How Tennessee’s Drag Show Ban Is Already Impacting Country Music
Every summer, the Knoxville suburb Farragut hosts a series of free outdoor concerts called the Lawn Chair Concert Series. Held in a local park and offering live music, kids' crafts and a handful of food trucks, it's a generally sleepy event. But in August 2021, concert organizers courted minor controversy when country singer Adeem the Artist took to social media to announce that their set was cut short after a few concertgoers complained that their performance was "inappropriate for children."
A report in the local Farragut Press, which referred to Adeem as a "controversial performer" and repeatedly misgendered them (Adeem is non-binary and uses they/them pronouns), claimed that organizers cut the set short after Adeem — who, as they note, was wearing makeup and a romper — began performing "sexually explicit" material. But Adeem says that this is absolutely untrue, and that the organizers were simply trying to shift blame onto them in an effort to placate the handful of intolerant attendees who were upset about watching a visibly queer person perform. [Editor's Note: The Boot reached out to Farragut Press writer Michelle Hollenhead for comment but did not receive a response prior to this article's publishing.]
Now, as a series of anti-LGBTQ legislation passes through the Tennessee legislature, the Farragut ordeal seems like a harbinger of what was to come. Last week, the Tennessee Senate passed a bill that would restrict where drag shows can be performed. Titled Senate Bill 3, the legislation defines drag performances as "adult cabaret shows" and bans "male and female impersonators" from performing on public property or anywhere that "they could be viewed by someone who is not an adult."
Though the bill targets drag shows, opponents have argued that it is vaguely written, potentially criminalizing trans and non-binary people who are simply being themselves in a public setting. SB 3 will next make its way to the House, which has already been debating two similar bills. If signed into law by Gov. Bill Lee, citations would equate to a Class A misdemeanor on a first offense and a Class E felony on subsequent violations. If SB 3 becomes law, this could have implications for artists like Adeem.
"Most of the events I play are not adults-only, so this could have a pretty significant impact on my ability to live and work in Tennessee," says Adeem, who lives in East Tennessee.
SB 3 is just one part of many recent legislation opponents view as targeting the LGBTQ community and trans people in particular. The ACLU is currently tracking 321 anti-LGBTQ bills that conservative legislatures across the country have introduced since last year. In Tennessee, the 26 anti-LGBTQ bills being tracked include efforts to restrict trans healthcare and ban gender-affirming care for transgender youth.
Adeem says they are considering moving out of state if things continue to worsen for the LGBTQ community in Tennessee.
"My wife and I have a kid whose relationship to gender is very fluid, and I don't want them to be exposed to the kind of vitriol and hostility that these laws foster," they say. "They say these bills are supposed to 'protect the children,' but all they're going to do is make queer kids unsafe."
According to Shana Goldin-Perschbacher, a professor of music and queer studies at Temple University and the author of Queer Country, there's no question that legislation like SB 3 will make it more difficult for queer artists to make a living in Tennessee.
"If signed into law, this bill is going to make things very hostile," she says. "And artists are going to have to be very careful about who wears what and how they identify themselves onstage."
Nashville has a reputation for being a "blue dot in a red ocean," a place whose thriving arts scene and left-leaning politics have long clashed with other parts of the state. But according to PROUD Radio on Apple Music host Hunter Kelly, who moved to Nashville in 1999 and has spent two decades working as a gay man in the country music industry, even the most progressive parts of the state are becoming increasingly hostile toward LGBTQ people.
"Every day, our state legislature is telling LGBTQ people, 'You aren't wanted in the state of Tennessee. You aren't valued, and you aren't wanted,'" he says, adding, "I would not tell a queer person to move to Tennessee right now."
Common knowledge holds that if you want a career in country music, the first thing you do is move to Nashville. But as the state legislature continues its attack on trans people in particular, the risks involved in relocating to Tennessee may come to outweigh the rewards.
