What the Tennessee Drag Bill Means
On Thursday, March 2, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee signed into law a bill restricting public drag performances in the state, referencing “male or female impersonators” as an example of an “adult cabaret performance.” The new Tennessee law comes alongside at least nine similar bills across the United States.
In light of this wave of legislation targeting drag performers throughout the country, many have raised concerns about the implications of these laws for transgender individuals and for the LGBT community as a whole. For a community that has only begun to gain widespread acceptance in the United States, these bills may be a major step backwards.
The United States has a long history of legislation restricting how individuals are permitted to dress. An 1848 law in Columbus, Ohio prohibited a person from wearing “dress not belonging to his or her sex” in public. More than forty cities throughout the country instituted similar policies during the following decades.
Although this type of legally enforced dress code may seem like a relic of the past, the vague wording of Tennessee’s new law leaves room for a wide range of interpretations and many questions regarding the enforcement of this type of legislation remain unanswered.
As fashion has developed, the lines between male and female presentation have become more blurred. This lack of clear distinction between gendered clothing raises concerns about how such laws will be enforced and what exactly constitutes “male or female impersonation.”
Because the Tennessee law does not clearly define what a “male or female impersonator” is, enforcement will likely vary throughout the state. While in some areas it may not be enforced at all, law enforcement will have the power to interpret the law as strictly or as loosely as they choose.
Restricting dress because it may make certain people uncomfortable violates the principle of freedom of speech that has always been a key pillar of American democracy. Efforts to ban gender nonconformity in public will not prevent young people from learning about it. They will, however, make them feel like they have to conform to an arbitrary set of expectations to be accepted by their community.