Tennessee’s Assault on Freedom of Speech


Tennessee drag queen Britney Banks speaking on Tennessee’s decision to ban drag in front of the Tennessee state Capitol on February 14th, 2023. (Image courtesy of Blaise Gainey/WPLN)

Ryan Rose, Co-Editor

The American right wing loves to claim that they are the bold protectors of free speech and Constitutional rights, but they have proven time and time again that this only holds true if you agree with them. Conservative leaders frequently remind us that they have the right to be as openly racist as they wish or to spread whatever misinformation they desire to share on social media thanks to their first amendment rights, but if you wish to speak freely about something they disagree with, they immediately shut you down. Thanks to Florida’s Governor Ron DeSantis, students and teachers in his state aren’t allowed to say the word “gay” or anything relating to the LGBTQ community without fear of punishment. School teachers throughout southern states are forced to empty their bookshelves and only allow district approved readings in their classes in an attempt to rid of American history and differing societal views. These shameful attacks on our rights are not just limited to schools, however; conservatives wish to censor anything they don’t agree with anywhere that they can. What is their current target, you may ask? Drag queens. 


The Republican controlled Tennessee state legislature has just passed a law that would effectively ban any public drag performance as of July 1st, 2023; it also bans any drag shows in the presence of minors. The bill does not specifically use the terms “drag queen” or “drag performers” , but instead chooses to refer to them as “male or female impersonators” and classifies their artform as a subsect of “adult-oriented” cabaret performances. The fact of the matter is that this is simply untrue. While it is true that some drag performances are not geared for a public audience or intended to be performed in front of minors, there are other drag performances that are (like at drag queen storytime events or pride parades). Drag is merely a type of performance; drag shows are a genre of entertainment. Banning drag because some of it is inappropriate would be like banning comedy shows because they can sometimes be inappropriate; it simply wouldn’t make sense.


The fact of the matter is that while these lawmakers claim that they are protecting children, they simply are not; all they are doing is infringing on the freedom of speech and expression that is given to all Americans, drag queens included, in the first amendment. There is no reason that popular events like “Drag Queen Story Time” or “Drag Queen Brunch” should be banned in the presence of children. These shows are family oriented and have been designed to be appropriate and inclusive for all. Conservative lawmakers know this, but by using the facade of “protecting the children” they have effectively found a way to excuse their blatant bigotry and disregard for freedom. These lawmakers do not agree with the messages of inclusion and diversity promoted by drag performers and have infringed on their first amendment rights to promote these messages. 


The bill also has the potential to restrict the rights of transgender people within the state. In no where does the bill define what a “male or female impersonator” is. While we assume that they are referring to just drag queens, is it possible they will use this language and apply it to transgender individuals as well. Conservatives have historically and openly been transphobic and introduced laws that would discriminate against the trans community; it is not so far fetched to believe that this language would be used to restrict the rights of transgender individuals in front of children or even just in public. The conservative hypocrisy in calls for freedom speech couldn’t be more clear. 


The American people should also ask themselves why conservatives are so caught up in these petty and unimportant issues? If they actually wanted to protect children and better our communities, why haven’t they addressed the issues of school shootings, child hunger, mass poverty, or homelessness? Are conservative leaders really fighting to better our communities when all it seems that they are doing is banning drag, literature, education, and abortion. Are conservatives going to try to improve the issues our nation faces? Or are they just going to keep banning things that they don’t personally approve of based entirely on their own subjective (and oftentimes misinformed) opinions?