Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee quietly signs bans on drag shows, gender-affirming health care

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee
Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee Jason Davis/Getty Images

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee (R) signed bills Thursday that ban gender-affirming health care for minors and "adult-oriented" performances by "male or female impersonators" in public spaces or events where children may be present. The bills were fast-tracked by the state legislature's Republican supermajority, over objections from medical groups, LGBTQ advocates, and civil libertarians. "Lee signed off on the legislation without issuing a statement or having a public ceremony," The Associated Press reports.

The gender-affirming care law bans medications like puberty blockers and hormones for any form of gender dysphoria, as well as surgeries, which are rare in Tennessee, The Tennesseean reports. Minors taking those medications have until March 31, 2024, to stop. The Tennessee chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, which had urged Lee not to sign the bill, said gender-affirming care "can be lifesaving" and this ban "interferes with the physician-patient relationship and parental choice."

The American Civil Liberties Union said it will sue to block the "dangerous" and "unconstitutional law," which showcases Lee's "intent to discriminate" against transgender youth and his "willful ignorance about the life-saving health care" he seeks to ban. Stella Yarbrough, ACLU of Tennessee legal director, said the drag show law "does not make it illegal to perform in drag in Tennessee," because "drag performances are not inherently obscene," but the ACLU is "concerned that government officials could easily abuse this law to censor people based on their own subjective viewpoints of what they deem appropriate."

Although the bill's sponsor, Rep. Chris Todd (R), has called drag shows "child abuse" and suggested they are inherently unsafe for minors, other Republican lawmakers have argued it will only ban drag shows that fall under the state's existing obscenity laws — which, Democrats noted, already protect children.

"Drag does not typically involve nudity or stripping, which are more common in the separate art of burlesque," AP reports. In fact, drag is "a form of entertainment that has long had a place on the mainstream American stage," from Milton Berle "appearing in drag on the public airwaves as early as the 1950s" to the "bona fide cultural phenomenon" of RuPaul's Drag Race, and the fact "that such spectacles are now being portrayed as a danger to children boggles the minds of people who study, perform, and appreciate drag."

Dolly Parton frequently says, "If I hadn't been a girl, I'd have been a drag queen," AP notes. "But if she really were a drag queen, one of Tennessee's most famous daughters would likely be out of a job" under this law.

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