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Bill that would restrict drag shows passes Tennessee Senate

February 9, 2023 GMT

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Legislation designed to restrict where certain drag shows can take place passed the Tennessee Senate on Thursday, the latest bill state Republican leaders have advanced targeting LGBTQ people.

Senate lawmakers voted 26-6 in favor of the bill, with only Democrats opposing. The bill is slightly different than a version moving through the House chamber.

Under the Senate’s bill, the words “drag show” are not explicitly stated. Instead, the legislation would expand the definition of adult cabaret in Tennessee’s law to include that such “adult-oriented performances that are harmful to minors,” as defined in Tennessee’s obscenity law.

The legislation then bans adult cabaret from taking place on public property or in a location where minors might be present.

“We don’t want to have the door open that they can go see advertent nudity and sexual acts or the depiction of sexual acts,” said Republican Sen. Becky Massey. “I’m sorry, that’s not what Tennessee is about.”

In Tennessee and across the country, drag has been cast in a false light by right-wing activists and politicians who complain about the “sexualization” or “grooming” of children.

Drag does not typically involve nudity or stripping, which are more common in burlesque, a separate form of entertainment. Explicitly sexual and profane language is common in performances meant for adult audiences. These routines can consist of stand-up comedy that may be raunchy — or may pale in comparison with some mainstream comedians.

“Leveraging fear of others may be politically advantageous, but it’s the antithesis of good governance,” Democratic Sen. Heidi Campbell said.

During Thursday’s debate, Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson declined to directly answer questions on how his legislation would be enforced — particularly if it would effect drag brunches, performers who wear drag attire during pride events or grooms who wear kilts during a wedding ceremony — and chose to read the legislation and definitions in current law instead.

“I would encourage you to direct (constituents) to the obscenity statute,” Johnson said.

The attention now moves to the House, which is debating a slightly different version. It’s unknown whether House members will amend their legislation to align with the Senate.