From Illinois to Tennessee, Drag Performers are Resisting Anti-Trans Legislation

An explosion of bans on drag performance and gender-affirming care have surged nationwide. The community is fighting back.

Henry Hicks IV PHOTOS BY CZAR CHI

More than a thousand Chicagoans of all ages, genders and sexualities packed tightly into the Metro for its sold-out Chicago Loves Drag!” show on April 14. The balconies overflowed with people dressed in exuberant color, eagerly peering over one another to get a view of the night’s 41 performers. Drag kings and queens made the room their own, claiming the audience’s full attention with lip syncs, comedy acts and dance routines, a radiant variety show highlighting the broad — and liberatory — entertainment that drag offers. Proceeds benefited the work of LGBTQ organizations in Chicago and Tennessee, including the Trans Formations Project, Life Is Work, ACLU of Tennessee and the Tennessee Equality Project.

Tennessee has become ground zero for the nationwide surge in legislating away drag performance and gender-affirming care; the state’s drag ban was the first in the nation to be signed into law. Similar draconian measures are currently in legislatures across the country, which often define drag in terms so broad and vague that they limit communities far beyond drag. Critics of Tennessee’s ban, and of similar bills in other states, have been careful to note how the legislation leaves the legal status of trans people unresolved. Under Tennessee’s ban, any male or female impersonators who provide entertainment that appeals to a prurient interest, or similar entertainers, regardless of whether or not performed for consideration” could be arrested, fined or imprisoned, based upon the judgment of any individual cop.

Many of the proposed bills also roll back access to gender-affirming care for minors. Missouri’s attorney general, Andrew Bailey, restricted gender affirming care for trans adults on April 13. The Missouri restrictions are the first of their kind in targeting trans adults.

Both of Tennessee’s bans, as well as Missouri’s restrictions, are being challenged in federal court, while drag artists and their allies continue to blare fierce resistance to the bigoted legislation.

Drag performer Saint during the “Chicago Loves Drag” fundraiser. PHOTOS BY CZAR CHI

On one of drag’s biggest stages — the TV series RuPaul’s Drag Race—newly crowned queen Sasha Colby dedicated her victory to every trans person, past, present and future.” Holding a glittery scepter and sporting a dazzling pink two-piece, Colby added on the show’s season 15 finale (which aired April 14): “[trans people] are not going anywhere.”

On April 21, on the ground in Knoxville, Tenn., Grammy Award-winning artist Lizzo filled her stage with several drag performers, inviting them to join her in a vibrant, lyric-filled protest. I was told by people on the internet, Cancel your shows in Tennessee. Don’t go to Tennessee,’” the About Damn Time” singer said. But why would I not come to the people who need to hear this message the most?”

The stadium full of Tennesseans erupted into cheers, their shouts serving as their protest song. Joining the chorus in righteous uproar from another time and place, Chicago’s queer community at the Metro was howling and hollering, tossing snaps and dollar bills toward the stage, making it clear that transphobia will not stand and that the movement is strong. As the show’s title suggests: Chicago truly does love drag.

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Henry Hicks IV is a Washington D.C.-based writer and organizer. Originally from Nashville, Tenn., he is a graduate of Oberlin College and is a Harry S. Truman scholar.

Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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