Fighting Back Against Anti-Drag Bills Protecting Queer Spaces, Expression and Representation

Drag artists and the spaces that host their performances have long served as a communal environment for queer expression. It is a form of art and entertainment, but, historically, the performances haven’t only served to entertain, but also to truly advance the empowerment and visibility of LGBTQ+ people. HRC has been actively fighting against the more than 40 discriminatory anti-drag bills nationwide that threaten to criminalize drag performances. Many of these bills dub all drag performances erroneously as “adult cabaret performances.” This legislation is masked in the conservative claim of protecting our nation’s children, but they are nothing more than a blatant part of a widespread assault on the entire LGBTQ+ community.

In early March, Tennessee Gov. Lee signed H.B. 9, a bill banning many drag performances from occurring on any public property in the state, as well as in any location where people under age 18 could be present. In doing so, Tennessee became the first state to criminalize drag performances.

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HRC quickly condemned Gov. Lee for signing the discriminatory bill, having already enacted more anti-LGBTQ+ laws than any other state in the country. Tennessee’s unrelenting attacks on LGBTQ+ people have made the state an increasingly difficult place for LGBTQ+ people to survive, let alone thrive, but it wasn’t the only state to propose such a law.

A slew of anti-drag bills have been introduced since becoming the most recent tool for extremist legislators to attack our community for political gain. At least 14 other states have introduced similar bills, including Arizona, Kentucky, Oklahoma, North Dakota and Arkansas. These state bills are encouraging people to threaten, attack and discriminate against drag artists and their patrons and, ultimately, spread dangerous misinformation and misconceptions about the entire LGBTQ+ community.

Shame on Gov. Lee and the extremist legislators responsible for these discriminatory, anti-LGBTQ+ laws. These laws are not about protecting youth — they are about spreading dangerous misinformation against the transgender community; they are about doubling down on efforts to attack drag artists and transgender youth. These extremist politicians who took an oath to protect all of the people in their respective states are telling us loud and clear that they have no plans to uphold fundamental rights or demonstrate respect for all of their constituents. We must stand up, speak out and take action against radical politicians before they strip more of our freedoms away.

Sarah Warbelow, HRC’s legal director

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HRC activated its membership base and supporters to keep them informed as these bills moved through state legislatures, connecting people to ways they can voice their opposition. In Tennessee, HRC hosted Slay Hate: Fight Back Tennessee, a rally in Nashville’s local LGBTQ+ Tribe bar. We sent a clear message to Gov. Lee that our community and allies cannot be silenced. The rally included performances by singer-songwriter and trans rights activist Shea Diamond, drag artists Vanity and Perplexity and remarks by HRC President Kelley Robinson.

The implications of anti-drag state legislation, whether proposed or enacted, go far beyond criminalizing drag performances. When rooted in discrimination and hate, legislation has the potential to influence other legislative initiatives also aiming to erase and silence our existence. Most recently, as of publishing, Montana’s Senate passed S.B. 518, a law that requires schools to acquire parental permission before a student uses a name or pronouns that do not match the student’s assigned sex at birth. It also allows for the intentional misgendering and deadnaming of trans and non-binary students by their teachers and peers. While the legislative structure of Montana’s S.B. 518 doesn’t directly impact drag performances, its discriminatory nature is parallel to that of Tennessee's and other state’s drag bans.

“Drag performances have been part of mainstream entertainment for a long time,” said Warbelow. “It is pathetic that extremist politicians are now targeting drag performances as a way to attack the LGBTQ+ community instead of working on crafting real solutions to the problems facing American families today. If they are hoping to score political points with this latest anti-LGBTQ+ attack, they will surely fail, and we will continue fighting to ensure this and other anti- LGBTQ+ bills do not become law.”

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To challenge the cultural implications that these anti-drag bills can have while continuing to fight back on the legislative side, HRC has and will continue to elevate the voices of drag performers across the country to center their lived experiences and the true social narrative around drag shows. In March, we shared a video highlighting the work of Athena, a drag queen in Arkansas, whose testimony against SB 43 helped change the bill.

“Extremist politicians and discriminatory legislation can try to push us into the shadows, but banning art has never worked before,” said Athena. “Drag is simply art, and just like any other form of art, it needs to have its space for visibility and engagement. People must have the opportunity to engage with whatever art they are comfortable engaging with, but banning art is censorship and erasure and we can’t allow for them to silence us. They will not, simply put. Our community, the LGBTQ+ community, and our allies know how to fight. We’re fighters and we won’t let them take away however we choose to express ourselves.”

These kinds of extreme and vile legislative efforts are inherently prejudiced. HRC understands the importance of spaces that host drag shows and values the significance of queer expression and representation, and we won’t back down in pushing back against hate and discrimination, no matter what shape it takes on.


Hear Athena’s story about fighting back against anti-drag legislation in Arkansas below.

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