How Tennessee’s drag performers are planning on beating the state’s draconian drag ban

Veronika Electronika (center) and two drag performers at the "Love Rising" concertPhoto: courtesy of Veronika Electronika

During the height of Lizzo’s Knoxville, Tennessee concert — near the end of a song entitled “Everybody’s Gay” — a dazzling array of about 20 drag queens joined the Grammy-winning pop singer onstage. The queens strutted down the catwalk, danced, and posed in striking wigs and sparkling outfits while the music boomed and laser lights shined upon them.

Among Lizzo’s draggy crew were well-known performers from RuPaul’s Drag Race — like Aquaria, Asia O’ Hara, and Vanessa Vanjie Mateo — all clad in silvery outfits. But the group also featured local queens like Vivica Steel and drag king Trey Alize. Six local performers in particular wore fringe-covered two-piece outfits and large taffeta overcoats, each one a different color of the Pride flag.

“I was told by people on the internet, ‘Cancel your shows in Tennessee,’” Lizzo told the audience, referencing the state’s recent drag ban. “But why would I not come to the people who need to hear this message the most?”

“Why would I not create a safe space in Tennessee where we can celebrate drag entertainers and celebrate our differences and celebrate fat Black women?”

Steel, who wore purple in the performance, told LGBTQ Nation that Lizzo’s concert and other recent events “helped shine a much-needed and ultra-bright light on the fight in front of us here in Tennessee and others shaping up across the U.S.”

“As drag sisters, we tend to work and collaborate collectively,” Steel said. “Anytime you have a community of artists come together, it’s very effective. I strongly believe that the more individuals that speak up and speak out only strengthens the message as a whole.”

About a month and a half before Lizzo’s concert, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee (R) signed the nation’s first-ever drag ban, a law that bans male and female impersonators of “prurient interest” from performing on public property or in front of children.

The ban’s supporters said it was necessary to protect children from seeing simulated sex acts onstage (something that rarely happens during drag performances and is already banned). A federal judge temporarily blocked the drag ban from going into effect, calling it “vague,” “overly broad,” and a possible violation of free speech.

Nevertheless, similar legislation has been introduced in 14 other states. One such bill may soon be signed into law in Montana. Henry Seaton, a transgender advocate with the Tennessee chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) told NPR that the bans are a “subtle and sinister way to further criminalize just being trans” or gender-non-conforming. The bans could also have a chilling effect on Pride events and venues that traditionally welcome drag performers and their fans.

Additionally, Tennessee’s ban punishes multiple violations with felony charges, which can revoke a citizen’s voting rights. As such, it potentially adds to the discrimination, hatred, and political disenfranchisement already faced by marginalized groups, Steel told LGBTQ Nation.

“An estimated 450,000 individuals in the state of Tennessee [have] lost their voting rights due to non-violent felony offenses,” Steel said. “This ban isn’t about protecting children. This ban is a trap to take away our voices through criminalization.”

After Lee signed the ban into law on March 2, Steel, Alize, and fellow drag performers Veronika Electronika and Vidalia Anne Gentry appeared in front of an audience of nearly 9,000 people at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena for “Love Rising,” a March 20 benefit concert that raised funds for four LGBTQ+ organizations fighting the state’s queerphobic legislation: Tennessee Equality Project, Inclusion Tennessee, Tennessee Pride Chamber, and Out Memphis.

The concert featured local and Drag Race queens as well as performances by nationally renowned musicians like singer Sheryl Crow, Irish musician Hozier, and country artist Maren Morris. The queens performed with Morris during her inclusivity anthem “Crowded Table” and also during the closing number, “We Are Family.”

During Morris’ performance, she said, “I introduced my son to some drag queens today, so Tennessee, f**kin’ arrest me.” The audience responded with thunderous applause.

Though Lizzo and other visiting performers left the state after their one-night events, Alize told LGBTQ Nation that the celebrities’ presence helped propel the state’s LGBTQ+ battles into the mainstream media, producing momentum and more opportunities to amplify local voices.

