LGBTQ Agenda: Bad week for equality sees ban on trans health care, doubts on drag shows

  • by John Ferrannini, Assistant Editor
  • Tuesday March 7, 2023
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Advocates who oppose a law that could impact drag shows and where they could be held marched from a rally outside of the Tennessee Capitol in Nashville on February 14 to the Cordell Hull legislative building. Photo: Jonathan Mattise/AP
Advocates who oppose a law that could impact drag shows and where they could be held marched from a rally outside of the Tennessee Capitol in Nashville on February 14 to the Cordell Hull legislative building. Photo: Jonathan Mattise/AP

In just several days, one state enacted a ban on gender-affirming health care for youth, another saw a similar bill signed into law as well as another one that limits shows by "male or female impersonators" in public, and a speaker at a prominent conservative conference said, "transgenderism must be eradicated from public life entirely."

Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves (R) signed legislation one week ago banning gender-affirming care for youth. It's the fifth state in the country to do so, and the third in the past month, after Utah and South Dakota. Laws in Alabama and Arkansas are currently enjoined due to ongoing federal lawsuits.

The American Civil Liberties Union and its chapter in the Magnolia State called the law "devastating" and "heartbreaking."

"This care was already difficult to access across the state for transgender people of any age, but this law shuts the door on best-practice medical care and puts politics between parents, their children, and their doctors," the statement reads. "But this fight is far from over — we are determined to build a future where Mississippi is a safe place to raise every child. Our politicians continue to fail trans youth, so it is up to each and every one of us to rise against their fear and ignorance and surround these young people with strength, safety, and love."

Then, two days later on March 2, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee (R) signed a similar law, House Bill 1, and another law, House Bill 9, that bans staging "adult cabaret" on public property in the state as well as anywhere a child might be present. Several experts fear that could impact drag shows, as the state's pre-existing law defines adult cabaret as "a cabaret that features topless dancers, go-go dancers, exotic dancers, strippers, male or female impersonators, or similar entertainers."

This makes Tennessee the first state to enact such a law on adult entertainment. It came even as pictures leaked from a 1977 high school yearbook showing Lee "wearing a short-skirted cheerleader's uniform, a pearl necklace and a wig, posing on a school sports field next to two girls in men's suits," according to NBC News. NBC also reported that when asked Lee neither confirmed nor denied the image's authenticity.

Some legal experts doubt that drag shows will be impacted by the law, which uses ambiguous language, but nevertheless drag performers and their supporters are on edge. While the law doesn't use the word "drag," per se, it could have consequences for drag performances, which have become more mainstream in Tennessee as well as many other states in recent years, as the New York Times reported.

Gender-affirming care

What is not ambiguous is Tennessee's ban on gender-affirming health care, which could have a major effect on trans and gender-nonconforming youth.

Referencing both laws, Human Rights Campaign legal director Sarah Warbelow stated, "neither of these laws are about protecting youth — they are about spreading dangerous misinformation against the transgender community; they are about doubling down on efforts to attack drag artists and transgender youth."

Elizabeth Knight, a 17-year-old transgender youth activist based in Tennessee, stated in a news release that now trans people in the state know what it is like to experience legally-sanctioned discrimination.

"Not only will these bills provide legal pressure to a group that already faces systemic issues in our society, but they will also induce a second kind of pressure if passed — one that is indirect but no less damaging," Knight stated. "Simply put, trans people throughout Tennessee will know for a fact that they are now a thoroughly legislated against and despised group of people, whose basic values and dreams are under attack."

Ivy Hill, the director of gender justice for the Campaign for Southern Equality, said a legal challenge is on the way.

"The passage of this law cutting off trans young people's access to life-saving care is devastating — but it won't stop our community from holding and supporting each other," they stated. "Advocates now are working to provide a holistic support and response for transgender youth: Legal partners are preparing to challenge the law, community groups are supporting trans folks with strategies for healing and resilience, and we're honored to be connecting families with funding, information, and provider referrals to preserve continuity of care for as many people as we can. No law can stop the transgender community from charting our paths to thriving and living authentically."

