An LGBTQ theater company is suing to try to block Tennessee’s first-in-the-nation law that placed strict limits on drag shows, saying it violates the First Amendment.
The Memphis-based group, Friends of George’s, filed the federal lawsuit Monday against Shelby County District Attorney Steve Mulroy and the state, and asked the court to issue a preliminary injunction preventing the law from taking effect Saturday.
Both sides presented their arguments Thursday before U.S. District Judge Thomas Parker, who didn’t indicate when he might rule.
“This law threatens to force a theatre troupe into a nightclub, because Tennessee legislators believe they have the right to make their own opinions about drag into law,” the theater group argues in its complaint. “Plaintiff’s other option is to proceed as planned, knowing that the Friends of George’s drag performers could face criminal — even felony — charges.”
The word “drag” doesn’t appear in the new law. Instead, the law changed the definition of adult cabaret in Tennessee to mean “adult-oriented performances that are harmful to minors.” Furthermore, “male or female impersonators” are now classified as a form of adult cabaret, akin to strippers and topless, go-go and exotic dancers.
The law banned adult cabaret performances from public property or anywhere minors might be present, and performers who break the law risk being charged with a misdemeanor, or a felony if it’s a repeat offense.
“The law prohibits a drag performer wearing a crop top and mini skirt from dancing where minors might see it, but does not prohibit a Tennessee Titans cheerleader wearing an identical outfit from performing the exact same dance in front of children,” the complaint contends.
The complaint also details the efforts that took place last year to block a drag show at a park in Jackson, west of Nashville, as part of a Pride festival. A legal complaint spearheaded by Republican state Rep. Chris Todd and Republican state Sen. Ed Jackson sought to prevent the show, forcing organizers to reach a settlement to hold it indoors with an age restriction.
“After abusing the state courts to violate the First Amendment rights of Jackson Pride, Rep. Todd ‘was asked to come up with legislation that would make this much more clear’ — that drag performances in front of children are a violation of Tennessee law,” the complaint argues.
During Thursday’s hearing, Mulroy told the judge that he didn’t object to a temporary restraining order.
“There has been much concern and confusion about the law from the community,” Mulroy said in a statement to the AP. “This will allow the court to clarify the scope, application, and constitutionality of the statute. It’s important to understand the scope of this law so that it doesn’t have a harmful effect on constitutionally protected expression.”
A spokesperson for the attorney general’s office did not immediately reply to a Friday request for comment.
The Tennessee drag law marks the second major proposal targeting LGBTQ+ people that lawmakers in the state have passed this year. Republican Gov. Bill Lee signed into law GOP-backed legislation that banned most gender-affirming care.
Lee has faced criticism for approving the anti-drag show law, particularly since a photo surfaced of him as a high school senior dressed in women’s clothing in 1977.
Lee called comparing the two issues “ridiculous.” When asked for specific examples of inappropriate drag shows taking place in front of children, Lee did not cite any, but he said he was concerned about protecting children.
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