Judge Blocks Tennessee Law Restricting Drag Performances

A federal judge had temporarily blocked a new Tennessee law that placed strict limits on drag shows just hours before it was set to go into effect, siding with a group that filed a lawsuit claiming the statute violates the first amendment.

Friends of George’s, a Memphis-based LGBTQ+ theatre company, filed the complaint on Monday against Shelby County District Attorney Steve Mulroy and the state.

After hearing arguments on both sides on Thursday, US District Judge Thomas Parker imposed a temporary injunction against the first such statute in the United States.

Parker noted that the state had failed to make a convincing case for why Tennessee needed a new law and that the court agreed that the statute was unclear and excessively broad.

The term “drag” is not used in the new statute, which instead defines adult cabaret in Tennessee as “adult-oriented acts that are damaging to minors.”

Additionally, “male or female impersonators” are increasingly considered a type of adult cabaret, comparable to strippers and topless, go-go, and exotic dancers.

Adult cabaret performances were prohibited on public grounds or anywhere minors were present.

“The statute bans a drag performer wearing a crop top and miniskirt from dancing in public where minors might see it, but it does not prevent a Tennessee Titans cheerleader wearing an identical outfit from executing the exact same dance in public,” the initial complaint claims.

Parker also raised concerns that echoed the group’s contention that the statute was unduly broad, challenging the location specifications of a cabaret entertainment facility that a minor could observe.

“Is the private residence of a citizen count?” “How about a campsite in a national park?” Parker penned a letter. “Finally, the statute’s wide language contrasts with the tight constraints of the first amendment.”

Judge Blocks Tennessee Law Restricting Drag Performances

The complaint also describes last year’s efforts to prevent a drag show from taking place in a park in Jackson, west of Nashville, as part of a Pride festival. A legal complaint led by Republican state representative Chris Todd and Republican state senator Ed Jackson sought to stop the show, prompting organizers to agree to host it indoors with an age restriction.

“After misusing the state courts to violate Jackson Pride’s first amendment rights,” the complaint claims, “Todd was requested to come up with legislation that would make this much more explicit” – that drag performances in front of minors are a violation of Tennessee law.

Parker referenced Todd’s actions in his Friday decision, saying the state attorney general’s office failed to give a clear answer on the purpose of the new law given Tennessee’s current obscenity laws.

Mulroy informed the judge during Thursday’s hearing that he didn’t object to a temporary restraining order.

“There has been much concern and confusion about the law from the community,” Mulroy said. “This will allow the court to clarify the statute’s scope, application, and constitutionality. It’s important to understand the scope of this law so that it doesn’t hurt constitutionally protected expression.”

The Tennessee drag law marks the second major proposal targeting LGBTQ+ people passed by state lawmakers this year. The Republican governor, Bill Lee, signed legislation banning most gender-affirming care into law.

Lee has faced criticism for approving the anti-drag show law, particularly since a photo surfaced of him as a high school senior dressed in women’s clothing in 1977.

Lee called comparing the two issues “ridiculous.” When asked for specific examples of inappropriate drag shows taking place in front of children, Lee did not cite any but said he was concerned about protecting children.

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