"I feel incredibly welcomed by my community in Nashville, especially in writing rooms, and it's obvious to me that I'm valued for my work," says Mya Byrne, a singer-songwriter who is trans and based in Brooklyn. "But there have been times that I have been on Lower Broadway after a meeting or show went late, and I have genuinely been afraid for my life."
Byrne says that there are pockets of the city that feel safe, but the risk of harassment or worse for trans women remains very high overall, particularly in places like Lower Broadway (where the historic Ryman Auditorium is located amid a sea of tourist-frequented honky-tonks). She says that a move to Nashville would come with obvious career advantages, but she simply does not have the luxury of risking her safety, not to mention potentially losing access to gender-affirming care at a time when merely existing as a trans person is becoming increasingly dangerous.
Goldin-Perschbacher points to the recent shooting at Club Q in Colorado Springs, which is being prosecuted as a hate crime, and the string of attacks on queer clubs around the country as evidence that queer performers' lives are already in danger. Just last month, a group of Proud Boys and other anti-trans protestors wielding homophobic signs and Nazi flags picketed a drag brunch event at Hix Farm Brewery in Cookeville, Tenn.
Paisley Fields, who is non-binary and based in Brooklyn, played a show at that same venue a few months before the incident. Fields, who is based in Brooklyn but extensively tours the South and Midwest, says that there is a sense of vulnerability that comes with being a queer country performer in places like East Tennessee.
"It's definitely always in the back of your mind, like, is this the night that someone decides to get violent with me?" Fields says.
All of this comes at an interesting time for country music, which has increasingly come to reflect the culture wars and political divides afflicting the nation writ large. In August, Maren Morris and Brittany Aldean (influencer-wife of country singer Jason) made headlines after Morris tweeted a sharp response to a video Aldean had posted to Instagram, the caption of which was widely considered transphobic. Aldean later appeared on Tucker Carlson Tonight wearing a "Don't Tread on Our Kids" T-shirt and repeating much of the rhetoric that has made it into bills like SB 3 and others.
Morris, who quickly raised over $150,000 for trans advocacy programs with her own line of cheeky "Lunatic Country Music Person" T-shirts, was widely applauded on the left for being willing to combat anti-trans rhetoric. Last month, Morris appeared as a guest judge on RuPaul's Drag Race, and on Tuesday, she was in the crowd as activists protested SB 3 in downtown Nashville's Legislative Plaza. But even as artists like Byrne have been heartened by Morris' support, she remains an extreme outlier in an industry where "bringing up politics" (read: supporting LGBTQ people) is increasingly off-limits.
In November, Kelly wrote a blog post titled "Back When 'Insurrection Barbie' Hit the Drag Show," which describes a song release party that The Voice alum RaeLynn hosted at a Nashville gay club in 2018, where she invited drag queens to perform. That RaeLynn, who has since allied herself with virulently anti-trans commentator Candace Owens as well as Aldean (whom Kelly describes as "basically a right-wing operative at this point") featured drag queens at an event merely five years ago, speaks to a shift in how the industry views queerness in general.
Kelly argues that RaeLynn's "allyship," which was confined to a single promotional event, was never genuine. But he also mentions other female country artists who have more recently demonstrated allyship and are now silent as the politics around queer identities have become more fraught.
"It's politically charged now," he says. "If you want to be an ally with the queer community, it's just not as free of obligations as it once was."
He continues, "There have been artists who I thought were 100 percent on our side, and then when it comes time to understand the attack that's going on, it's like, 'No, I don't want to get into politics.' Well, it's politics that are being used to try to eradicate LGBTQ people from the state of Tennessee."
Multiple queer artists interviewed for this story expressed a desire for more mainstream (cis, straight) country stars to speak out on the issues at hand. As Byrne says, "Every righteous person in country music needs to be platforming trans artists and saying to their fans, 'If you don't support this person, then you are not supporting a part of my family.'"
