Drag queens fight back against Tennessee law that classifies drag shows as 'adult cabaret' entertainment and makes them a felony

Cast photo from "Murder at Hotel Le'George," performed by Friends of George's drag-centric cast in Memphis, TN.
Cast photo from "Murder at Hotel Le'George," performed by Friends of George's in Memphis.Friends of George's
  • Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee signed HB0009 into law, amending a law about cabaret performances.

  • The bill criminalizes entertainment by 'male or female impersonators" if they could possibly be seen by kids.

  • A drag queen suing the state over the law told Insider it violates performers' and parents' rights.

A new law criminalizing drag shows is at the heart of a contentious legal battle making its way in the Tennessee courts — and a judge overseeing the legal challenges is currently siding with drag queens who argue performers' first amendment rights will be impacted by the overbroad ban.

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

The restraining order prevents the law, which was set to take effect 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 location where the adult cabaret performance 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.

"This is not something we agree with and it's not something our children need to be exposed to," Rep. Chris Todd, who sponsored the bill, is quoted as saying to the press, in the complaint filed against state officials by lawyers for Friends of George's. "It's been about protecting the kids in our community from something that is harmful to them. It's not age appropriate."

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

The sweeping language in the bill does not specify exactly what conduct or type of outfit would qualify a performer as a "male or female impersonator," whether the performance would have to be adult in nature to fall under the ban, or if performances in private locations where children may be present, like a person's home or private venue, would be impacted.

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

"If a restaurant hosts an 18+ drag brunch, and children walk by and see it through the windows, nothing prevents the drag performers from being charged under this statute," the complaint continued.

The bill's passing comes as anti-trans legislation is being increasingly introduced across the nation in what legal experts have previously told Insider is political posturing as we approach the 2024 election. The Trans Legislation Tracker, which has collected data about anti-trans bills introduced since 2015, has documented 492 bills across 47 states that have been introduced this year alone, including Tennessee's HB0009.

A promo image from "The Dragnificent 70's," performed by the cast of Friends of George's.
A promo image from "The Dragnificent 70s," performed by the cast of Friends of George's.Friends of George's

"Friends of George's feels that this bill that Bill Lee has signed into law makes it difficult for us to do our job without fear of some type of felony charge," Micah Winter-Cole, a drag performer for the troop also known as Miss Goldie Dee Collins, told Insider.

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

"We do not have an age restriction on our shows," Winter-Cole told Insider. "We leave parenting up to parents."

"It does seem hypocritical that the state wants parents to have inalienable rights to instruct their children on when they can wear masks or not wear masks, but here they can't expose their children to the type of art form that they deem appropriate," Winter-Cole continued.

In a complaint filed against the state officials, lawyers for Friends of George's argued the ban would not only directly violate drag performers' first amendment rights but would also cause a chilling effect among other artistic performances, who may be inclined to censor themselves to avoid running afoul of 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 probable violation of performers' first amendment rights that would likely result in "irreparable harm" in the absence of an injunction preventing the law from being implemented.

In the footnotes of his ruling, Parker noted a chilling effect has already taken place among other performance groups concerned about the statute, citing a theater organization called Absent Friends that hosts a monthly showing of the movie, "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," which modified its age-restriction policies since the law was passed.

"Rather than risk the well-being of its drag performers, Absent Friends made the decision to restrict future performances to audience members 18 years of age and older," Mystie-Elizabeth Watson, producer and director of Absent Friends, is quoted in the judge's ruling. "Were it not for this law, Absent Friends would not have added an age restriction to its monthly performances."

In the next two weeks, barring an extension of the restraining order, the court will have an additional status hearing to determine what actions will be taken next. It is 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 police power in restricting speech it considers obscene, it must do so within the constraints and framework of the United States Constitution," Parker wrote. "The Court finds that, as it stands, the record here suggests that when the legislature passed this statute, it missed the mark."

Read the original article on Business Insider