Seemingly overnight, MAGA America suddenly became drag-phobic some 70 years after the biggest television star of the conservative 1950s came beaming into living rooms across the nation dressed in drag. Milton Berle, aka “Mr. Television” did skits in drag for his show “Texaco Star Theater.”
But drag performances are now portrayed by right-wing politicians and their supporters as dangerous to children — yet the uncountable number of guns floating around the country isn’t.
Rather than tackle gun reform this week, Tennessee lawmakers passed a bill that aims to restrict “adult cabaret performances” in public or in front of children. It will take effect July 1 now that Gov. Bill Lee has signed the legislation Thursday without fanfare or public statement.
Perhaps it’s because a Reddit user posted a picture of Lee from his high school yearbook last weekend — a photo that shows him dressed in drag as a high school student wearing a short-skirted cheerleader’s uniform, a pearl necklace, and a wig — posing on a school athletics field next to two girls in men’s suits.
On Monday Lee was asked by reporters if he remembered “dressing in drag in 1977” and was shown a copy of the image and asked if he thought it was only illegal when gay men do it. He neither confirmed nor denied whether it was him in the image, and responded angrily as the reporter captured the exchange on video and posted it to Twitter.
Lee’s press secretary, Jade Cooper Byers, did not confirm if Lee is the person in the photo, but said in a pithy email that “any attempt to conflate this serious issue with lighthearted school traditions is dishonest and disrespectful to Tennessee families.”
The bill known as Senate Bill 3 bans drag performances, which have historically been considered an art form, from being performed on public property, or anywhere a performance might be viewed by minors.
The Tennessee law is a direct result of their efforts to squash a popular phenomenon known as “drag story hours ” at which performers read to kids in costume.
Conservative media and Republican lawmakers have claimed that their opposition to drag shows is about protecting children, repeating the homophobic trope that drag queens and the LGBTQ community are “grooming” young children for future participation in their lifestyles.
The word “drag” does not even appear in the bill — but instead changes the definition of adult cabaret in Tennessee’s law to mean “adult-oriented performances that are harmful to minors.” It makes “male or female impersonators” equivalent to adult cabaret among topless dancers, go-go dancers, exotic dancers, and strippers.
The legislation follows a series of drag show controversies in Tennessee. Opponents worry it could open the door to wider legal battles, as the bill is viewed as anti-business by the party most associated with pro-business legislation and philosophy.
Do As I Say, Not As I Do
Lee is not the only GOP politician to phobically campaign against drag performers only to be found to have once been one.
A Texas Republican lawmaker recently authored a bill that would restrict drag performances. The bill defines a drag performance as when “a performer exhibits a gender identity that is different from the performer’s gender assigned at birth.”
But a video surfaced on Twitter and TikTok this month showing Texas state Rep. Nate Schatzline, R-Fort Worth — in drag, skipping, running, and dancing in a park dressed in a black sequined dress and a red eye mask.
“Nate Schatzline has made his entire personality attacking the LGBTQ community, trans especially children, and vowed to ban drag shows in Texas,” the Twitter user wrote. “Here is Nate… in drag.”
At the end of the roughly 90-second video — which plays over the song “Sexy Lady” by Javi Mula — the four participants are named, including Schatzline, whose character is called “The Virgin.”
The video comes about a month after an image emerged on social media of the embattled Republican Rep. George Santos of New York in drag. At the time, Santos told reporters as he walked through a New York airport: “No, I was not a drag queen in Brazil, guys. I was young and I had fun at a festival. Sue me for having a life.”
The GOP’s War On The LGBQT
While Tennessee is the first state to pass such a restriction on drag performances, it may soon have company, as Republican legislators in a dozen other states have introduced similar laws this year, according to a recent NBC News analysis.
The Washington Post recently reported that at least 26 bills have been introduced in 14 states by Republican legislators taking aim at drag events so far in this legislative session.
Last year, over 300 anti-LGBTQ bills were filed in state legislative sessions — but less than 30 became law — indicating strong pushback against some of these restrictions, even in Republican-led state governments, according to the Human Rights Campaign.
The new law was fast-tracked by the Tennessee legislature’s Republican supermajority and is viewed by the LGBQT community as part of a larger war being waged against them by right-wing lawmakers, as the state GOP also authored a new health law that bans medical treatment for transgender members of the state.
The health law, which is aimed at Tennessee children who identify as transgender and nonbinary — bans medications such as puberty blockers and hormone treatments to treat any underlying gender dysphoria cause, as well as surgeries — and stipulates that children currently on medication have until March 31, 2024, to conclude treatment.
According to The Tennessean, the American Civil Liberties Union plans to sue over the bill.
Organizers of LGBTQ Pride events say the law will put a chill on their parades, as they will no longer be able to perform, and they consider the ban a civil rights violation.
And Tennessee’s LGBQT community isn’t letting the signing by Lee go unopposed, as two protestors were briefly detained at his appearance at a grand opening for a YMCA on Wednesday in Memphis.
Confronting Lee was important to Brandy Pride, one of the two protesters. She said she wanted Lee to physically see her and understand that his bills endanger LGBTQ Tennesseans and suppress their right to free speech and expression.
Drag Through The Ages
The sudden phobia of drag performers is perplexing, given they have been featured in art throughout history.
Even one of Tennessee’s most famous daughters, Dolly Parton, said: “If I hadn’t been a girl, I’d have been a drag queen.”
“In ancient Greece, men were playing female roles,” said Frank DeCaro, author of Drag: Combing Through the Big Wigs of Show Business. “In Shakespearean times, it was the same thing. In the kabuki tradition in Japan, it was going on. In minstrel shows they had a drag queen. In vaudeville, in burlesque, there’s always been someone cross-dressing for work.”
DeCaro traces the modern drag movement back to Julian Eltinge, an American vaudeville performer, singer, and actor in the early 20th century, who sang as a female impersonator, or “femme mimic,” but emphasized his masculinity offstage and was not part of the gay community of the day.
“People are finally acknowledging it as an art form to be reckoned with,” said Randy Barbato, co-executive producer of RuPaul’s Drag Race, the TV show that has helped push drag culture into the mainstream.