A federal judge struck down a first-of-its-kind Tennessee law that banned drag shows in public or where children could watch them, writing that the unconstitutional measure was passed “for the impermissible purpose of chilling constitutionally protected speech.”
In his ruling issued Friday, U.S. District Judge Thomas Parker wrote that the law violates First Amendment freedom of speech protections and was “unconstitutionally vague and substantially overbroad.” Tennessee Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti said in a statement that he expects to appeal the ruling “at the appropriate time.”
Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee (R) signed the law in March, setting up Tennessee as the first state to explicitly ban drag performances in public spaces. The measure aimed to criminalize what it called “adult cabaret entertainment” by punishing first-time offenders with misdemeanors and repeat offenders with felony charges. Under the law, people convicted of multiple offenses could face prison sentences of up to six years. Parker blocked the law hours before it was set to take effect on April 1, delaying its start date so he could consider whether the ban was constitutional.
The bill was one of at least 26 introduced across the nation this year taking aim at drag events. This sudden rush to regulate and ban drag shows, largely by arguing that the performances are harmful to minors, is part of a wider GOP strategy to roll back - or at least signal that it wants to roll back - LGBTQ rights as the 2024 election season approaches.
State lawmakers have introduced more than 400 anti-transgender bills this year, up from about 150 bills in 2022, according to a Post analysis of ACLU data.
Members of the queer community have long found refuge in the art of drag, which has gained significant mainstream popularity in recent years. And while doing drag and being transgender are not one in the same, transgender activist Imara Jones said proponents of drag bans and other anti-LGBTQ legislation tend to equate the two.
“For them, drag is on the same continuum as being trans because it’s about violating gender rules and laws,” she said.
LGBTQ rights groups are taking the Tennessee ruling as a victory that could set the tone for legal challenges to drag bans nationwide. Attorney Brice Timmons, one of the lawyers who represented the plaintiff in this case, said he and his Donati Law colleague Melissa Stewart are headed to Florida for a hearing on their court challenge to that state’s drag ban.
Sarah Kate Ellis, president and CEO of LGBTQ rights group GLAAD, called the Tennessee ruling a turning point.
“Every anti-LGBTQ elected official is on notice that these baseless laws will not stand and that our constitutional freedom of speech and expression protects everyone and propels our culture forward,” Ellis said in a statement.
Republicans have zeroed in on anti-LGBTQ bills that avow to protect minors and to show voters the party is ready to fight in the nation’s culture wars, according to Mark Jones, political scientist at Rice University. The bills range from drag bans to bans on gender-affirming care for transgender children and restrictions for transgender athletes.
Efforts from several years ago, such as laws restricting which bathrooms transgender people could use, are no longer resonating with voters, Jones said. Now, the concept of protecting children is top-of-mind for the Republican base. A Washington Post-KFF poll conducted in November and December of last year found that majorities of Americans support restrictions affecting transgender children.
Parker, the judge who was appointed to the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee by President Donald Trump, issued a preliminary injunction at the end of March to block the Tennessee law from taking effect. In that ruling, he agreed with the plaintiff Friends of George’s, a Memphis-based theater group that produces drag and other performances, that the law was too broad.
Friends of George’s celebrated Friday’s ruling in a tweet Saturday morning, saying, “WE WON!” Members of the theater company were headed to a parade Saturday afternoon to mark the first weekend of Pride Month.
“While today is a moment worth celebrating as we kick off Pride month, our work is not finished,” the nonprofit organization said in a statement. “As the onslaught of hatred against the LGBTQ+ community continues around the country through the passage of anti-trans, homophobic, and draconian laws that seek to silence expression and identity, we will remain vocal and vigilant.”
Tennessee Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson (R), who sponsored the legislation in his chamber, said he was “disappointed” with the ruling.
“Despite the Court’s perplexing reading of the law, I am confident - and have always been - that this legislation does nothing to suppress the First Amendment,” Johnson tweeted Saturday morning.
Lee’s office did not respond to a request for comment Saturday morning.
Lawmakers who have proposed many of this year’s anti-LGBTQ efforts, including drag bans, say the measures would protect minors. On Friday, Texas became the most populous state to ban gender-affirming care for transgender minors; Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) has previously ordered state officials to investigate instances of “so-called ‘sex-change’ procedures,” saying the acts constitute child abuse under Texas law. (Numerous medical professionals have challenged the science behind the Abbott administration’s.)
Tennessee lawmakers passed a bill similar to the Texas one this year, which is set to take effect July 1. In April, the Justice Department sued Tennessee over the law, calling it unconstitutional.
Regardless of the legal outcomes of these cases, Republicans may have succeeded, Rice University’s Jones said, arguing that the GOP’s main objective is to signal to its base that lawmakers are fighting on their behalf in a broader culture war.
“The actual ban on children attending drag shows would be the cherry on top,” Jones said. “But in many ways, just by passing this legislation, Republican lawmakers have achieved their principal objective.”