Tennessee enacts nation’s first law restricting drag shows, bans gender-affirming care for youth

Tennessee on Thursday became the first state to enact a law explicitly targeting drag shows, while also joining a growing list of GOP-led states to ban gender-affirming health care for transgender youth.

The drag show provision criminalizes performances that take place in public or where they could be seen by children.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee (R) signed both measures into law on Thursday without public comment. His office did not respond to The Hill’s request for comment.

Senate Bill 3, the drag ban, prohibits “adult cabaret performances” from taking place within 1,000 feet of schools, public parks or places of worship. The new law, effective April 1, builds on existing restrictions on “adult-oriented businesses” in Tennessee, expanding the state’s obscenity laws to include performances that feature topless or exotic dancers or “male or female impersonators” that provide entertainment appealing “to a prurient interest.”

Drag shows have recently drawn the ire of Republicans in state legislatures nationwide, spurring GOP lawmakers to introduce dozens of bills seeking to crack down on performances they say are offensive and inappropriate for children.

Tennessee Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson (R), who sponsored Senate Bill 3, said in November that he introduced the measure to prevent drag shows that are “sexual in nature” from taking place where children could be present.

Drag performers in Tennessee beginning next month could find themselves behind bars for performing in certain public spaces or where their shows may be viewed by “a person who is not an adult,” according to the new law.

First-time violators may be charged with a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by a $2,500 fine and up to a year in jail. Any subsequent offenses will be classified as a Class E felony, carrying a maximum six-year prison sentence.

And under Tennessee’s Senate Bill 1, which will take effect July 1, health care providers are prohibited from prescribing puberty blockers or hormones, and from performing gender-affirming surgeries, for transgender minors.

Tennessee is the eighth state in the nation to enact such a law, and the fourth to do so this year. On Wednesday, Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves (R) signed legislation that similarly bars minors in the state from accessing gender-affirming health care.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and its Tennessee affiliate, as well as the LGBTQ civil rights organization Lambda Legal, said they plan to challenge the new law in court. The groups have filed similar suits against laws in Arkansas and Alabama.

“We will not allow this dangerous law to stand. Certain politicians and Gov. Lee have made no secret of their intent to discriminate against youth who are transgender or their willful ignorance about the life-saving health care they seek to ban,” the groups said Thursday in a statement. “Instead, they’ve chosen fearmongering, misrepresentations, intimidation, and extremist politics over the rights of families and the lives of transgender youth in Tennessee.”

“We are dedicated to overturning this unconstitutional law and are confident the state will find itself completely incapable of defending it in court,” the groups added. “We want transgender youth to know they are not alone and this fight is not over.”

Gender-affirming health care — for both transgender youth and adults — is considered safe, effective and medically necessary by most major medical organizations.

Lee’s approval of the bill comes just days after a photo appearing to show a teenage Lee dressed as a woman surfaced online. Lee was asked about the photo by reporters on Monday.

“What a ridiculous, ridiculous question that is,” the governor responded. “Conflating something like that to sexualized entertainment in front of children … which is a very serious subject.”

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