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Republicans in Tennessee propose new bill that would criminalise drag performances

The US Southern states are ramping up their recent crusade against drag performances. Lawmakers in Tennessee are proposing heavily anti-LGBTQIA+ legislation that will not only ban public drag performances but also restrict access to gender-affirming health care.

According to PinkNews, the proposed legislation was put forth by Tennessee Senate majority leader Jack Johnson and House majority leader William Lamberth, who were both successful in winning reelection during the recent midterms. Senate Bill 1 (SB1) seeks to criminalise gender-affirming health care for those under 18, while Senate Bill 3 (SB3) would ban public drag performances—on the off chance they might be seen by an underage child.

What SB3 actually represents is a serious overhaul of rights—most prominently, the rights of members of the LGBTQIA+ community who either perform in drag shows or seek them out as a way to find solace with other queer individuals. Any public performance deemed as ‘adult cabaret’ would be illegal and repeat offenders would be charged with a felony.

SB1, on the other hand, is a clear extension of the exhaustive anti-trans legislation that has begun to appear throughout the US. Under the new proposed bill in Tennessee, medical interventions or procedures altering a child’s hormones or affirming their gender would be illegal. If violated, the penalty against health care providers could amount to $25,000.

2021 was a record-breaking year in regard to anti-trans legislation across the country. Xtra, an LGBTQIA+-focused publication, reported that across the US, 37 states introduced 144 bills, and 18 of them became law.

What seems to be a recurrence in a number of anti-trans laws is the heavy presence of vague or unspecific language. This repeated lack of specificity allows lawmakers to have greater personal influence and sway over enforcement, and it makes challenging them far more difficult.

In a similar vein, the recent SB3 legislation follows a series of anti-drag proposals set forth by Republican officials over the summer of 2022. Most notably, in June, Texas lawmakers introduced legislation that bans minors from attending drag shows. NBC reported that Republican representative Bryan Slaton introduced a bill to ban minors from attending drag shows, as a way to ‘shield’ the children from what he described as “perverted adults.”

A number of Republican officials have persistently tried to condone drag shows as immoral, insisting that their goal is to sexualise children. These politicians—mostly men—have often been tag-teamed by far-right Christian groups who push similar rhetoric. For example, the Idaho Family Policy Center (IFPC) has told news outlets it plans to introduce a bill in January 2023 which will invoke a blanket ban on drag performances, which it has deemed as “vile sexual exhibitions.”

Of course, not only are these lawmakers misrepresenting drag in all of its forms, they’re also misunderstanding the purpose behind drag culture—which has been around since the 19th century.

Drag Queen Trixie Mattel, aka netizens’ favourite high-functioning makeup guru and comedy queen, explained the history of drag in a feature for Them and noted how drag was initially used by gay men to play with gender and express themselves in new ways. However, in the present day, it’s become an art form—still rooted in queer culture—where people can celebrate diversity, creativity and self-expression.

Another recent drag programme which has been under attack is Drag Queen Story Hour: a session where drag queen performers read children’s books to young audiences and their families. The books that are read sometimes also feature LGBTQIA+ characters. The events—usually hosted at public libraries and bookshops—are typically aimed at children aged between three and 11.

As reported by GAY TIMES, these story times have also been highly condemned by US lawmakers. Much of the criticism lies in a persistent trend among conservatives of linking homophobia to paedophilia.

However, a number of parents have come to the defence of the story hour, with one mother stating, “I feel it’s important for my little girl to meet lots of different people in life and have a really good understanding of diversity. There is no adult content in any performance, children love them because they are enthusiastic.”

In fact, what many people seem to forget is that there are a number of drag queens whose content is solely for children. Just as you would not take your child to an adult burlesque show or a very explicit comedy act, the same applies here. Drag is not binary, there is a spectrum of performers who cater to different audiences.

