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Memphis drag community says Tennessee bill restricting drag shows is ‘dehumanizing’ and bad for local businesses

Tennessee is one of 19 states that either have active bills or are proposing legislation limiting drag performances.
Credit: WATN

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Tennessee is on the cusp on becoming the first state to prohibit drag shows in public after Gov. Bill Lee signed HB0009, which passed in the state house Thursday.

Members of the Memphis drag community described this legislation as dehumanizing, unconstitutional and bad for business. 

“We provide a huge amount of revenue to the state and I guess they don’t want our money,” said drag performer Bulla DuBalle, show hostess and show director for the Atomic Rose

Atomic Rose is one of the most popular night clubs in Memphis and its weekend drag shows, including Sunday's drag brunch, are a big reason why. 

“It’s a huge tourist draw,” DuBalle said. “Everybody loves a drag brunch. It's a fun time to come out, eat a great meal and just be entertained for a while.”

But those performances are threatened by the Tennessee proposed law moving through the state legislature that would ban drag shows on public property. The bill also expands the definition to ensure any sort of drag performance would be considered an "adult cabaret performance."

“We would then have to purchase a strip club license in order to run drag shows here,” said Atomic Rose general manager Charlie Barnett. “You can’t have a strip-club license and a liquor license inside the historic district of Beale Street.”

DuBalle is worried how the legislation could impact Tennessee cities beyond Memphis. 

“There are multiple venues in Nashville that have been long-standing that have contributed millions of dollars in sales tax and liquor tax to Tennessee,” she said. 

DuBalle is also concerned over the bill’s vague language, which she said could be a slippery slope for other types of speech and expression. 

“The bill makes very little distinguishment between a drag performer and a trans or gender non-conforming person,” DuBalle said. “Is cosplay drag? I am a founding member of the Tennessee Shakespeare Company. I played several drag roles on the stage.” 

Barnett believes the bill could lead to a nation-wide boycott of Tennessee by the LGBTQ+ community.  

“I advise all the major business owners in this state, all these big corporations, call your governor, call your representatives,” he said. “Tell them this boycott will hurt you.”

Supporters of the measure in the state legislature argued that drag performances in public are inappropriate for young people and that the measure would be a common sense child safety bill.

Tennessee is one of 19 states that either have active bills or are proposing legislation limiting drag performances. If passed in the state senate, Tennessee could become the first to have the bill become law. 

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