Tennessee bill filed after drag show controversy advances in General Assembly

Pixel the Drag Jester participates in a Pride event during Bonnaroo on Saturday, June 18, 2022 in Manchester, Tennessee.
Pixel the Drag Jester participates in a Pride event during Bonnaroo on Saturday, June 18, 2022 in Manchester, Tennessee.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect Rep. Scotty Campbell, R-Mountain City, supports changes to the bill but voted it out of a House subcommittee.

Could professional wrestling, a Miley Cyrus concert or a drag show party bus be classified as harmful to minors?

Those were the questions at legislative subcommittee meeting on Tuesday, as lawmakers eventually advanced a bill to criminalize some "adult" entertainment performances. The bill was filed by a state representative who previously characterized drag shows as "child abuse."

Rep. Chris Todd, R-Madison County, filed HB 09 , following a controversy in Jackson over plans for a "family-friendly" drag show. Todd and a group of religious leaders sought court action to stop the event, though eventually negotiations with event organizers led to a compromise over restricting minors from attending.

If passed, the law would prohibit "adult-oriented" performances from public spaces and require age restrictions at private venues. Entertainers would be subject to a misdemeanor first offence and a Class E felony on second offense, which could carry between on to six years in prison.

The bill aims to block "adult cabaret" entertainers from performing in public or anywhere a child could see the event. The legislation defines adult cabaret to include performers like exotic dancers and "strippers," but it also includes "male or female impersonators who provide entertainment that appeals to a prurient," or inappropriately sexualized, interest.

On Tuesday, the bill was amended to more explicitly define what might be harmful to minors, which some opponents say is a subjective term, by tying the bill to Tennessee's existing obscenity laws

"This is a common sense, child safety bill," Todd said.

Republicans and Democrats questioned parts of the bill and potential unintended consequences on Tuesday, noting entertainers such as professional wrestlers, NFL cheerleaders and pop stars may include costumes, content and behavior that some could approve of and some could find inappropriate.

"I can tell you that people in drag shows have more clothing on, as a rule, than people in wrestling," Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, said in the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee. Johnson ultimately voted against the bill.

Rep. Scotty Campbell, R-Mountain City, voted for the bill but expressed concern the legislation includes language to include other "similar" performers. Campbell, who has worked as a promoter for professional wrestling events, said the wording is too vague.

"If we're having a professional wrestling show at a county fair, and some promoter decides to have a bra-and-panties match, is that potentially a crime under this legislation?" Campbell asked.

Though he voted to move the bill to a full committee hearing, Campbell said the bill "needs to be more specific."

"Are they going to arrest Miley Cyrus or Beyoncé under this bill?" Campbell said. "I would certainly hope not."

Senate committee debate

Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, told the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday that opponents of the bill had mischaracterized its intent, and the legislation would only apply to blatantly "sexually explicit entertainment."

"Things I think any reasonable person, as the statute defines, that would look at and see and deem that as inappropriate," said Johnson, the Senate sponsor. "As with any law we pass up here, certainly there will be prosecutorial discretion."

The bill advanced through committee on Tuesday, clearing the way for a full Senate vote. The House version still awaits a full committee hearing.

What is drag?As performances draw political criticism, experts weigh in

Drag performance is a centuries-old practice practiced in theater and with more modern roots in the LGBTQ community. A form of gender performance and entertainment, it does not necessarily include sexual content.

Recent controversies over drag shows in Tennessee indicate some opponents view any drag performance as inherently inappropriate, sexualized or harmful to children. Todd in October told The Tennessean he had not reached out to organizers or performers about the content of the Jackson show, despite continuously declaring it “inappropriate,” “trash,” and “child abuse.”

Another proposed bill, HB 30, would require "adult cabaret" performers to be licensed by a state board before performing. The bill aims to explicitly define adult cabaret entertainment to include "male or female impersonators" with exotic or topless dancers.

In Chattanooga, controversy swirled after a video of a Pride youth event went viral, where a small child touched the sequined dress of a performer on stage dressed as Ariel from "The Little Mermaid." A number of residents called for the city council to ban all-age drag show performances before the Pride event organizer confirmed the performer wasn't even a drag performer but a woman who "does princess parties as part of her job," the Chattanooga Times Free Press reported.

Reach Melissa Brown at mabrown@tennessean.com.

This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Tennessee bill filed after drag show controversy advances