Alexia Noelle Paris has been a drag artist for six years, performing nearly every weekend in Nashville, Tennessee, where she lives, or in California. For her, drag isn’t merely a form of entertainment — it’s an outlet.
“I’ve always appreciated drag, even though initially I didn’t think that it was something for me,” Paris said.
But after joining a local LGBTQ kickball league and somewhat reluctantly participating in one of its charity drag shows — “[the group] wanted to do Dreamgirls and needed a third Black girl,” she laughed — she realized that drag allowed her to rekindle her love of dancing, of bringing joy to big crowds.
“Drag has become a way for me to express myself through performance,” Paris said. “I love the art and illusion of it all, the transformation.”
But she recently smacked into a terrifying new reality. Using children’s safety as a pretext, Tennessee Republican Gov. Bill Lee earlier this month signed into law a measure restricting public drag performances. While the bill doesn’t fully prohibit drag, many fear that its imprecise language will encourage subjective interpretations and result in self-censorship and the erasure of drag from public life. Tennessee is merely the first state this year to limit drag. More than two dozen comparable bills have been introduced in GOP-dominated state legislatures in 2023 — and they’re part of a wider movement to chip away at the rights of LGBTQ people.
“I do drag because it makes me happy. But this bill makes me feel powerless,” Paris said. “It’s been scary to go to shows and notice more security because we don’t know who’s going to be there. Sometimes I’m a little bit nervous about putting myself out there when I could be assaulted simply for performing my art.”
Her fear is entirely rational. The past year has been filled with accounts of confrontations between groups with ties to white nationalism — such as the Proud Boys and the Patriot Front — and drag performers and their guests.
Recent political machinations have been especially troubling for Black LGBTQ people in Tennessee, which is among the slew of states where lawmakers continue to challenge difference and inflame cultural anxieties about the supposedly destructive force of critical race theory.
“We’re being attacked on multiple sides,” said Kyra Bonet St. James-Cassadine, the transgender correspondent for Relationships Unleashed, a Memphis-based Black LGBTQ advocacy group. “I think that’s what [legislators] are trying to do. They’re trying to keep us so confused that we don’t know which battle to fight.”
Tennessee isn’t the only state seeking to radically limit drag performances. Lawmakers in about a dozen other states — from Arizona and Texas to West Virginia and South Carolina — are considering similar measures.
‘None of this is new’ to Black people
Supporters of anti-drag legislation often characterize it as a bulwark against child “grooming” and corruption.
“I think that the concern is right there in that building,” Lee said at a February news conference outside a Hendersonville elementary school. “Children that [sic] are potentially exposed to sexualized entertainment, to obscenity, and we need to make sure that they’re not.”
And yet, what the conservative panic over drag reveals isn’t genuine worry about children’s well-being, but instead deep unease about challenges to stubborn identity categories.
“If you’re a more conservative-minded person, then you likely have a specific idea of what it means to be in your body and how to live your life,” madison moore, an assistant professor of critical studies in the Roski School of Art and Design at the University of Southern California, said last year. “But the effervescence and joy and lyrical expression that drag represents are seen as a threat, because drag is saying, You don’t have to do that. You can play with all the colors in the crayon box. You can express yourself and expand.”
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The attack on drag isn’t occurring in a vacuum. Rather, it’s part of an extensive GOP-led political assault on LGBTQ people, particularly transgender people.
For instance, on the same day he signed Tennessee’s anti-drag bill, Lee enacted legislation banning gender-affirming health care for minors in the state, despite the fact that major medical associations are in agreement about the necessity of such care for people with gender dysphoria. And earlier that week, Mississippi’s Republican governor, Tate Reeves, approved a similar restriction.
More broadly, at least 400 anti-LGBTQ bills — centering on issues ranging from public accommodations to school and education — have been introduced so far this year, per data collected by the American Civil Liberties Union. Already, this number eclipses 2022’s record-setting tally.
The political right’s obsession with LGBTQ people comes as no surprise to many in the community.
“None of this is new, especially to Black LGBTQ folks,” said David Johns, the executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition, a civil rights organization. “This has been the direction white evangelical conservatives have been moving in for years. They’ve been equally bold about the anti-LGBTQ and anti-Black, or anti-‘woke’, parts of their strategy.”
But while this pattern of picking fights with LGBTQ people might not be shocking, it can nonetheless strike a severe psychological blow.
“I’ve seen things change [for the better] over the years. When I transitioned more than three decades ago, it was still taboo. Working was much different, because it was almost impossible to be out,” St. James-Cassadine said. “Now, it’s still hard, but it feels like [legislators] are constantly trying to push us back to those days when we had to stay hidden.”
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Some advocates, such as St. James-Cassadine, who’s also the founder of T-Aware, a support group for transgender and gender-nonconforming people, say that they’ll continue to offer help whenever it’s needed.
“One issue we’re focusing on right now is mental health. We want people to reach out if they’re feeling pressured or scared,” she said. “This [political moment] is trying on everyone in the community, and it’s really hurting people’s mental health.”
Discrimination’s effects can be particularly severe among certain groups. According to a 2022 survey by the Trevor Project, 45% of LGBTQ youth seriously considered suicide in the past year. Additionally, 49% of Black LGBTQ youth grappled with suicidal thoughts.
Other advocates, such as Johns, say that political leaders’ tub-thumping shouldn’t pull our attention away from the truth.
“I think a lot about waking up at the start of Black History Month to Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis and [the College Board CEO] David Coleman horse-trading parts of our history,” Johns said, referring to the controversy over AP African American Studies. “DeSantis knows that you can’t talk about Black history without acknowledging the contributions of Black feminists and Black queer folks.”
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Johns explained his vision for paving a path forward.
“We must resist the efforts by some people to consolidate their power at the expense of the members of our community,” he said, “and we must continue to support folks who are competent and care about the diversity that exists throughout the country.”
The drag superstar and queer icon RuPaul, in some ways, echoed Johns’ sentiments. In an Instagram Reel posted just last week, the Emmy-winner responded to the wave of anti-drag legislation. He said that the bills are a “classic distraction technique.” They shift the focus away from issues lawmakers ought to be prioritizing: job security, health care, keeping kids safe at school.
“But we know that bullies are incompetent at solving real issues,” RuPaul said. “They look for easy targets so that they can give the impression of being effective. They think that our love, our light, our laughter, and our joy are signs of weakness. But they’re wrong, because that is our strength.”
Or as Paris, the Nashville-based drag queen, put it, “It’s wild here in Tennessee — but the members of my community are resilient.”
They’ve been performing for decades, she said. And they’re not stopping the show now.