Tennessee suppresses drag shows, bans gender-affirming care for kids

Tennesse Gov. Bill Lee (R) and drag artist Vidalia Anne Gentry (L) as she speaks during a news conference to draw attention to an anti-drag bill in the Tennessee legislature on Feb 14, 2023. Global News

In first-of-its-kind legislation, Tennessee has moved to criminalize drag performances that occur on public property or in proximity to minors.

The bill categorizes “male or female impersonators” as “adult cabaret entertainment” like topless and exotic dancers, and will take effect on April 1.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee signed the bill into law on Thursday, just days after a high school yearbook photo of the Republican politician surfaced showing him dressed in women’s clothing. When asked about the 1977 photo on Monday, Lee did not see how his actions were connected to those of the “male or female impersonators” facing restrictions under the new law.

“What a ridiculous question that is,” said Lee, who was visibly angry. “Conflating something like that to sexualized entertainment in front of children, which is a very serious question.”

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The Tennessee bill bans drag performances from occurring within 1,000 feet of schools, public parks and places of worship under penalty of a maximum six years in prison. First-time offenders will be charged with misdemeanours and subsequent offences will rise to the level of felony.

“This bill is not anti-LGBTQ,” said Republican Sen. Lindsey Tichenor, the bill’s lead sponsor. “This bill is pro-children. For some reason, people want this type of content in front of children. And I would dare ask, why? Why do we need to sexualize our children?”

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As the bill was passed in Tennessee’s senate, opponents of the legislation started chanting “shame.” Drag performer Poly Tics had earlier told lawmakers the bill was an attack on her livelihood.

“As a drag performer who depends on drag shows … for income, this bill not only tells me that I am not really a human worthy of rights, but I’m also not worthy to work and I’m not deserving of an ability to make money,” she said.

In Canada, drag shows and storytime events have increasingly been subject to protests from anti-LGBTQ2 demonstrators, mirroring a similar phenomenon in the U.S.

Click to play video: 'Anti-trans, anti-gay hate surges amid polarized political climate'
Anti-trans, anti-gay hate surges amid polarized political climate

Thursday also saw the passage of a Tennessee bill banning minors under 18 from receiving gender-affirming care. Doctors will be prohibited from prescribing puberty blockers and hormones among other forms of health care for transgender people.

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The American Civil Liberties Union said it planned to sue over Tennessee’s bill.

Across the United States, state lawmakers have introduced legislation attacking gender-affirming medical care for young people, even as such services have been available in the U.S. for more than a decade and are endorsed by major medical associations. Similar bills have advanced in Nebraska, Mississippi, Oklahoma and South Dakota. In Utah, the Republican governor recently signed a transgender medical ban into law.

The new legislation allows an exception for doctors to continue performing gender-affirming care if patients begin treatment prior to July 1, 2023 — which is when the ban will go into effect.

“These children do not need these medical procedures to be able to flourish as adults,” said House Majority Leader William Lamberth. “They need mental health treatment. They need love and support, and many of them need to be able to grow up to become the individuals that they were intended to be.”

Meanwhile, Democratic Rep. Gloria Johnson says Tennessee is going down the wrong path after the state banned abortion last year.

“We have taken away a woman’s right to determine her health care and her health outcomes — and now we’ve gone to children,” Johnson said. “If a doctor and a family feels that taking hormone blockers is going to be healthy and productive and life-saving for these children, that’s a decision that should be made.”

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— With files from The Associated Press

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