Alize doesn’t feel entirely comforted by the court’s temporary injunction against Tennessee’s drag ban. “The block is just that, temporary,” Alize said. “The legislation that has come out so far makes it evident that the community is under attack. An attack that will not stop with a temporary block or even an end to the legislative calendar.”

“Our governing body has made it clear where their focus lies,” Alize continued. “We are moving targets — especially those in our transgender community. Their healthcare and ability to just simply live as their authentic self has been under direct fire.”

Indeed, on the same day that Lee signed the drag ban, he also signed a law banning minors from receiving gender-affirming care, something that major U.S. medical associations say is safe and essential for trans youths’ well-being.

“This is not just a Tennessee problem,” Alize said. “So many states are passing similar legislation, and in some cases, it’s even more detrimental.”

Gentry sees the issue in even starker terms. “The legislators who introduced these bills will mostly still hold office in the next legislative session, and introduce similar pieces of legislation with just as much power to easily pass them,” Gentry told LGBTQ Nation.

“There are fascists vying for the White House,” she continued. “It’s been my belief for months now that the reason behind all of these bills is fascism; whether they ‘stick’ or not, the intent is to bully liberal and progressive voters in hopes they’ll throw their hands up and say, ‘Screw it, I’m moving to California.’ Then, the christo-fascists control the Electoral College, and could gain enough control to call a Convention of States (to change the Constitution). Scary stuff.”

This Sunday, numerous Drag Race queens, LGBTQ+ celebrities, and allies will take part in Drag Isn’t Dangerous, a one-night telethon raising funds for national LGBTQ+ organizations that are fighting the wave of anti-drag and anti-trans legislation nationwide. The funds will benefit GLAAD, GLSEN, Headcount, Black Queer Town Hall, the ACLU Drag Defense Fund, and the Trans Justice Funding Project. The event’s performers and producers won’t be taking fees for their work, the telethon’s organizers told LGBTQ Nation.

Among the telethon’s many big names are glam-rocker Adam Lambert, gay comedian Billy Eichner, queer country musician Orville Peck, bisexual comedian Margaret Cho, gay actor Jesse Tyler Ferguson, former boy band members Joey McIntyre and Lance Bass, and also Drag Race alum Eureka O’Hara (who is herself from Tennessee).

During the telethon, O’Hara will appear in a video in which she discusses how her home state’s drag ban has impacted the lives of local performers.

Meanwhile, local performers are encouraging their state and national communities to collaboratively fight the drag ban as well as other anti-LGBTQ+ legislation.

“I think it is important for those who have the loudest voices to help project those already screaming,” Alize told LGBTQ Nation, adding that fans can help by using social media and other tools to raise awareness.

Drag has helped attract tourist dollars into Nashville, Alize noted. Local venues could capitalize on this by helping organize shows, rallies, and more to fundraise and educate others.

“As drag performers, we must continue to push,” Alize said. “We are a community of diversity, not only in artistry but in representation as well. Now is the time to join together, and be a movement. It can be as simple as a show, or extend into marches, rallies, and continued collaborations with more visible artists. We cannot be silent or still.”

Gentry said venues should empower people with fair wages and by “getting political,” or at the very least using their platforms to hold voter registration drives and encourage voting at the local, state, and national levels. Similarly, Electronika said she hopes that drag queens and kings will continue to be more politically active and maybe even run for political offices themselves.

“One silver lining to all of this political melodrama is seeing how energized people have become around politics at the local level,” Gentry said. “Drag entertainers, trans-people, allies, humans of earth: keep being you. Your authenticity alone is a protest that fundamentally threatens fascism.”

Electronika said, “Ban or no ban we are living in a toxic and dangerous political environment. We have to be active in our own fight for survival, because no one else can do it quite the way we can.”

“Our stilettos are the best secret weapons,” she added, “… soap boxes!”

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