onto the stage at Tennessee Tech University. Her makeup is the neon pink approximation of a fawn. It's Lucid Dreams' first time doing drag, and she's not the only one. Tonight's event is called Drag 101, where first-time drag performers are sharing the stage with veterans. Backstage, Lucid Dreams recovers from a runway mishap with the help of other performers.

LUCID DREAMS: Well, I didn't move, and now I tripped down a stair. So that was perfect.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: You're initiated. Yay, initiation.

SALEM LE STRANGE: It happens. It happens. Like I said, your best move is to laugh it off.

BACALLAO: The crowd here at Tennessee Tech is filled with laughs and shrieks of delight.

(CHEERING)

BACALLAO: But moments of joy for the Tennessee drag scene are becoming rarer. Since the fall, Republican lawmakers have taken action to restrict drag shows. At the Tennessee Tech event, sophomore Cadence Miller says his generation of queer people owe a lot to drag queens who were present at Stonewall and that it's no accident they're under threat now.

CADENCE MILLER: It was, like, trans, like, drag performers who were, like, pioneers in us getting any type of queer rights at all, like, statewide and nationwide.

BACALLAO: The ban as written could also have a chilling effect on Pride festivals. While new laws typically go into effect on July 1, the bill was quietly amended to take effect April 1, ahead of Pride Month in June. To draw attention to the issue, Knoxville Pride threatened to cancel its festival if the ban passed, but now Pride Director John Camp says Pride will go on, even if it's a march instead of a parade.

JOHN CAMP: We can't have a celebration and leave some of our community out, so we have to figure out how to continue to have a celebration because we are a proud people, and we have a lot to celebrate.

BACALLAO: Camp says the first Pride was a form of protest, and so the march is a way for Knoxville's LGBTQ community to rally together to honor their roots. Proponents of the law say drag shows are harmful to minors. Tennessee Republican state Senator Kerry Roberts voted for the bill. He says the intent is to prevent kids from seeing obscene performances.

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KERRY ROBERTS: In the state of Tennessee, we don't think it's appropriate for grown men to perform in front of children simulated sex acts. That's what this is about.

BACALLAO: Nashville business owner David Taylor testified before the state legislature that the drag shows at his club are not sexually explicit.

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DAVID TAYLOR: We know this because we have a Tennessee liquor license and are bound by Tennessee liquor laws. In our more than 20 years in business, we've not received a citation for one of our drag performers.

BACALLAO: Taylor says the ban on drag will negatively affect Nashville's economy. Drag brunches and similar performances are a big tourist draw.

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TAYLOR: My businesses alone have contributed more than $13 million to the state in the form of sales and liquor taxes since we opened, and we're just one of many such businesses in our state.

BACALLAO: The language of the bill has also drawn concern from the larger LGBTQ community. Drag performers are defined as male or female impersonators. The ACLU of Tennessee's Henry Seaton says that language could lead to criminalizing trans people or anyone who doesn't conform to gender norms.

HENRY SEATON: That can easily be a trans person. You know, there's the phenomenon of walking while trans, where specifically, like, trans women of color, while just existing, oftentimes get the police called on them just for, like, being trans.

BACALLAO: The ACLU of Tennessee says it will challenge the law if it's used to punish a drag performer or shut down a family-friendly LGBTQ event. For NPR News, I'm Marianna Bacallao in Nashville. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Marianna Bacallao