Confusion at Nashville concert shows ambiguity of drag law
Despite a federal judge issuing a stay to prevent new law regulating drag performances, a touring performer claims her show was warned of liability
The crowd at a March rally in Nashville, sponsored by the Human Rights Campaign, crowds around drag performer Perplexity. (Photo: John Partipilo)
A recent incident at a Nashville concert points to the confusion around a new Tennessee law prohibiting some types of drag shows.
Entertainer Hayley Kiyoko alleged an “undercover cop” warned her she would be liable for prosecution if she performed with drag queens during a May 1 show in Nashville in spite of a recent stay of the law in federal court.
The “Girls Like Girls” singer posted on social media saying she’d been warned that if she proceeded, she could be liable for legal action that might be taken under Tennessee’s new anti-drag queen law.
“I was advised by local law enforcement that having a drag performance at my all ages show could result in legal action,” Kiyoko said in a video on Instagram. “They warned us to not bring any drag performers on stage. I was shattered as you can see in the videos I recorded reacting to the situation in real time before the show started.”
A spokesperson for the Metro Nashville Police Department confirmed the department had no role in the encounter, did not advise Kiyoko of any legal problems over SB0003, nor would it be within their purview to do so.
Chris Sanders, executive director of the Tennessee Equality Project, said it’s common for off-duty officers from Metro and other jurisdictions to work security at concerts and other events, and that it’s possible one of these individuals made the comment to the singer.
The ambiguity of the law lends itself to this. (Perhaps) some random person working security thought it applied here, even though it wouldn't have. It's believable because our law is so notorious. It was the first.
– Chris Sanders, Tennessee Equality Project
On April 1, U.S. District Judge Thomas Parker temporarily blocked the law, saying in his ruling the state failed to make a compelling case for the new law, which “creates an offense for a person who engages in an adult cabaret performance on public property or in a location where the adult cabaret performance could be viewed by a person who is not an adult.”
The Kiyoko incident shows that the new law, which is still tied up in court and not currently legally enforceable, is confusing to Tennesseeans and touring artists alike. Sanders said this is in part because Tennessee is so well-known for its anti-LGBTQ legislation.
“The ambiguity of the law lends itself to this,” Sanders said. “[Perhaps] some random person working security thought it applied here, even though it wouldn’t have. It’s believable because our law is so notorious. It was the first.”
Sanders also said that in the past, economic boycotts against states that passed anti-LGBTQ bills were effective ways of preventing discriminatory legislation, but that so many states have similar bills now that strategy is no longer viable.
Despite the alleged warnings, Kiyoko brought multiple drag queens on stage for her performance at Marathon Music Works. Kiyoko did not specify if she checked the credentials of the alleged law enforcement officer and could not be reached for comment.
In the last few years, the Tennessee legislature has been at the forefront of anti-LGBTQ+ laws.. A slew of anti-trans bills passed the state legislature beginning in 2022 and the first bill filed for the 2023 legislative session was one to prohibit healthcare providers from giving gender-affirming care to minors, even with parental permission.
Despite the bans, drag performances remain popular with Tennesseans and artists. In April, singer Lizzo brought drag queens on stage with her at a Knoxville show. Country singer Kelsea Ballerini made a statement when she brought drag queens on stage for her performance of “If You Go Down (I’m Goin’ Down Too)” at the annual CMT Music Awards in April.
Kiyoko later gave a second performance at Nashville’s LGBTQ+ venue Play Dance Bar, and featured local drag performers, Lady LiberTea and Ivy St. James.
Lady LiberTea took to Instagram to describe her experience performing alongside Kiyoko.
“The past two days have truly been life changing,” she said online. “If you were to tell me Sunday morning that I’d perform with Hayley Kiyoko… I would’ve laughed. This was such an incredible experience with everyone involved. Thank you Hayley for having us [and] for showing no fear to Tennessee legislation.”
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