Drag Queen battles Tennessee law banning drag shows

Photo of the cast of “Murder at the Le’George Hotel”, performed by Friends of George’s in Memphis. Friends of George’s Tennessee Governor Bill Lee signed into law HB0009, amending a cabaret show law. The bill criminalizes entertainment by “male or female impersonators” if they can possibly be viewed by children. A drag queen suing the state over the law told Insider it violates the rights of performers and parents.

A new law criminalizing drag shows is at the heart of a contentious legal battle in Tennessee courts — and a judge overseeing legal challenges is currently siding with drag queens who argue that the First Amendment rights of performers or performers will be affected by the overbroad ban.

U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Parker on Friday issued a 14-day temporary restraining order in favor of Friends of George’s, Inc., the Memphis-based theater company suing state Governor Bill Lee, the Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti and District Attorney Steven Mulroy.

The restraining order prevents the law, which was due to come into force on April 1, from being enforced for two weeks while legal challenges play out in court.

Tennessee House Bill 0009 was signed into law by Lee on February 27, amending an existing clause regulating erotic performances to include “male or female impersonators” as “adult cabaret entertainment”. Performing in public or “in a place where the adult cabaret show could be viewed by a person who is not an adult” would be a misdemeanor on the first offense and a felony on the second.

“It’s not something we’re okay with and it’s not something our kids need to be exposed to,” Rep. Chris Todd, who sponsored the bill, told reporters in a statement. the lawsuit filed against state officials by Friends attorneys. of George. “It was about protecting the kids in our community from something that’s harmful to them. It’s not age appropriate.”

Todd, Lee, Skrmetti and Mulroy did not immediately respond to Insider’s requests for comment.

The general language of the bill does not specify exactly what conduct or type of attire would qualify a performer as a “male or female impersonator”, whether the performance would have to be adult in nature to fall within the scope of the ban, or whether performances in private places where children may be present, such as a person’s home or a private place, would be affected.

“The ban is not limited to commercial establishments or paid shows, which means a drag performer could be arrested for providing free entertainment at a family member’s birthday party. that family member, so long as children are present,” reads the complaint. by Friends of George’s lawyers, adding that there are no exceptions in the law for minors who view drag shows with parental consent.

“If a restaurant is hosting a drag brunch for over 18s and children pass by and see it through the windows, nothing prevents drag performers from being charged under this law,” the complaint continues. .

The bill’s passage comes as anti-trans legislation is increasingly introduced across the country in what legal experts have previously told Insider is political posturing in the run-up to the 2024 election. Trans Legislation Tracker, which has collected data on anti-trans bills introduced since 2015, documented 492 bills in 47 states that were introduced this year alone, including Tennessee’s HB0009.

A promotional image of “The Dragnificent 70s”, performed by the cast of Friends of George’s. George’s friends

“Friends of George’s think this bill that Bill Lee signed into law makes it difficult for us to do our jobs without fear of a felony charge,” said Micah Winter-Cole, a drag performer for the troupe also known as the Miss Goldie’s name. Dee Collins, told Insider.

The company’s all-ages performances feature variety shows and comedy featuring drag performers in an effort to provide the LGBTQ community with events and activities outside of bars and nightclubs.

“We don’t have an age limit on our shows,” Winter-Cole told Insider. “We leave parenthood to the parents.”

“It seems hypocritical that the state wants parents to have the inalienable right to tell their children when they can or cannot wear masks, but here they cannot expose their children to the type of art form that they deem appropriate,” Winter-Cole continued.

In a lawsuit filed against state officials, attorneys for Friends of George’s argued that the ban would not only directly violate the First Amendment rights of drag performers, but also cause a chilling effect on other performances. artistic, who might be inclined to censor themselves to avoid running. against the law.

Judge Parker agreed. In the ruling granting the restraining order, he wrote that the law, as written, appears to be “both vague and overly broad,” and a likely violation of the First Amendment rights of performers who would likely result in “irreparable harm” in the absence of an injunction preventing enforcement.

In the footnotes to her decision, Parker noted that a chilling effect had already occurred among other status-concerned performance groups, citing a theater organization called Absent Friends which hosts a monthly screening of the film. , “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”, which has changed its age limit policies since the law was passed.

“Rather than risk the well-being of its drag performers, Absent Friends has made the decision to limit future performances to audience members 18 and older,” said Mystie-Elizabeth Watson, producer and director of Absent. Friends, quoted in the judge’s article. decision. “Without this law, Absent Friends would not have added an age limit to their monthly performances.”

Over the next two weeks, unless the restraining order is extended, the court will hold an additional status hearing to determine what action will be taken next. It’s unclear if a permanent injunction will be granted or if the state of Tennessee will appeal the district court’s decision.

“If Tennessee wishes to exercise its policing power in restricting speech it considers obscene, it must do so within the bounds and framework of the United States Constitution,” Parker wrote. “The Court finds that, as it stands, the record here suggests that when Parliament passed this law, it missed the mark.”

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