Matthew Cavan, who reads stories to children in Belfast as drag queen Cherri Ontop, spoke to The Guardian about the core reasons behind doing these events: “I have these children for an hour. I’m not going to try to tackle gender identity issues. My aim is just to give them little bits of information to try to make their world a bit brighter. I tell them that, growing up, I was considered very different, but now I get to wear what I want—and look at how fabulous I am! I let them know that being different is really cool, and so is being normal… And we can live in society together.”

RuPaul’s Drag Race UK’s first-ever cis woman competitor is not the problem, your misogyny is

Last week, RuPaul’s Drag Race UK announced the lineup for its third season, which arrives on BBC iPlayer next month. The third season was cast and filmed entirely during the COVID-19 pandemic—season two had a sudden and unexpected break in filming midway through the series. And if it feels like that series only just finished airing, you wouldn’t be wrong: Lawrence Chaney was crowned the show’s second champion in mid-March. But the producers wanted to get back to the show’s original timeline, airing each autumn. And as RuPaul now chairs four Drag Race shows filmed around the world—which have been on non-stop since New Year’s Day—she’s on a tight schedule.

But season three of Drag Race UK is set to make herstory, with the first cis woman competing for the crown. Victoria Scone is a Cardiff-based drag queen and performer—and a queer woman. Immediately, there was backlash on social media, particularly from Drag Race super-fans, the kind who have little knowledge of drag beyond RuPaul’s world. And, of course, they distracted from the real issue here: whether ‘scone’ is pronounced like ‘stone’ or like ‘gone’.

One Twitter user and YouTuber prompted significant outcry after posting a video titled ‘Why I Don’t Support Victoria Scone on RuPaul’s Drag Race’. He was promptly torn to pieces by drag queens from all over the world, including reigning champion Chaney, who posted her comments on Twitter: “Women raised me, I’m inspired by strong women and now Victoria is one of those strong women because of her standing up and showcasing who she is to the world, unapologetically. Sorry but you’ll just have to get used to it.”

This news revealed the worrying misogyny that pervades much of the gay community. Recently, I  saw a similar discussion about women in gay bars, with gay men seemingly determined to gatekeep such spaces—when, in fact, many queer bars are intended to serve the entire LGBTQ+ community, not just the G. And it should be noted that we are thoroughly lacking in spaces for and representation of queer women.

“Drag is for everyone and anyone can do drag,” season two fan favourite Bimini Bon Boulash reminded us. Trans women have competed on RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars—when queens have come out as trans in between competing on their original series and returning for All Stars. And the last US season cast Gottmik, the first trans man to compete on the show. RuPaul has previously made some rather disparaging comments about female drag queens—but it seems that she is now changing her mind and moving the show in the right direction.

For some time, Drag Race supported and elevated a very specific kind of drag: femme makeup, wigs, heels and padding. Slowly but surely, though, it has accepted and platformed more diverse drag artistry, like Sasha Velour and Ginny Lemon.

There were, however, valid criticisms to be made of the Drag Race UK announcement. Many were pointing out that there was only one person of colour in the cast, which wasn’t technically accurate. While there’s only one black queen, two contestants are of mixed heritage—River Medway and Anubis Finch have Singaporean and Egyptian heritage, respectively.

But the criticisms didn’t stop there: only two of the queens aren’t from London and the South East; there’s no one from Scotland or Northern Ireland this year. People want to feel represented on such a prominent and popular show, but small towns and local scenes are consistently overlooked. Of course, true representation is nearly impossible, especially in a cast of twelve, and this is reality television, with casting decisions made to deliberately cause drama. But they could certainly do better.

To be clear: it is not the fault of any of the contestants that the casting is so deficient. Any and all blame lies entirely with the producers. Applications were no doubt down this year, with people wanting to wait until after the pandemic to apply. But it’s still largely inexcusable—perhaps not much has changed since the first cast was announced.

RuPaul is not and should never be the arbiter of everything drag, even if fronting two dozen seasons of drag reality competitions has effectively made that the case. Marla Sinner, a drag queen based in Glasgow, put it particularly eloquently. “Just because we can be cast now doesn’t mean we all want to,” she wrote. “It’s good progression but it’s a long time fucking coming and a long way to fucking go.”