Renae Green-Bean had started taking precautions in public even before the Tennessee legislature approved a law in March limiting where “adult cabaret” can be performed.
Ms. Green-Bean had watched the uptick in legislation restricting L.G.B.T.Q. rights and worried that restaurant nights with her wife, children or grandchildren, or her preference for masculine attire and closely cropped hair, would invite harassment. So she could not help but worry that the new law would make her feel less safe pursuing her creative outlet: throwing on a bedazzled jacket several nights a week and transforming into El Rey, a drag king.
If a federal judge allows the law to take effect in the coming weeks, it will ban what it defines as adult cabaret performances, including by “male or female impersonators,” on public property or anywhere children could view them. It will not stop the shows that Ms. Green-Bean, 46, puts on at an adults-only club in Clarksville and other clubs near the Kentucky border.
Still, she and other performers said, being seen in drag anywhere in public feels far riskier now. The law and others like it come as far-right activists have increasingly targeted drag shows across the country, with members of the Proud Boys and other protesters, sometimes heavily armed, appearing at the shows and at library story hours when drag performers read books to children.
“There is a scare factor,” Ms. Green-Bean said of the law, “because they’ve given people the right to be hateful.”
The judge temporarily blocked the law from going into effect in late March after a Memphis theater group challenged its constitutionality, but its passage has sown fear and confusion among drag performers that is unlikely to dissipate even if the law is overturned.
Ahead of a ruling that could come as soon as this week, the law is also scrambling the plans of entertainment venues, performers and event organizers preparing for Pride Month celebrations, many of which take place on city streets and in other public spots. Such events, along with all-ages drag brunches in a smattering of venues around the state, appear to be the law’s main targets.
Groups planning Pride celebrations are either restricting attendance to adults or canceling drag performances — not only in Tennessee, but in Florida, Montana, Texas and Arkansas, which passed similar laws this year banning anyone under 18 from live performances that meet lawmakers’ definition of inappropriate.
The laws have been fueled by conservative backlash as Pride parades and festivals have proliferated across the country and drag has found a firm foothold in the mainstream media. The popular reality TV show “RuPaul’s Drag Race” has catapulted a number of artists to roles in movies, TV shows and musicals, and giant retailers like Target and Walmart market L.G.B.T.Q. merchandise, the focus of a new outcry ahead of Pride Month.
Despite that growing visibility in mainstream culture, many people supporting anti-drag bills — which have been debated in more than a dozen states this year — consider drag performances too mature for young people or in direct conflict with deep religious values and maintain that they need to draw the line.
The most vocal critics of drag have characterized it as invariably sexual. But as audiences have broadened, many drag artists say they have adapted their performances, making them appropriate for drag brunches and public events like Pride parades when children might be present.
“Drag performers were already regulating themselves,” said Vanessa Rodley, the president of Mid-South Pride. “They did not need the government to come and regulate them.”
Even with the law on hold, Ms. Rodley has spent weeks reviewing costumes and music for the dozens of drag artists scheduled to appear at Mid-South Pride’s festival in Memphis next month. To avoid any photos or video clips that could be taken out of context and used to imply suspect behavior in front of children, she has also ruled out onstage costume changes or accepting tips by hand, a common practice at drag shows.
The Tennessee law grew out of a conflict last year in Jackson, a city between Memphis and Nashville, where two state lawmakers and some members of a local church sued to stop a drag show from taking place at a public park during the city’s annual Pride festival. A settlement restricted the event to people 18 and older.
Soon after, one of the lawmakers, State Representative Chris Todd, sponsored the bill criminalizing adult cabaret in certain settings. A first offense under the law would be a misdemeanor, punishable by up to nearly a year in jail and a fine of $2,500. Subsequent offenses would be felonies, punishable by up to six years in prison and a fine of up to $3,000.
Testifying in favor of Tennessee’s measure this year, Adam Dooley, pastor of the Englewood Baptist Church in Jackson, said that while adults “have every right” to see a drag performance, “They do not have a right to insist that children be present, and frankly, I question whether there is some sinister motive that would drive the demand for children to be present.”
Opponents of the law and others like it say that they echo a decades-old anti-L.G.B.T.Q. smear by suggesting that performers prey on children.
Benjamin Slinkard, who performs as Kennedy Ann Scott, the resident drag queen at the Lipstick Lounge in Nashville, said he saw a motivation for the law that had nothing to do with protecting minors: “A group of humans who are completely OK being themselves and sharing that with the world, I think, terrifies people who have only seen the world from one point of view.”
The crackdown on drag performances belies the deep history of drag artistry in the South, which started long before it became a mainstay in the region’s biggest entertainment districts.
Sarah Calise, the founder and director of Nashville Queer History, a project dedicated to the history of the city’s L.G.B.T.Q. community, said that drag largely began in the region with white men performing as women in 19th century minstrel blackface shows before expanding through vaudeville and then L.G.B.T.Q. clubs.
Later, performers were required to carry identification cards and saw their clubs targeted by the police and by arsonists in Tennessee, even as the state became the birthplace for Miss Gay America, now a 51-year old drag pageant.
Now, many drag artists have résumés studded with pageantry titles or appearances with Nashville’s music stars, while also lip-syncing and dancing at variety shows or weekend brunches crowded with groups visiting for bachelorette weekends.
In interviews, several performers reflected on how drag has been an antidote to the loneliness and pain they experienced in childhood, as their deeply religious or conservative communities ostracized L.G.B.T.Q. people. Having watched their own families struggle to understand their sexual or gender identity or their passion for drag, many performers accept that some parents may not be comfortable with their children seeing a drag show, even one with family-friendly routines.
Miami Miller, a drag performer who takes care of a young nephew with earnings from performing at Atomic Rose, a club in Memphis, said the boy “is aware of what I do, and he’s super proud of me.” Attending his first drag show for Mother’s Day this month, Mx. Miller said, the boy marveled at the performers’ transformations and spent the rest of the day talking about it.
“It’s like any other parent when you’re around a child,” Mx. Miller said. “I try to keep everything appropriate around children.”
Overlooked as legislators rush to define what types of live entertainment are unsuitable for minors, several artists said, are the rights of parents who see benefits — including learning about self-expression and acceptance — to their children experiencing drag.
“For a little kid like me, who knew at a very young age that I was different, it would have been powerful to see myself in someone else and to know that there was a future for me,” said Slade Kyle, 43, who works as Bella DuBalle, the show director and host at Atomic Rose, who is now one of the most outspoken drag performers in the state.
At a recent all-ages brunch at Atomic Rose, Ms. DuBalle brought Elizabeth, a 9-year-old fan, onstage to dance after chatting with her about the challenges of elementary school.
Her father, Seth Bowlin, 33, recalled initially rejecting his own father for being gay and a drag performer in Memphis, before embracing him. Taking his daughter to drag shows was an opportunity to model acceptance, Mr. Bowlin said, and to let her know “we will support her” no matter who she grows up to be.
In Clarksville, Ms. Green-Bean and her wife, Lizette, say they will continue performing a few nights a week for now, dancing with each other or taking the spotlight alone with the support of their children in what feels an escape from the world’s expectations.
“Sometimes you get lost in who society and everybody else wants you to be as a mom,” Lizette, 43, said. “Drag is a place where you don’t have to be that. You don’t have to be what is your typical, daily label.”
Emily Cochrane is a national correspondent covering the American South, based in Nashville. She was previously a congressional correspondent in Washington, chronicling the annual debate over government funding and economic legislation. @ESCochrane
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