A sold out “Drag Queen Christmas” performance scheduled at the Tennessee Theatre in Knoxville, Tennessee, on Dec. 22 sparked concern from some community members over the event’s lack of an age limit. Similar events, if featuring adult-themed content, could be banned or required to have age restrictions if proposed legislation in the Tennessee General Assembly is passed in 2023.
The Knoxville show is one stop on a nationwide tour. The event’s description on the ticketing website states that “parental discretion is advised,” but the description for the next performance in Charleston, South Carolina, scheduled for the following night, says the show is recommended for ages 18 and older, while also noting that children “2 & up” require a ticket for entry.
On the ticketing website for an upcoming tour stop in Orlando, Florida, the description says “all ages welcome.”
A tour stop earlier in the week near St. Louis also sparked backlash from the local community, with protesters and counterprotesters seen shouting across the street at one another near the event venue in a video from a Fox affiliate in St. Louis. The age limit for that show was raised to 18-plus by the mayor of Chesterfield, Missouri, after backlash, citing violation of several local ordinances, the local station reported.
Betty Hancock, executive director of the Tennessee Theatre, said in a statement released on Monday that an earlier copy of marketing materials provided by the promoter (who is renting the theater for the show) included the phrase “all ages,” but that the phrase was removed by the Tennessee Theatre staff and replaced with the parental guidance notice (pdf).
“We understand that every event presented at the Tennessee Theatre will not be enjoyed or considered appropriate by/for all people, regardless of age,” she said. “I strongly believe, both personally and as the director of this organization, that decisions on what children should or should not see should be left up to their parents or guardians. This goes for live events, movies, television shows, books, recorded music, social media and other content. So, more broadly, everything should be viewed through the lens of ‘parental discretion is advised.’”
She added that staff would work with authorities to ensure the safety of performers and patrons of the event.
State Officials Weigh In
Several Tennessee officials have spoken out against the event. Repuclican state Rep. Jason Zachary said in a video posted to his Twitter account that “the sexualization in this is not appropriate for children.”
He said in the video he had spoken with Tennessee Bureau of Investigation Director David Rausch and state Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti.
“Director Rausch engaged the theater directly and engaged the promoter and set clear expectations about what can and can’t be done in the show,” he said. “The show will be monitored, not by the TBI, but local law enforcement is going to be there to monitor the show.”
He added he did not want children to be subjected to drag shows, but for those 18 and older “that’s their business” whether to attend.
Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs, a Republican, shared the video and added a statement to the post.
“There will be a strong law enforcement presence surrounding this event. Here in TN, we always respect the 1st Amendment rights to free expression and peaceful protest, but no one is going to tolerate any nonsense. If you do something stupid, you’ll spend Christmas in jail.”
Jacobs said in November his office had been “flooded with calls” regarding all-ages drag performances.
“Let me be clear: I don’t care what consenting adults do, but leave kids out of it. As Mayor, I will do everything I can to ensure these events don’t happen on Knox County property,” he wrote on Twitter. “Currently, however, no law on the books gives me authority to address what happens in private businesses. I do and will support any effort of our state legislature to prevent the sexualization of our children.”
Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon, a Democrat, had a difference of opinion from the county mayor, according to her statement to WATE.
“Part of what makes Knoxville a great place to live and raise a family is its cultural diversity—having many options to enjoy entertainment of your choosing,” Kincannon said. “Variety and diversity are good. If something is not to your taste, don’t buy a ticket. Everyone should find the entertainment that gives them joy.”
People on both sides of the issue spoke out on Dec. 19 at a Knox County Commission meeting, as seen in video from a local CBS station.
A drag performer told the commission, “You will see nothing at a drag show that you wouldn’t see on “Dancing with the Stars,” a child’s pageant, or from a cheerleader at a football game.” A man against the performance being held brought a replica spine to the meeting, waving it at commissioners and telling them to “grow a spine.”
Legislation Would Ban Children at Adult Shows
Republican state Sen. Jack Johnson proposed legislation (pdf) for the upcoming session in the Tennessee Senate to ban “adult cabaret performances on public property or in locations where they can be viewed by a person who is not an adult.” The same bill was proposed in the Tennessee House by Republican state Rep. Chris Todd.
Adult cabaret performances, per the proposed legislation’s language, include shows featuring topless dancers, go-go dancers, exotic dancers, male or female impersonators, or similar entertainers.
Johnson told The Epoch Times that his legislation would apply to the Knoxville event only if the event was not age-restricted and if the performance “devolved into sexually explicit material.”
“My bill is trying to address sexually adult-themed entertainment that takes place in front of kids,” he said. “Events can be made either age-restricted, so that only adults attend—in which case my bill would not have much effect on them—or, if children are allowed and permitted to attend these events, and the performance devolves into something that is sexually explicit, then they would be in violation of my legislation.”
He explained any sexually explicit drag show would be prohibited on publicly-owned property. For privately owned venues, shows would have to be 18 and over.
For event venues such as the Tennessee Performing Arts Center, a government-owned facility, all sexually explicit drag shows would be prohibited regardless of age. The Knoxville event could be held, but would be required to have age-restrictions in place or otherwise be in violation of the proposed law.
Violations Under the Law
Under the legislation, the first violation would be a Class A misdemeanor, and a second or subsequent violation would be a Class E felony. As drafted, the bill would only target the performers, he said, and would not affect parents or event venues.
Johnson said as far as enforcement, as seen in other performances taking place across the country, if someone is there recording the event, it could then be passed along to local law enforcement or prosecutors to make a decision on whether to move forward with charges.
He added that for parents who take their children to the events and have no qualms about material, he would remind them it is illegal to take their children to “strip joints” as well.
Johnson said he had received positive feedback from his constituents and other legislators, believing the legislation could be passed into law shortly after the state Legislature resumes in January. If passed and signed, it would go into effect July 1, 2023.
Todd did not respond to a request for comment before press time.
Some Religous Leaders Speak Out
In a press conference held by Knox Pride Interfaith, a coalition of LGBT-affirming faith leaders, members of the group said the legislation could lead to danger for transgender-identifying Tennesseans.
“All across our nation, including Tennessee, we’ve seen a rise in anti-trans legislation, from bathroom bills, to bans on trans-athletes, and now we have proposed legislation that could make male or female impersonation a felony,” Rev. Colleen Darraugh, lead pastor at the Metropolitan Community Church of Knoxville, said at the press conference. “We’ve also seen a rise in protests of drag shows, including one tonight. … Drag is a form of entertainment that has been around for centuries.”
Darraugh said that “anti-trans and anti-drag” rhetoric claims that proposed bills, like the one in Tennessee, are to protect children from exposure to content intended for adult audiences.
“We also care about children,” she said. “Movies and games get ‘R,’ ‘Teen,’ or ‘PG,’ etc. ratings for content. Parents determine which games or movies their children will get to play or see. Some drag shows are R-rated, while some may be suitable for teens, and still others fine for all ages. This legislation lumps all drag shows together as adult cabaret, that further threatens the safety of our trans and nonbinary citizens.”
Darraugh added the group’s support for the Tennessee Theatre and its hosting of Drag Queen Christmas.