The origins of Tennessee’s drag show restriction: From rural West Tennesse to the state capital

A drag show flyer, a lawsuit and a dramatic meeting at a city hall in Jackson, Tennessee, seem to be partially responsible for Tennessee’s drag show restrictions

By: - March 9, 2023 6:02 am
A drag performer entertains a full house in a Nashville club. A law banning public drag performances was struck down on June 3, 2023. (Photo: John Partipilo)

A drag performer entertains a full house in a Nashville club. A law banning public drag performances was struck down on June 3, 2023. (Photo: John Partipilo)

In fall of 2022, nearly a dozen political and religious leaders met with Pride festival organizers in a back room of Jackson City Hall in West Tennessee. The shared goal? Hash out a deal over a drag show.

Jackson’s third annual LGBTQ Pride festival was scheduled for the following month, and unlike the previous years, the event had grown beyond the usual music and games. Organizers had put together enough money for a 10-person drag performance. 

Jackson is a town of 70,000 in Madison County, Tennessee, located about halfway between Nashville and Memphis on Interstate 40. The county reliably leans Republican, while the city is more split, going 50/50 in the 2020 Presidential election.

 The city hall meeting was a dramatic affair, with Pride organizers storming out after a conservative pastor likened men dressing up in women’s clothing to blackface, but negotiations continued. Afterward, state lawmaker Chris Todd sued the city to stop the event. When that was only partially successful, he spearheaded the effort to create one of the nation’s first restrictions on drag performances.

Rep. Chris Todd, R-Jackson, at right, conferring with Rep. John Gillespie, R-Memphis, on the floor of the Tennessee House of Representatives. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Rep. Chris Todd, R-Jackson, at right, conferring with Rep. John Gillespie, R-Memphis, on the floor of the Tennessee House of Representatives. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Definitions for drag vary; according to one dictionary, it’s a “performance art where a person impersonates a man or woman to entertain a crowd with comedy, singing, dancing or a combination of all three.” Tennessee’s controversial bill deems drag in some instances as harmful to minors and defines it as “adult cabaret,” prohibiting it on public property or areas children may view performances.

Critics worry the law creates a pretext to ban drag events in communities with intense opposition to the LGBTQ community. The Human Rights Campaign, an LGBTQ advocacy group, said Tennessee laws prohibiting drag shows and transgender care were “unrelenting,” making it an “increasingly difficult place for LGBTQ people to survive, let alone thrive.”

Jackson’s representative led the drag restriction bill. Republican leaders appeared to already have some in mind.

The legislation sponsored by Todd, R-Jackson, and Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, and signed into law by Gov. Bill Lee last Thursday, is vague, leaving open to interpretation the type of drag shows that can be blocked.

The origins of the law trace back to Todd, who attended the September 2022 city hall meeting and was part of a lawsuit against the city he partially represents.

“I was appalled there could be a parent who would allow their kid in that setting,” Todd told the Tennessee Lookout. “I set out to craft a bill to take care of this. I set out to define the word cabaret because that seemed to be the issue.”

Todd added that after introducing his bill, he merged it with Johnson’s, who already had a proposal restricting some drag performances and mirrored language from drag-restrictive bills brought forward in states like Arkansas, Missouri and North Dakota.

What happened at that Jackson meeting?

The backlash to Pride in Jackson didn’t come as a surprise. The city’s Pride group began circulating a flyer promoting the event and drag show in the weeks leading up to the show, eventually making its way around town and sparking controversy. 

Flyer for Jackson, TN pride.
Flyer for Jackson, TN pride drag show, according to WBBJ-TV.

Todd said he received dozens of calls and complaints about the flyer and even asked Jackson officials to block the event since it was supposed to occur at a city park. 

“I know for a fact the city was getting the same complaints I was,” he added.

The anger caused Jackson Mayor Scott Conger to gather the city’s legal team, local pastors, Pride organizers, Todd and Sen. Ed Jackson, R-Jackson, for a meeting. 

Sky McCracken, senior pastor at Jackson First United Methodist Church, said he attended the meeting because he thought it was a “good faith effort” between organizers and those with concerns. 

“It was an attempt by shareholders in the community to try to find a happy medium,” he said. 

Todd, however, said it felt like the meeting was stacked against those with concerns. 

“I remember the mayor wouldn’t directly answer my questions,” Todd said

Pride organizers like Darren Lykes felt otherwise. After the comment comparing drag to blackface, Lykes, who is Black, had to step out.

“I’m just thinking to myself, ‘Is he really comparing blackface right now to drag?'” Lykes said. “I was done at that moment.”

Organizers returned, though, and Jackson Pride agreed to move the festival and performance indoors to the local civic center.

Todd said the move wasn’t enough to “protect children from the event” and filed a lawsuit to stop it.

A court settlement was eventually reached, with the event restricted to those aged 18 or older. 

Since that meeting and the legislation that followed, Tennessee’s restriction on drag performance has received nationwide attention. 

National outlets like The New York Times, Washington Post and Fox News have written about it, the White House Press Secretary criticized the bill and several late-night comedy shows mentioned it. 

“It’s just bizarre,” Lykes added. “I honestly still can’t believe it started here.”

Despite the backlash, the 2022 Pride was the most successful event for the group to date, according to Lykes. He added that even with the new law, the group could still bring a drag show to Jackson next year and would put in age restrictions again. 

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Adam Friedman
Adam Friedman

Adam Friedman is a reporter with the Tennessee Lookout. He has a particular love for data and using numbers to explain all kinds of topics. If you have a story idea, he'd love to hear it. Email him at [email protected] or call him at 615-249-8509.