How drag was pushed again into the shadows in Tennessee By Reuters

© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Individuals attend the Slay Hate: Struggle Again Tennessee rally, following the current passage by Tennessee lawmakers of laws proscribing drag performances in public or in entrance of kids, in Nashville, Tennessee, U.S. March 9, 2023. REUTERS/

By Jonathan Allen

COOKEVILLE, Tennessee (Reuters) – Final April, when drag may nonetheless be carried out in Tennessee with out noticeable grievance, the curtains parted at Tennessee Tech College’s Backdoor Playhouse to disclose Joshua Lancaster sporting a black cowl, white face paint, black lipstick and white contact lenses.

He was excited for the debut of his new drag persona, Witchcrafted. However the four-minute video of Lancaster lip-syncing and sashaying throughout the stage, recorded by his boyfriend, would sit on his Fb (NASDAQ:) web page largely unseen for months till it was discovered by Landon Starbuck, a conservative activist.

The video appalled Starbuck.

On Sept. 7, she posted an edited model of the video on Twitter, specializing in a couple of moments when kids strategy to tip Witchcrafted with greenback payments as he lip-syncs to Hozier’s 2013 hit “Take Me to Church.” Mid-performance, the viewers cheers as Witchcrafted throws off his cowl to disclose a floor-length lacy skirt and a corset over a long-sleeved lacy high.

Starbuck, who lives outdoors Nashville, had been complaining about drag acts performing with kids current for years, and now she had a vivid instance from Tennessee. She stated the efficiency was inappropriate for youngsters and mocked her Christian religion, and urged folks to complain to the college.

Now, a Tennessee legislation proscribing drag in entrance of minors is because of come into drive on April 1. Lancaster has grow to be one of many faces of a sweeping effort by Republican lawmakers throughout the nation to introduce a whole bunch of legal guidelines regulating the conduct of homosexual and transgender folks, starting from what could be taught in lecture rooms to toilet use and medical care.

“It spiraled uncontrolled and all people began doing loopy stuff,” Lancaster stated. “We’re being compelled again into the closet. We’re being advised now we have to return into the shadows.”

Lancaster’s efficiency was disapprovingly mentioned by state senators in Nashville after Tennessee turned one in every of 16 states the place Republicans have proposed legal guidelines proscribing drag since final summer season. In January, Lancaster, who has accomplished drag for greater than a decade, for the primary time encountered armed neo-Nazis, Proud Boys and different far-right teams protesting outdoors one in every of his occasions.

The Tennessee legislature handed the invoice earlier this yr banning “grownup cabaret performances,” together with at the very least some drag acts, in public or in entrance of minors, with jail sentences for violations. Its impacts are already being felt.

A number of deliberate drag occasions had been canceled over the winter after protests, and lots of venues felt compelled to make beforehand family-friendly drag exhibits into adults-only occasions. Drag performers and venue homeowners say they’re nervous about their livelihoods and their rights of free expression. Some transgender Tennesseans concern being arrested below the legislation’s imprecise language, which lumps collectively “male or feminine impersonators,” a time period not outlined within the legislation, in the identical X-rated class as strippers and unique dancers.

“It is not about getting the legislation to stay,” stated Joslynn Fish, a trans girl who hosts 18+ drag exhibits at South Press Espresso, her enterprise in Knoxville. “It is about creating concern.”

After Starbuck posted the video, the following month-to-month drag present at Tennessee Tech was canceled by the college president, Phil Oldham, who launched an announcement saying he was “disturbed and dismayed” by Witchcrafted’s efficiency.

The video was broadcast by Tucker Carlson on Fox Information and by different conservative information retailers. Lancaster, who lives in a one-story home with a cluttered porch within the farmlands outdoors Cookeville, a small metropolis dominated by the Tennessee Tech campus, started receiving threatening messages. He peeled off the big Witchcrafted decal he had caught on his automotive. The cowl he wore within the video he put out with the trash.

