▶ Watch Video: How drag queens got dragged into politics

Last month in Nashville, widely regarded as the entertainment capital of the South, Tennessee lawmakers passed a law that bans one class of entertainer: “male and female impersonators,” otherwise known as drag performers. However, a day before the nation’s first anti-drag law was set to take effect, a federal judge temporarily blocked it for violating the First Amendment.

But where did this all start? How did drag queens get dragged into politics? For that, we turn to the city of Jackson, Tennessee.

In March, Tennessee state Rep. Chris Todd, a Republican, indicated to the state Senate that it was his constituents who requested he take up the bill: “This past year in my community, we had a local group decide to do a, quote, family-friendly drag show. When they listed this as family-friendly, my community rose up.”

The community of Jackson never even saw the scheduled Pride performance before opponents raised thousands of dollars in donations and filed an injunction to prevent it from taking place. Todd then introduced the new bill as an obscenity statute to prevent “adult cabaret performers like drag queens from performing in public spaces where children could be present.”

Controversy over new Tennessee law that restricts drag shows


Critics of the bill say an obscenity law is already on the books, and that this is specifically targeting the LGBTQIA+ community.

Knoxille Rep. Gloria Johnson, a Democrat (who was almost expelled for breaking House rules on conduct and decorum after joining a protest following a school shooting), has been vocal about her opposition to the drag performer bill. 

“I’m curious how many drag shows you’ve been to, and I’m curious, why targeting this?” she asked the Tennessee state Senate back in February. “Because I’m thinking about a place where men wear tights: in WWE wrestling, and one third of the audience, at least, is children. But somehow someone dressing up and dancing is the problem?”

Performing in drag dates back to the Shakespearean era. And with shows like the Emmy Award-winning “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” drag queen story hours and drag brunches popping up across the country, drag entertainment is more popular than ever.

A rally to oppose the bill was held at the Tennessee State Capitol on Valentine’s Day this year. Phil Cobucci, founder and executive director of Inclusion Tennessee, an LGBTQIA+ community nonprofit, was there and spoke to CBS News about the bill. “The idea of this bill specifically puts drag performers in a box that aligns them with adult entertainment, and says that what their performances are, are sexual and deviant and inappropriate for people of all kinds, and youth in particular.”

Drag performer Britney Banks speaks at a rally outside the State Capitol in Nashville, Tenn., on Valentine’s Day.  

CBS News

“The new law passed in Tennessee makes some drag performances a potential felony, and gives police new power to determine what is considered obscene,” Tennessee drag performer Cyainhale told CBS News. “The nature of the bill that scares me the most is the vagueness of it, and the fact that could be enforced in a bunch of ways that we don’t really know.”

Many conservative activists and media pundits, like Charlie Kirk and Tucker Carlson, have been critical of drag queens, with some claiming the art form sexually grooms children. Dr. Elizabeth Jeglic, a clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, who studies sexual violence prevention, sexual abuse and sexual grooming, says that is not the case. “Drag performances [are] something that is completely separate from childhood sexual grooming and completely separate from childhood sexual abuse,” Jeglic said. 

On the issue of banning drag performances, she said, “If the rationale is to protect children from being sexually abused, that is not going to be helpful in this instance. Making laws specific to drag performances is not necessary. The majority of drag performances can be done in ways that are not obscene.” Jeglic added, “We have no research evidence to suggest that children being exposed to people dressed in different clothing increases their risk for long-term psychological consequences or childhood sexual abuse.”

CBS News reached out to Tennessee State Majority Leader Jack Johnson, who declined to speak with us on camera, but said in part in a statement: “This legislation is about protecting children. This legislation would also prohibit sexually explicit adult entertainment from being performed on public property … and the bill does not ban drag shows in public.”

Although Tennessee is the first state to make drag performances in front of children a potential felony, there are at least 10 other states looking to follow suit.

Rep. Johnson said, “Clearly what we’re talking about is people’s freedom of expression. And the reality is, our freedom of expression is stronger than their power to criminalize people.”