At least 14 state legislatures have proposed bills targeting drag performances, part of the record number of anti-LGBTQ+ bills filed this year.
Tennessee and Arkansas have both enacted laws placing strict limits on drag shows. They share similar language, restricting “adult-oriented” performances — sometimes explicitly including “male or female impersonators” in the definition. The bulk of the proposed and passed policies ban these performances from public property and cut them off from public funds.
A federal judge halted Tennessee’s new law the day before it was set to go into effect on April 1, citing free speech concerns. Arkansas’ bill will go into effect 90 days after the state legislative session ends, which is currently set for April 7. The policy has not yet been challenged in court.
Some LGBTQ+ activists argue drag bans are about more than restricting performances and see the measures as broader threats to the entire transgender community.
The Center for Public Integrity spoke about this issue with Dr. Lady J, a nonbinary transgender woman, drag queen and drag historian. Originally from rural Tennessee, Lady J has a Ph.D. in musicology from Case Western Reserve University and did her dissertation on drag history.
In addition to performing regularly in the Cleveland area, she is a former member of the American Musicological Society’s LGBTQ Study Group board and served as the inaugural director of programming, education and outreach for Studio West 117 in the Greater Cleveland area. Lady J is the official drag historian for the Austin International Drag Foundation.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Q. As someone originally from Tennessee, where you first saw drag, how did you feel when Tennessee’s drag ban was proposed and then ultimately passed?
I’m scared and horrified, in part because I’m less concerned about these things as a drag performer and I’m a lot more concerned about these things as a trans person. What you see, especially when you know the history, is that … trans people have always been attacked using these drag bans.
When I look at these laws, I look at the way that things are defined by crossing over from assigned sex at birth, not the gender you identify as. … It makes it feel like any person who is trans, who can be noticed, can then be hauled away for doing drag in public. That to me has been a much larger concern than the drag ban. Because the drag ban is bad, but it’s not saying all drag goes away forever. It’s saying we take it out of certain spaces and that is all truly terrifying in and of itself.
But I do want to be super clear that I think the way that the conversation around these drag bans is going is over-emphasizing the effect on drag performers and a job and under-emphasizing the effect that this is having on trans people who might be seen, especially in rural areas by rural police, as having been doing drag in public.
Drag performers will always find a way to do subterfuge, to have an underground show, to exist in a party. For trans people who have been openly living our lives … the idea that our ability to exist in public is under question right now, I think is the number one concern.
Q. The mainstream definition of drag is moving past the idea of a cisgender person dressing up as “the other gender.” How does that recontextualize drag bans in relation to the trans community?
It makes it feel as though these attacks are not attacks on drag. … What I see when I look back at drag bans over time is they seem to come forward always [when] trans people are making strides in the public realm. … Each time these things come up, whether it’s the ‘30s, the ‘40s, the ‘50s, the ‘60s, these things are really attacks on trans people trying to live their lives. Because especially before modern times like the ‘90s forward, many trans people would have called themselves drag queens.
One [way of attacking trans people] is to come after what seems to be something frivolous, which is to come after drag. To say “We just want this kind of prurient interest performance to be moved away from our children.” Nevermind that what we’re mostly doing in front of kids is reading books. Like we’re basically dressed as Mother Goose, reading a book. There’s nothing threatening or ominous about that and you have the choice to leave your children out of it. No one is trying to make you come to these places. No one is trying to encourage you to come to these spaces against your will.
But so, they come after that because it seems frivolous. … These laws will be put in place to keep Pride from happening. These laws will be put in place to keep us from marching in the streets for our rights, so that when we as trans people stand up to say “We’re not going to let gender-affirming care be taken away from us, we’re not going to let you demonize us in further ways,” they can say, “Ah, looks like you’re dressed in drag at public at this protest, how about we [arrest you].”
Q. How do the drag bans we see today reflect historical drag bans? Is there a new aspect to the modern bans?
In prior drag bans, it would be things like … you would get stopped as a trans woman on the street and they’d be like “How many articles of male clothing are you wearing?” And so you’d have to be wearing men’s underwear, you’d need to be wearing a watch that is a men’s watch, somehow you’d have to come up with a way to have those three-to-five items. Usually it was three-to-five items depending on the place. Five articles of male clothing is a whole hell of a lot by the way, if you’re going to be dressed as yourself as a trans woman.
The especially troublesome and pesky part of this in Tennessee is that Tennessee is one of the few places where we as trans people cannot change our birth certificates. I think it’s no coincidence that a state that is one of the very few [with this] in place is also choosing to use the phrase “assigned sex at birth.” Not sex, not gender, but “assigned sex at birth.” So no, it doesn’t look the exact same as the old laws with the articles of clothing [rules], but it still comes back to that same phrase “assigned sex at birth.” That, I think, is still about saying trans people shouldn’t exist.
That’s why they’re coming after drag queen story hours. The books that are read at drag queen story hours aren’t pro-trans books. They’re books that are like “whoever you are, you can accept yourself” and they don’t want that message. These are people who want children to not be able to tell a teacher that they are queer or trans without that being outed to their parents. These are people who want to make it so that teachers cannot even say the words trans or gay to [students]. These are people who want us to not have options because they know as long as we have any language, as long as we have any ability to talk, we will find ourselves.
What I think should terrify them on the other side is I didn’t have any of those things as a trans kid and guess what? I’m still a trans adult today. So you might be terrorizing us, terrifying us and putting people into so much fear that they may self harm or may get hurt. But just remember … even if you were to get rid of every drag queen and every outspoken trans person, I didn’t have all those things. Many of my trans elders never had those things. We are still trans. They’re going to attack us as trans people, but we are going to keep existing. We’re just going to have to put up a really, really strong fight.
Q. How do modern drag bans fit into larger legislative attacks on the LGBTQ+ community and trans community specifically?
There is something that some people find upsetting about drag in general. It’s an easier thing to attack because it’s a thing that people can wrap their head around in an easier fashion, because they have been dealing with RuPaul’s Drag Race for like 16 seasons. So it’s very easy to demonize. Trans people are much harder to demonize. This is why they’re not trying to make direct attacks on trans existence in the way they write the legislation. They are trying to do that, but the way they tried to write the legislation is: “We’re taking away this type of opportunity. We’re taking away this drag opportunity. We’re taking away the opportunity for hormones, we’re taking away the opportunity for puberty blockers.”
The discussion of the drag bans keeps the conversation away from the real issue, which is the way they’re attacking trans people legislatively. The way that they’re attacking gender-affirming care for minors, the way that they’re doing things like the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, the way that they’re attacking what books are available in children’s schools and libraries, the way that they are attacking our culture and attacking our personhood. I think this drag thing is a way for them to keep people talking about this while they take away gender-affirming care in every state that they possibly can.
If you don’t know trans people intimately, then it’s very hard for you to understand a lot of times what gender-affirming care has done for me as a person who is trans. Gender-affirming care is something that has changed my life. It is something that has kept me from being suicidal. It is something that has helped me to deal with so much of my prior trauma as a human being.
That’s why they want to keep the focus on drag, because drag keeps this conversation about an art form. … What I see is people who are trying to gin up a genocide, but they want to keep the conversation on drag because that keeps the conversation away from the worst, most horrific crap that they are doing that is going to get people killed.
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