Right-wing panic isn’t about men wearing women’s clothes

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Earlier this month, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee (right) became the first governor to sign into law a bill banning certain types of drag performances. Specifically, the bill banned “adult cabaret” in venues where minors might be present, including “shirtless” or “exotic” dancers, but also “male or female impersonators who provide entertainment that appeal to a lustful interest”.

In a belated storyline, shortly before the bill was signed, someone posted a photo on Reddit: a black-and-white photo from Lee’s high school yearbook from 1977. In it, a young man – allegedly Lee as a teenager – wore a miniskirt, beads and a wig. Asked about the photo, the governor neither confirmed nor denied that it was him in the photo. Neither does a spokesperson for the governor, who responded to reporters by email that the Tennessee bill “specifically protects children from lewd and sexualized entertainment, and any attempt to confuse this serious issue with school traditions. slight is dishonest and disrespectful to Tennessee families.”

We don’t want to disrespect anyone. But because the language of the bill is rather vague – “lustful interest” can mean a wide variety of things to a wide variety of people – we might need to explore the difference between a “light” tradition and the kind of thing that Tennessee is now outlawed.

What if the governor put on a dress not as a teenager but as an adult now? What if, instead of a high school tradition, the disguise was part of a silly trick for the town follies? What if Lee added prosthetics to the mix? What if the event was a charity lookalike contest for Tennessee’s Dolly Parton, the beloved country-music icon? What if the governor generously stuffed a bra in his attempt to get closer to the singer’s famous physique? Would be This are we crossing the line into “lustful interests” or are we still laughing? (Perhaps that would depend on how sultry the Governor delivered his performance of “Touch Your Woman.”)

These are silly assumptions, but as long as politicians see the need to make new laws delineating between harmless pleasure and dangerous obscenity, we might as well talk about the line and why. Because something tells me nobody’s about to start legislating against, say, Tennessee Titans cheerleading uniforms, no matter how cleavage they show or how publicly they perform or how many miners in the stands.

I emailed Senator Jack Johnson (R), the Tennessee state senator who sponsored the bill, to see if he could shed some light on this bill. Was there a particularly long history of children in Tennessee being exposed in harmful ways to obscene impersonators? Is it a big problem in his condition? What prompted the invoice?

Johnson’s publicist sent me a statement on his behalf. “I have seen videos of sexually graphic performances where children are present, and it is absolutely despicable,” the statement read. He added that the bill “does not ban drag shows in public. It simply puts in place age restrictions to ensure that children are not present at sexually explicit performances.

Free speech advocates worry about the law’s obscurity – “We fear that government officials could easily misuse this law to censor people based on their own subjective views of what they deem appropriate,” the ACLU tweeted.

Broader pieces of legislation are being debated in states across the country. Nebraska, Kentucky, West Virginia, South Carolina, Texas, Montana, Kansas and Oklahoma all have various anti-drag bills on the table. A proposed bill in Missouri prohibits activities where drag queens engage in “learning activities in the presence of minor children” and specifically mentions drag queen storytimes.

A man like Lee, in a fundraiser, could he dare… I will if we raise a million dollars – dress up as Dolly Parton and then read aloud one of the books from her Imagination library, which provides free monthly books to children?

You know what, I think he might. Because here’s the thing. I don’t think proponents of these bills have a problem with drag when it’s the right kind of drag. And the right kind of drag is when a straight man does it as a gag, a challenge, or a humiliation. When the joke is how bad he looks or how silly it all is; when it’s Arnold Schwarzenegger in “Junior” or Robin Williams in “Mrs. Doubtfire” or Tom Hanks in “Bosom Buddies” or Tyler Perry as Madea, or any number of teenagers who have borrowed the uniforms cheerleaders from their girlfriends and received yells and cat calls while performing in the senior class skit or other “light school tradition”.

Earlier in March, protesters targeted a Michigan bookstore for hosting a drag queen story hour, the type of event they are trying to ban in Missouri, and which has recently become a fixation of panicked crowds by pronouns. I looked at pictures. The performer in attendance was dressed in a poofy ball gown. She looked like a Disney princess. The book she was reading, “The Groovy Imagination of Pete the Cat,” was about an animal finding creative ways to have fun on a rainy day.

Michigan is Democrat controlled, so the right (ahem) economic anxiety around sex, it did not translate into statewide bans. Still, the local GOP encouraged people to protest the event. “Adult sexuality presented to a child – especially outside of the family unit – is not ‘playful’ or safe to entertain,” read a statement from the Oakland County GOP. “It’s inappropriate at best and criminal at worst.”

Where do they get the idea that a modest prom dress introduces “adult sexuality”?

I think people who say they have a problem with drag only really have a problem with drag when the message is that it’s okay to feel good wearing a dress. When the message is that men can wear makeup and celebrate what it means to look or feel feminine, not just make fun of it. When the message is that it doesn’t make you some kind of degenerate.

I reached out to Nino Testa, a professor at Texas Christian University who studies the art of drag performance, to see if he could articulate this concept better, and he absolutely did:

“It is very clear that these anti-drag initiatives and bills express a specific value: that homosexuality itself is undesirable and children should not be told otherwise,” Testa replied. He told me about “weddings without a wife,” a fascinating Southern tradition dating back to the early 20th century, where a group of men would act out a wedding ceremony, playing bride, bridesmaids and bridesmaids. These events were seen as fun entertainment, not inappropriate sexualization.

“When one group of performers engages in these practices and uses this aesthetic, it is unremarkable, when another group of performers does, it is considered obscene,” Testa wrote. “It’s because of age-old antiquarian tropes that position all queer people as sexual predators and social deviants.”

Unfortunately, these age-old biases are not easily eradicated at a societal level, especially when fueled by fear-based state legislation.

As for addressing them on an individual level, here is my modest proposal: pretend that the drag performer in question is the governor of a conservative southern state. Pretend he’s the one who put on the miniskirt and wig. Ron DeSantis. Greg Abbott – really, any of them will do. If you can find a way to see this performance as a lighthearted lark, not something sexual or shameful, then leave the drag queens alone.

The other thing people who fear for drag performance might do is attend drag shows. Especially the daylight variety, those associated with street festivals or held in libraries – the ones children are likely to actually encounter.

The message is not “prurient”. The message is that people can present themselves in all sorts of different ways and still be full members of society. That imagination and imagination are important. That it’s an optional performance, not a state mandated program, for Pete’s sake, and if you think it’s weird, you’re free to stay home.

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