The campaign created an online resource guide for people seeking to navigate their way through the law's passage.

Phil Cobucci, the founder of Inclusion Tennessee, called the new laws "aggressive attacks on best-practice medical care and free speech."

"The government has no place inserting itself into the private medical decisions that should be made by doctors, patients, and their families alone — and the restrictions on drag could easily be wielded as a weapon against artists and the trans community more broadly," Cobucci said. "We will never stop working to support transgender Tennesseans and are sending our love, support, and strength far and wide."

Not everyone was upset with the new laws, however.

Liberty Counsel, a conservative group, wrote that HB 1, the gender-affirming care ban, "protects children from medical mutilation."

HB 9, the cabaret law, makes a first violation a class A misdemeanor and a second violation a Class E felony. It contains a reference to the "prurient interest" (that is, the sexual appetite) in order to fit a prong of federal obscenity standards set by the United States Supreme Court in Miller v. California (1971). However, meeting all three standards (rendering something legally obscene, and thus without protection of the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment) is notoriously difficult.

CPAC speaker

Meanwhile, Daily Wire host Michael Knowles, speaking at the Conservative Political Action Committee conference over the weekend, which also featured an appearance from former President Donald Trump, took things a step further, saying, "For the good of society ... transgenderism must be eradicated from public life entirely, the whole preposterous ideology at every level."

Knowles then demanded retractions from news organizations that claimed he called for the eradication of transgender people.

Equality California Executive Director Tony Hoang stated that "Michael Knowles' call to 'eradicate transgenderism' smacks of genocide and mass acts of violence. We've seen a 200% increase in anti-LGBTQ+ protests over the past year, and remarks like these are adding fuel to an already raging fire. Transgender people's existence is not up for debate, and Equality California will continue fighting to ensure that all trans people are treated with dignity and respect."

The same day that Lee signed the Tennessee laws, bills advanced in Kentucky that would also restrict drag shows and ban gender-affirming care for youth.

"This is lifesaving health care for transgender kids, and without their access to it, you will kill Kentucky's kids," Chris Hartman, the executive director of the Kentucky Fairness Campaign, stated. "Make no mistake about it. This is effective. It is safe. It is necessary. I know the intent of these bills: this is to erase the LGBTQ+ community all across the board."

Some good news

In some positive news for the LGBTQ community, the Michigan state Senate passed a bill March 1 adding sexual orientation and gender identity to the protected classes under the state's civil rights laws. The bipartisan bill now heads to the Michigan House of Representatives.

"We're so incredibly excited about guaranteed protections for LGBTQ+ people in Michigan becoming a reality," HRC Michigan state director Amritha Venkataraman stated. "The Elliott Larsen Civil Rights Act amendment is a historic bill that was only made possible due to years of grassroots organizing together with our allies and partners.

"We can all celebrate today's step toward progress — we celebrate with the volunteers who knocked on thousands of doors during the midterm elections, with the lawmakers who have been pushing for progress for years, with Michigan voters who elected the first pro-equality legislature in decades, and with organizations like Equality Michigan and ACLU Michigan," Venkataraman added.

There was also good news coming out of Arkansas.

Megan Tullock, the director of programs and advocacy with Northwest Arkansas Equality, told the Bay Area Reporter, "The anti-drag bill in Arkansas was effectively gutted — our one victory in a truly terrifying and dismal legislative season."

The law, as signed by Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders (R), bans adult-oriented performances on public property, in front of minors or using public funds, but does not include drag per se. Rather, it defines an adult-oriented performance as involving nudity, exposure of genitalia or breasts, or sexual acts.

LGBTQ Agenda is an online column that appears weekly. Got a tip on queer news? Contact John Ferrannini at [email protected]

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