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“Our performers don't perform or do anything that's considered lewd or obscene," said Josh Cloud, owner of the Big Drag Bus. "But the definition of obscene or lewd is up for debate.” Courtesy Tyler Shields

Tennessee’s new anti-drag law comes with economic costs

Dylan Miettinen Mar 31, 2023
“Our performers don't perform or do anything that's considered lewd or obscene," said Josh Cloud, owner of the Big Drag Bus. "But the definition of obscene or lewd is up for debate.” Courtesy Tyler Shields
Bella DuBalle looks fabulous, holding a massive white rose. She has large, curly blonde hair and wears a white dress with a rose pattern. Some fabric roses come off the dress in a fun 2D/3D play.
Bella DuBalle. (Courtesy DuBalle)

Updated June 3, 2023: A federal judge in Tennessee ruled the proposed Tennessee drag ban unconstitutional.

Bella DuBalle is an icon in her own right. Her makeup is often impeccable, her costumes creative and elaborate. Her looks have run the gamut from adventurous to regal and fantastical

DuBalle is a drag queen who works as a show director and host at Memphis’ Atomic Rose Club and Grill. She describes her drag persona as part Miss Piggy, part Dolly Parton and part Mr. Rogers

But in recent months, DuBalle has gained icon status of another sort: She has become one of the faces of resistance against Tennessee’s new anti-drag legislation. 

The new anti-drag law, signed by Gov. Bill Lee, is slated to go into effect on April 1. The law will prevent “adult cabaret performance[s]” and “male or female impersonators who provide entertainment that appeals to a prurient interest” from occurring on public property or in the presence of children. 

“This is an attempt to erase drag in Tennessee. This bill will further harm trans people who are literally just living their lives,” DuBalle said during a performance in February

In addition to the human impact these restrictions have, they also have the potential to bring economic blows to the performers who make their livings off of drag, the venues that host them and the surrounding economies they’re a part of.

The law itself

Even before it goes into effect, how exactly the law will be enforced has caused confusion, to say the least

“Simply performing in drag does not constitute obscenity, regardless of what some legislators think,” said Stella Yarbrough, legal director of the ACLU of Tennessee, in an emailed statement to Marketplace. “While family-friendly drag performances are protected by the First Amendment, we are concerned that government officials could easily attempt to abuse Public Chapter 2 to censor people based on government officials’ own subjective viewpoints of what they deem appropriate.” 

The district attorney of Shelby County, where Memphis is located, has said he doesn’t anticipate that the ban will impact any drag performances currently underway. 

Still, DuBalle fears a chilling effect on drag based on a lack of clarity around the law — and how it may be enforced.

“I’ve seen folks who are shutting down their drag events because they’re not aware of the context of the law or they’re being abundantly cautious,” she said in an interview.

Those found violating Tennessee’s law in the first instance can face misdemeanor charges — with fines of up to $2,500 and/or up to a year in jail. Subsequent violations could add up to a felony charge, with up to six years of jail time. 

In addition to the anti-drag legislation, Tennessee’s governor recently signed into law a bill that bans gender-affirming health care for transgender children. At least 14 other states have also introduced anti-drag bills.

The impact on personal economies

Bella DuBalle in colorful outfits, including a jester's outfit, a Carmen Sandiego costume, a witch costume and more.
Some of the many looks of Bella DuBalle. (Courtesy DuBalle)

For many performers, drag is a critical part of their income. In DuBalle’s case, drag is her full-time job. The restaurant and club where DuBalle works hosts Sunday brunches that minors can attend if accompanied by a guardian. 

“It is our most popular and most lucrative show — it’s where all my girls make the most money,” she said. “If they were to be able to enforce this the way that they would like, we could no longer welcome children and their families in, so that would really hurt.”

Tony Baby is a Nashville-based entertainer. They’re a part-time student working on their master’s degree and making ends meet by bartending and performing drag. 

They’ve hosted pool parties and participated in drag competitions. Baby and their partner have done advertisements for companies selling candies and chamoy — a sweet, sour and spicy dip. The two have contemplated partnering with other local businesses and candy shops but now wonder what would happen if they go out in stilettos and dresses at places where children are around. 

Baby said they also fear that the restrictions could shrink the pool of clubs, venues and other businesses that host drag shows. That could make those gigs all the more competitive. Plus, fewer performances could also mean a dwindling income. 

“Each show, I make anywhere from $100 to $200 on average on tips. And that tip money, I’ll use it as my gas money for the week. I’ll use it as my eating money for the week,” they said. 

