‘We aren’t strippers’: Locals react to new bill proposal that could make public drag shows illegal

Published: Nov. 13, 2022 at 8:43 PM CST
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - A bill filed in Nashville last week could criminalize some public drag shows in Tennessee.

House Bill 3 would make public drag shows illegal. It would also ban drag shows on private property if children are present.

The bill categorizes drag performances as “adult cabarets,” a category the bill explains as “sexually explicit, adult entertainment,” akin to exotic dancing.

However, local performers say this is far from the truth.

“We aren’t strippers, far from it,” said Camille Collins, a drag performer with Friends of George’s, a resident non-profit theatre company based in Memphis with the mission of raising money for other area non-profits by producing original performances.

Friends of George’s was founded in 2010 to produce a reunion for the historic Memphis drag bar known as George’s Disco.

The original George’s Disco opened in 1969 on Madison Street in Midtown and went through various incarnations before finally closing its doors in the late 1980′s.

Over the weekend, the theatre premiered “A Wunderland Holiday” at the Evergreen Theater in Midtown to get the Mid-South in the spirit of the season.

Before Saturday’s performance, Collins said she believes that the language in the bill won’t affect shows by Friends of George’s. The theatre already suggests the audience be 18 and older because of adult jokes written into the comedies.

But, she said they are worried about what this bill could end up doing for the drag community overall.

“How do we know? How’s that defined? Where do they draw the line?” Collins asked.

Collins said she and her fellow thespians aren’t going back to the old days.

“We’re not going to hide in corners anymore, and maybe that’s the problem,” Collins said.

If the legislation becomes law, the criminal penalty ranges from a Class A misdemeanor for a first-time offense to a Class E felony for repeat offenders, something Senator Jack Johnson (R), the lawmaker who introduced the bill, says will protect Tennessee children.

“It’s not about attack,” Johnson said. “I want every Tennesseean to live a happy, fulfilled life to the extent they can. And once you are an adult, I believe in freedom. I believe in personal liberty for you to live your life in the way you want to live it. The state of Tennessee has an obligation to protect children.”

Just one day prior to the bill’s proposal, Johnson also introduced legislation to prohibit gender-affirming surgeries for Tennessee youth, something he classified as “mutilation.”

Senator Ramesh Akbari (D), who represents Memphis in the state senate, disagrees with her conservative counterpart’s views on drag performances.

For her, children seeing drag is a nonissue, and she thinks the state government has bigger fish to fry — like reading levels, healthcare, and combatting gun violence that impacts Tennessee children daily.

“Children being a part of pride parades or at a drag show that their parents have brought them to is not a concern,” Senator Akbari told Action News 5 over the weekend.

She added, “it certainly isn’t something the state needs to regulate.”

The bill, which hasn’t been assigned to a committee yet, will not be heard before lawmakers return to Nashville for their regular session in January 2023.

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