In an article responding to anti-drag laws, a drag queen with a light pink wig, glasses, and multicolored dress sits in a library and reads a yellow children's book aloud to an audience.

How the Tennessee Drag Bill Affects LGBTQ Youth

In the face of mass shootings, poverty and police brutality, America’s most pressing issue is drag queens, right?
April 3, 2023
8 mins read

TW: Mentions of suicide

On Feb. 23, 2023, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee signed a bill that prohibits drag performances on public property and severely limits them to age-restricted areas throughout the state. The bill bans shows from occurring within 1,000 feet of schools, public parks and places of worship. Those who violate this ban will face misdemeanor charges for their first offense, as well as a fine of up to $2,500 and/or up to a year in jail. Those with numerous violations will face a felony charge, punishable by up to six years in jail.

Many Republican officials who’ve championed the bill argue that drag shows are “unsafe” for minors, claiming they promote promiscuity and sexual deviance in children. One representative, Chris Todd of R-Madison county, promoted the bill after he fought to prevent a Pride show in Jackson, Tennessee, calling it “child abuse.” While some Republicans say the bill will only affect drag shows with inappropriate content, many Tennessee officials, like Todd, have condemned them all as “dangerous” to children. These comments reveal their ignorance of the actual contents of drag performances.

This is not the only bill passed in Tennessee that threatens the rights of LGBTQIA+ people. The same day that the anti-drag bill was passed, bill SB001 was signed into law. This bill criminalizes gender-affirming healthcare for trans youth by defining surgeries and hormone treatment as child abuse. Nebraska, Texas, North Dakota, South Carolina and West Virginia have introduced similar bills. These bills make it illegal for children and teens diagnosed with gender dysphoria to take medication or receive hormone therapy as treatment.

Tennessee Republicans claim their bill is meant to protect children from the perceived danger of gender-affirming care. However, the reality is that it adds to the already intense stigma against transgender individuals and will subject them to severe mental health issues. A study published by the Journal of the American Medical Association in February 2022 found that trans youth with access to gender-affirming care were 60% less likely to develop depression and 73% less likely to attempt suicide, compared to those who did not receive treatment. The officials who passed Tennessee’s bill or are working to pass similar legislation actively harm trans youth by prohibiting the aid and healthcare needed to mitigate the mental health issues the trans community faces.

Sadly, this bill only adds to America’s extensive history of hateful laws enacted to suppress LGBTQIA+ people. In 1863, San Francisco passed a law that prohibited individuals from publicly wearing clothes that did not align with their sex assigned at birth. Jules Gill-Peterson, a professor at John Hopkins University specializing in trans history, discusses how these laws were specifically designed to erase LGBTQIA+ existence in America: “They were really used for many decades, well into the 20th century to imperil and harass, but also silence LGBT people. Because if you were arrested, which was so easy under the way these laws were written, your name might be published in the newspaper, you’d have a criminal record. It could really ruin your employment chances and out you to everyone.”

While history reveals constant discrimination against LGBTQIA+ citizens, Peterson emphasizes that these decisions can be overturned. She encourages action, reminding Americans that voters have the power to change these laws. “They have been repealed before. That reminds us that no matter what kinds of legislation are being passed today and how cruel or devastating the impact is, these aren’t foregone conclusions.”

It’s not just historians that are speaking out against the rush of anti-trans laws. BenDeLaCreme, the critically acclaimed “RuPaul’s Drag Race” star, recently went on MSNBC to express her disgust at the bill. Ben discussed the hypocrisy of lawmakers who create bills against trans expression to protect children while constantly voting against stricter gun safety laws and mental health awareness. In response to officials who claim drag entertainment is only for adults, Ben described a Drag Queen Story Hour event in Orlando, Florida, one year after the Pulse nightclub shooting. At the event, she read children’s stories about LGBTQ youth and expression to families. When asked why the issue was so personal to her, Ben explained that it was the transgender and drag queen trailblazers who led the movement against LGBTQIA+ discrimination in this country.

Activists like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera spearheaded the gay rights movement by leading protests, which famously sparked the Stonewall riots. Ben explained that these figures are essential for children to know about, as they give queer kids the opportunity to identify with others like themselves. In fact, Ben argued that queer representation could be lifesaving for children experiencing confusion and oppression based on their gender and sexual identities, stating, “As a young person, I wish I saw more queer representation; it is a hard thing to grow up queer. And like it or not, your kids may need to see people like this out there, it may save their life. It may actually let them know that there are people like them out there. It is a dark thing to grow up a queer kid; I know I made it out just by the skin of my teeth.”

Ben has been very open about her experiences with mental health issues; she discussed her suicidal ideation throughout adolescence, which was largely due to her struggle with her sexuality and gender expression. She described finding purpose and expression in the art of drag and has repeatedly conveyed her appreciation for the drag community for providing her with a sense of safety and belonging.

The fight to eliminate social and political discrimination against trans people cannot only be fought by queer folks. If you are an ally, it is important to follow LGBTQIA+ figures and listen to what they’re saying. Educate yourself on issues regarding queer people and share that information with as many people as you can. You can reach out to your state and local representatives to express your frustration with these bills. You can also donate to organizations that actively fight against queer suppression by providing safe spaces for trans children. One organization to aid, the Trans Equality Youth Foundation, is a nonprofit that provides education, support and advocacy for trans and gender non-conforming children. People must urgently express their anger toward these oppressive bills, and fight against the harmful ideologies that work to silence LGBTQIA+ people everywhere.

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