Economic ripple effects of the ban

As one owner of a Cookeville, Tennessee restaurant that hosts drag brunches, bingos and trivia told Eater, “if you took the drag away, then it’s just another boring bar.”

Drag performances throughout Tennessee can draw crowds and boost business. Take the Big Drag Bus, for example. 

The Big Drag Bus is Nashville’s only drag-themed party bus. Participants are required to be 18+ and the bus routes throughout Nashville, typically on Broadway — a major downtown thoroughfare — and around popular honky tonks. There are typically two queens per bus, plus a DJ. 

While minors are not allowed on the bus, the route takes customers past public spaces, schools and places of worship, and children are able to glance at the performances taking place as the bus drives by. 

“You can’t drive two city blocks [in Nashville] without passing a church, or a daycare, or a school,” said Josh Cloud, owner of the Big Drag Bus. “Our performers don’t perform or do anything that’s considered lewd or obscene. But the definition of obscene or lewd is up for debate.”

The law has prompted some minor changes to the bus. The queens are covering up more, and some dance moves have been changed so they couldn’t be “considered provocative,” Cloud said. And though they haven’t tinted the bus windows, Cloud acknowledges that may be a possibility, depending on how the law is enforced. 

Beyond individual businesses, the anti-drag law — coupled with recent anti-trans legislation — could have cooling effects on the state’s broader economy. That’s what Gabrielle Lopiano, an assistant professor of management at Vanderbilt, foresees.

She points to North Carolina’s bathroom bill, which the Associated Press found would cost the state $3.76 billion in lost business. One state estimate finds that one of Tennessee’s anti-trans bills has a $2 billion price tag. When the ability of LGBTQ+ folks to live and work as they choose is limited, Lopiano said that precludes them from participating in their local economy. 

“I think we should push the moral and ethical case for inclusion. There’s also a very important financial conversation that needs to go on,” she said. “Why would you limit people’s full participation in the economy?”

She pointed to other economic threats that could follow such unfriendly legislation: Companies may pull out of the state. Consumers could opt out of purchasing products made in Tennessee. Prospective job candidates may look for positions located in states that are more queer-friendly. 

A question mark over pride

New restrictions are also adding pressure to perhaps the most visible celebration of queer life: pride festivals. 

“The way that the bill and the legislation were written was so vague and so ambiguous, that it is really, really hard to decipher,” said Brady Ruffin, a member of the executive council of the board of directors for Nashville Pride. 

Ruffin made clear: Nashville Pride will still go on. But organizers of the event are proceeding with caution knowing there’s a chance they may have to make adjustments to comply with the law.

“Those details of how our entertainment lineup and how our festival and parade logistics could and may be affected are ongoing,” Ruffin said. “But our commitment to providing a space for the LGBTQ+ community to be authentically themselves is not wavering.” 

The drag ban and anti-trans legislation in the state have not negatively affected sponsorships, Ruffin said. If anything, he said sponsors may have recognized a greater need now to bolster support and involvement in LGBTQ+-friendly causes. 

Still, other pride festivals face greater uncertainty. The city board of Franklin, located just south of Nashville, voted to delay the permit process for a pride festival until a new “community decency policy” is approved. Citizens who oppose the pride festival cited the state’s drag show restrictions. Organizers of Knoxville Pride have said that the festival and parade would be canceled if the drag ban goes into effect, though more recent comments from the organization hint that the gathering will continue but be more protest-centered.

The potential paring back of festivals could come at a cost for area businesses. Multiple studies show that pride festivals often boost local economies

Existence as resistance 

Though it remains to be seen how exactly Tennessee’s new anti-drag law will be enforced, one thing that queens there have made explicitly clear: They are not going anywhere — and they’re certainly not going back in the closet. 

“We take drag queens down through Broadway every single day, and people’s faces light up as we drive through,” said Josh Cloud of the Big Drag Bus. “We’re a tiny company, but with all that being said, we have the potential to carry the flag and have the potential to be a fighting force in this.”

“We have this city, we have this love for each other, but we literally have to basically fight for our right to keep doing this art form in this state,” said performer Tony Baby. “We, as queer people, really need to stick by each other’s side, but we need action and support from all sides of the country that enjoy and benefit off of drag as much as we do.” 

“I think the most active resistance that we can provide is to not sit down, to not be quiet, because that’s the effect they want these laws to have,” said Bella DuBalle. 

“I barely survived growing up queer in the South. I thought I was the only person like me,” she went on. “There are going to be a lot more queer kids who have to grow up in Tennessee, and right now our legislators are doing everything they can to make sure that it’s not going to be a very pleasant place for them. So, I feel like I’ve got to stay and fight to do anything I can to make it a better world for them.”

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