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VOL. 46 | NO. 47 | Friday, November 25, 2022

Will we know bad ‘drag’ legislation when we see it

Updated 4:03PM
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This Sunday night at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center, “A Drag Queen Christmas” will be presented for the eighth consecutive year. And, maybe, the last.

Or maybe not the last. You never know when the legislature gets its hands on an issue.

State Sen. Jack Johnson of Franklin has prefiled legislation that would ban some drag shows on public property or if they are accessible to minors. I don’t know whether TPAC is considered public property, but I’m pretty sure it’s accessible to minors.

A clue: “Cinderella” played there last month.

And nothing in the promotions I’ve seen for the show indicates an age restriction. The one next month in Knoxville does carry these advisories: “All ages are welcome, but there is adult content,” and “Parental discretion is advised.”

Johnson’s bill isn’t limited to drag show bans. Adopting language already in state law addressing “adult cabarets,” it also mentions “topless dancers, go-go dancers, exotic dancers, strippers,” along with male or female impersonators. The key is in new language that they “provide entertainment that appeals to a prurient interest.”

I’ll get back to that concept later.

The inclusion of go-go dancers seems odd. Does anybody else remember “Shindig” or “Hullabaloo” on TV in the ’60s, with its female dancers in skirts and calf-length white boots shimmying in cages above the stage floor? Or, for that matter, Goldie Hawn in her breakout “Laugh-In” role? Is go-go still a thing? And, if so, is it undermining society? I don’t get out much.

A proposed drag show sponsored by the gay-friendly group Jackson Pride scheduled for a public park in that city recently seems to have helped put the issue on the legislative radar. After an uproar, the show was moved and restricted to adults only.

Another trigger was a video from a Chattanooga Pride event that showed a little girl touching the sequined dress of a performer, raising the hackles of the easily offended. Turned out the performer was an actual woman, but hey, you never know, right?

Opponents seem convinced that such Pride events are designed to “recruit children to this lifestyle,” as State Rep. Chris Todd of Jackson told The Tennessean. The fear, I suppose, is that a new generation of 8-year-old RuPauls will sprout across the state.

The legislation would make the first violation a misdemeanor and subsequent ones a felony.

It’s no surprise to see Johnson, the state Senate majority leader, behind the effort. His website touts his devotion to “Preserving Tennessee, Conservative Values,” and states he “Believes marriage must remain the sacred union of one man and one woman.”

Editor's note: This column was written before the killings at a Club Q in Colorado Springs. Five club patrons were killed and another 25 were wounded in the shooting.

“When it comes to our family values, there is no compromise,” it states. I suspect there’s little room in the Johnson world for deviation from the hetero norm.

Now, about that “prurient interest” qualifier the bill includes. Johnson told WKRN that he likened it to the way Justice Potter Stewart of the Supreme Court defined hard-core pornography in 1964.

“You know it when you see it,” Johnson said. “When you have a drag show and the people participating in that performance are clearly doing sexually suggestive things as part of that drag show, I think most people understand that, and there are legal things to define that.”

As it happens, though, “prurient interest” has its own definition in Tennessee law, which is “a shameful or morbid interest in sex.”

Shameful? Morbid? At…drag shows?

I can’t claim a familiarity with drag performances; I don’t get the appeal.

But I don’t get the appeal of basketball either, or opera, or asparagus. I know that a lot of people do, though, so I don’t judge.

And it’s my understanding that sex isn’t really a theme for most drag performances. Drag Bingo is held Tuesday nights at a diner near me, which seems an unlikely venue for libidinous activity. Humor, I suspect, is the primary goal.

The promo for the Knoxville show – which is sponsored by the same outfit as the Nashville performance – exhorts people to “Join us for a magical (and hilarious) evening.”

I won’t be doing that. But I do look forward to a spirited discussion of the topic, should Johnson’s bill get a hearing in committee. I don’t know about magical, but I suspect it might be hilarious. Unintentionally.

Joe Rogers is a former writer for The Tennessean and editor for The New York Times. He is retired and living in Nashville.

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