But as Lucia Folk, a former executive at CMT who now runs The Change Agent-cy — a business that helps corporations and entertainers find opportunities for social impact work — explains, not every artist feels that they are in a position to loudly advocate for change without angering their fanbase. Still, Folk says, there are ways of more quietly effecting change, as when CMT joined nearly 200 businesses in the Tennessee Thrives initiative to protest the anti-trans "bathroom bill" in 2016. (That bill was defeated, but a different version was signed into law in 2021, only to be struck down by a federal judge last year.)
"A lot of times people approach artists wanting them to be out and about and waving a flag when that really isn't an option given who their fanbase is," Folk says. "But if you approach the same person and ask them to try appealing to legislators behind the scenes, that can go a long way. A call from an A-list celebrity will make a legislator pay attention."
Folk explains that when it comes to dealing with a conservative legislature — particularly one with a supermajority, as is the case in Tennessee — appealing to hearts and minds isn't always the most effective strategy.
"You've got to appeal to what makes these legislators make the right decision, and it might not be human decency and a basic respect for other people's identities," she says. "If you can appeal to their business sense and how this might hit the pocketbook, that is a way to do the work."
Still, she admits that the legislative supermajority and current political climate make it difficult to do the kind of non-partisan maneuvering that may have worked in the past. Folk says that The Change Agent-cy is not currently working with any artists to combat the anti-drag bill or any other anti-trans legislation, but they are more than open to it.
Byrne and Fields both identified Leslie Fram, Senior Vice President of Music Strategy at CMT, as someone who has advocated for them behind the scenes by getting airtime for their videos. Last month, Byrne and her girlfriend, fellow trans artist Swan Real, shared the first known kiss between two trans women on cable television when Byrne's video for "Lend You a Hand" premiered on CMT. Fram is also the force behind CMT's Next Women of Country initiative, which has gotten notably more diverse over the years in terms of Black and queer representation, though it has yet to feature any trans women.
When asked whether CMT will continue to promote videos featuring trans and non-binary performers, Fram offered the following statement: "Country music, at its best, can be accessible, relatable and supportive of those who are sometimes overlooked. CMT will continue its commitment to inclusivity and diversity in country music, [and] I look to the rest of the industry to do the same."
Another person tactfully advocating for the queer community is Ashley McBryde, who spotlighted gay artists Brandy Clark and TJ Osborne on her Ashley McBryde Presents: Lindeville project and who has been cheekily defiant on Instagram. This week, McBryde brought her "Lindeville Live" show to the Ryman, with back-to-back performances on Wednesday and Thursday that featured some unexpected guests: drag queens.
Nashville-based queens Vivica Steele, Justine Van de Blair and Britney Banks entered the audience during "Gospel Night at the Strip Club" on both nights and joined the crowd in singing along to the memorable lyrics, "Jesus loves the drunkards and the whores and the queers." On Thursday night, they were joined by two other "country queens," all of whom later took the stage with the rest of the Lindeville cast for a rousing sing-along of The Chicks' "Goodbye Earl."
As for the other artists who may be affected by this legislation, they have no intention of being bullied out of the industry. Fields has vowed to wear a dress when they return to Nashville to play a show next month, and Byrne says she will continue to show up and serve as a beacon of "trans resistance and joy." As for Adeem, they say that they neither expect nor want any support from the mainstream country music industry.
"My aspiration is not to share a space with Jason Aldean," Adeem says.
Ginger Minj, a drag performer and three-time RuPaul's Drag Race alum who released her first country album in 2021, is no stranger to dealing with hateful people. An Orlando native who spent years on the Southern pageant circuit before making her way to Drag Race and now to a budding country career, she says that legislation like SB 3 is saddening but ultimately reaffirms the necessity of her art.
"I remember my very first drag performance, nearly twenty years ago, when I had to park in the ditch across the street from our little bar and dodge rocks and beer bottles from the good ol' boys as I ran across the highway to the stage door," Ginger shares over email. "I've been picketed by the church that shall not be named. I've had people say the most awful things to me. But I can't let that stop me from doing my best to spread love and light."