He says he wouldn’t dream of mocking Christianity in his act, not least as a result of it will earn a slap from his mom, a religious Christian who has sewed costumes for his drag.

What significantly pains him, he stated in an interview, is that the youngsters pictured with him within the video are the youngsters of drag performers and had been there with their dad and mom. He resents the accusation he would hurt them.

“The little lady that is tipping me is my honorary niece,” Lancaster stated. “She’s my finest pal’s child. I’ve recognized her since she was born.”


Starbuck was a recording artist in Los Angeles till a couple of years in the past when she moved together with her former film video director husband and three kids to Franklin, a rich Nashville suburb, searching for extra conservative-minded neighbors.

Final yr she based Freedom Ceaselessly, a non-profit group that campaigns in opposition to the sexual abuse of kids and gender-affirming medical remedy for minors, akin to puberty blockers and surgical procedure.

Her husband, Robby Starbuck, hosts a conservative podcast and final yr unsuccessfully ran for the Republican nomination for a Tennessee congressional seat.

A number of weeks after the Starbucks (NASDAQ:) circulated the Witchcrafted video, the couple launched a legislative agenda they known as the Little one Safety & Restoration Act, which known as for the banning of drag exhibits and gender-affirming medical look after minors.

“We began noticing an alarming pattern of those sexually express all-age family-friendly drag exhibits popping up,” Landon Starbuck stated. “They wish to expose kids to different identities that aren’t heteronormative.”

By November, Senator Jack Johnson, a Republican, had launched the payments proscribing gender-affirming remedy and drag that the Starbucks had sought, within the latter case citing the movies he had seen. Landon Starbuck testified at hearings, the place senators requested her concerning the Witchcrafted video and different movies she had since posted. Each payments had been lastly handed by the legislature on the identical day in February.

The Starbucks say they’re talking to Republicans in half a dozen different states about passing comparable legal guidelines, they usually proceed to hunt movies of kids at drag exhibits. “That is what woke these legislators as much as the issue,” Robby Starbuck stated.

A lot of the controversy in Tennessee has been over whether or not drag is inherently a sexually express artform.

The Starbucks say there isn’t a such factor as family-friendly drag; drag performers cite Bugs Bunny, Shakespeare’s cross-dressing comedies and the Robin Williams movie “Mrs. Doubtfire” amongst counterexamples.

“Drag will not be inherently sexual,” stated Story VanNess, a drag queen and the trans program director at Knox Satisfaction. “It may be a whole lot of issues, however the overwhelming majority of drag, if something, is comedic.”

She famous there was reams of video from her group’s annual Satisfaction pageant in downtown Knoxville through the years with each drag performers and youngsters in attendance, but no clips had gone viral “as a result of accountable producers placed on a accountable present.”

Outdoors of public Satisfaction occasions, most Tennessee drag performers largely work in golf equipment and bars that admit solely these over 18. Even with an grownup viewers, performers are certain by state legal guidelines barring strip exhibits and different sexually express leisure in venues with a liquor license, so Tennessee drag exhibits are usually comparatively chaste.

DJs remind the viewers that solely hand-to-hand tipping is allowed. Tennessee queens know to put on a number of pairs of stockings, lest they be accused of exhibiting an excessive amount of pores and skin.

Within the extra conservative areas outdoors Tennessee’s main cities, some LGBT-friendly venues are below menace.

Drag exhibits have been held for years at Temptation, a low-slung constructing on a again highway outdoors Cookeville that Lancaster and different regulars say is the one homosexual bar within the 150 miles between Knoxville and Nashville. Wendy Williams, a drag performer who owns the bar, watched as Temptation’s Fb web page stuffed up with abusive feedback over the winter as conservatives ramped up their marketing campaign.

“First it was trans folks within the rest room, now it is drag queens,” she stated. “It is simply looking for one thing that can rile up their base as a result of there’s elections arising.”

She stated the brand new legislation helped seal a tough resolution: she put the bar up on the market in February. She expects it almost certainly will grow to be a church.

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