In 1971, cops raided a gay bar in Memphis, Tennessee. George’s was “one of the early bastions of drag shows,” according to the Memphis Gay Coalition publication the Gaze, but was raided for “violating a city ordinance against cross-dressing.” The performers who were arrested fought their charges in court and got them dismissed, which meant “drag was legal.” But new legislation, which was signed by Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee on Thursday, risks sending the state back to the ’70s, and the bars and restaurants that rely on drag shows and other queer performances are trying to figure out what the future might look like.
Last week, the Tennessee General Assembly passed a bill that “creates an offense for a person who engages in an adult cabaret performance on public property or in a location where the adult cabaret performance could be viewed by a person who is not an adult.” Rep. Chris Todd, who last year successfully petitioned for the Jackson Pride drag show to be 18-plus, spearheaded the bill. The law states “anyone who hosts or performs in a drag show in the presence of children would be charged with a Class A misdemeanor, subject to a fine of up to $2,500 and up to one year in prison,” says the National Review. Further violations could result in more prison time.
“I don’t think any of us even dreamed that it wouldn’t pass. I mean, it was going to pass,” says Tami Montgomery, who opened bar Dru’s Place in 2008 as a safe space for Memphis’s queer community. But the bill is frustratingly vague; Montgomery says friends attending the legislative sessions couldn’t get the backers to define terms like “public space” or “female impersonation.” “They took the wording from some of the other things that have been floating around and just put it in a bill and they don’t even know what it means,” Montgomery says. That lack of specificity has many worrying the bill could result in people being punished for being in drag at all, or just existing as a trans or gender nonconforming person in public.
For restaurants that serve children, the law could have immediate business repercussions. Nick Scott owns Alchemy in Memphis, a cocktail bar that serves small plates and has long been a “neutral ground” for everyone, which includes hosting drag brunches and occasionally serving families with kids. Scott echoes that it’s hard to know how this bill will be enforced now. “The issue is defining what’s inappropriate because, reading the bill, they really can’t seem to identify it,” he says. But Scott also feels like the state government is failing its constituents by harping on drag. “We’ve got people getting murdered nonstop. There’s shootings happening all the time, and I don’t feel like this is something that we need to be focused on.”
Scott emphasizes that the programming at Alchemy is fun for everyone and is meant to serve customers across communities. “A lot of these performers ... they’ve been around my kids since they were born, they’ve known them their whole life,” he says. “We consider them family. ... I definitely don’t feel like I am [putting my kids in danger] by doing these kinds of things, or having my friends and people I consider family around them.” Now, he just has to wait to see how the bill might affect what he’s allowed to do.
Though the Tennessee bill does not outright ban drag, it is the latest and one of the harshest in a network of legislation introduced by right-wing politicians under the guise of protecting children that seeks to strip queerness from public life. (On the same day this bill passed, Tennessee also banned gender-affirming care like hormone replacement therapy and puberty blockers for minors). The ACLU is tracking 352 anti-LGBTQ bills of varied status in the 2023 legislative session, with 34 of them dealing with “free speech and expression” issues like censoring drag performance.
As an adult-only establishment, Dru’s is perhaps not at immediate risk of being raided for endangering minors. But one effect of these bills, whether they target drag or sports or healthcare for trans people, is creating a culture in which any form of queerness is viewed as inherently inappropriate. “It’s having a huge impact on the younger queens that I deal with on a daily basis,” says Montgomery. Whereas older members of the queer community remember what de jure discrimination looked like, performers and customers in their 20s are seeing this kind of coordinated discrimination for the first time. “They feel like we’re taking steps backwards. They’re scared. They worry they’re going to be on their way to a show and already in costume and have to get gas and be arrested at a gas pump.”
Many bars and restaurants that feature events like drag brunch and drag bingo have already been feeling the effects of the proposed legislation and rising anti-queer sentiment. In Texas, politicians railed against a video of a drag performance at a cocktail bar in Dallas. UpRising Bakery in Lake in the Hills, Illinois, faced weeks of in-person and online threats for its drag performances. In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis has threatened to revoke R House’s liquor license over its family-friendly drag brunches. In New York, a woman was recently arrested for setting fire to a rainbow flag outside a Soho restaurant. And recently in Michigan, three queer-owned cafes have been forced to close temporarily after receiving hateful and threatening letters.
Scott and Montgomery both plan to keep up business as usual. “I’m just going to keep doing what I do every day and have done for almost 15 years now. Be that safe space that people can come and be who they are,” says Montgomery. “As long as you’re nice, you’re welcome.” But for others, the cultural panic around drag is taking its toll.
Wendy Mccown-Williams opened Temptation in Cookeville, Tennessee, six years ago, and says drag events like brunch, bingo, and trivia are the vast majority of what she does. “If you took the drag away, then it’s just another boring bar.” But she says things have gotten worse for the local queer community over the past year. A recent drag brunch at a different location in town drew Proud Boys flying a Nazi flag, and she’s faced an uptick in online harassment. “It feels worse now and more dangerous now to be a performer and a trans person than it did in the ’90s, when there was no representation period,” she says. Which is why, once Tennessee began considering this anti-drag legislation, she decided to put her bar on the market.
The hostile atmosphere had already had an effect on business. Mccown-Williams says she’s spent more money on security systems, and marketing to remind everyone her bar is 18-plus so no one got the wrong idea. And though her drag events were always immensely popular, the stress began to affect her. “Just as a business owner at this point ... once all this started happening, it just made the path a little bit easier for me to see, which is sad,” she says. She will remain in Cookeville, and will keep performing drag. But she can’t imagine the person who buys her bar is going to keep up the drag performances.
No legislation can keep people from being queer, but these are the bill’s intended effects: make people reconsider their business plans, worry for their safety, and calculate whether participating in queer life is worth it. Mccowen-Williams hopes that this legislation is a wake-up call for anyone who has ever enjoyed a drag brunch. The bars and restaurants where so much drag lives are more than just places to eat and drink; they are “a safe place where people could go and meet other people like themselves.” Many will survive. But we could also build a world in which they thrive.
Update: March 3, 2023, 11:02 a.m.: This article was updated to note Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee signed the bill into law.