In 1964, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart was asked for his definition of obscenity during arguments in Jacobellis v. Ohio, the case in which a movie theater owner was charged with obscenity for showing a French film depicting the story of a woman who committed adultery.
Potter famously said: “I know it when I see it,” a non-definition that contains wisdom beyond what Potter may have intended.
For we all see things differently, and what one person considers obscene, another may not. These days, a good number of Tennessee Republicans consider drag shows obscene. A bill to create a criminal offense for drag performers who perform where someone under the age of 18 might — might — see them, was signed into law Thursday by Gov. Bill Lee.
Senate Bill 003, sponsored by Sen. Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, and its House version, House Bill 0009, sponsored by Republican Rep. Chris Todd of Jackson, were among the first 10 bills filed this year.
Never mind the crisis in Tennessee’s Department of Children’s Services, where kids are sleeping on office floors, or the Department of Correction, which has botched lethal injections, or the Department of Health, whose new chief wasted no time in turning down federal funds for the diagnosis and treatment of HIV.
Drag queens, our GOP lawmakers apparently decided, are a chief threat to Tennesseans and Tennessee kids in particular.
Johnson tweeted on Thursday, “This bill gives confidence to parents that they can take their kids to a public or private show and will not be blindsided by a sexualized performance.”
I wouldn’t take a child to a drag performance, because I consider such entertainment a privilege to be enjoyed upon adulthood, in much the same way my parents, when having their annual lobster dinner, told my brother and me that lobster wasn’t for children.
As an adult, I eat lobster and I watch drag, most of which is just plain funny and some of which can be a little bawdy.
But it’s not for me — or state government — to tell parents what entertainment is appropriate for their children. And it’s notable that Tennessee’s anti-government Republicans are using the government not to guide parents, but to criminalize performers, although lawmakers such as Johnson and Gov. Bill Lee are constantly telling us that parents should have the right to choose what kind of school their kids go to or what vaccines their kids take. If it’s not about parental rights to take children to a drag performance, it must be about the performers.
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The drag tradition in the South
Let’s consider the long history of drag in the South, starting with powderpuff football games, the practice of high school boys dressing in cheerleader drag while girls dress out in football pads, helmets and jerseys to scrimmage, usually during Homecoming week.
Powderpuff has gained a bit of notoriety this week after the Tennessee Holler, a progressive news outfit, published photos of Lee from the 1977 Franklin High School yearbook dressed as “Hard Luck Woman” for that year’s powderpuff game.
Lee lost his cool when questioned by Holler founder Justin Kanew about his high school drag appearance, calling it a “ridiculous” question to equate his youthful antics with drag performances in clubs.
So where’s the line between high school boys in wigs, pearls and cheerleading outfits and professional drag queens, except that the latter do a better job with makeup and can lip sync.
I participated in Franklin High’s powderpuff event, an activity that took place at many Tennessee high schools, and I see nothing inappropriate about Lee’s get-up. But other people might think 17- or 18-year-old young men presenting as women with, as one commenter wrote of Lee, “everything but his religion showing,” in front of 13-year-old freshmen is inappropriate, or even obscene.
Then, there’s the tradition of womanless weddings.
National Public Radio published in 2015 a story on womanless weddings, a form of entertainment and typically fundraising events for civic clubs, that started in the South. They were part of the fabric of small town Tennessee through the 1960s, when my brother was pressed into service as a “flower girl” for one in Franklin.
“Participants dressed as women — and even some dressed as men — took liberty to ‘ham it up,’ kissing audience members of both genders, flashing garter belts, adjusting whatever passed as breasts and, in general, just being naughty,” the NPR story quotes a North Carolina historian.
Some might call that behavior obscene.
In 1995, the New Yorker magazine profiled the late Nashville “Republican businessman Neil Cargile who for 20 years has enjoyed dressing up in women’s clothing,” in a piece titled “High-Heel Neil.”
John Berendt wrote, “Cargile’s cross-dressing is common knowledge among the social set of Belle Meade, the lush residential preserve of old Nashville. Cargile is twice divorced, a father of three and decidedly heterosexual.” Cargile called that facet of himself “She-Neil.”
And I was first introduced to drag as a freshman at the University of Tennessee in 1983, where the men of Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity — the bad boys on campus — annually declined to participate with a sorority in an all-campus event and dressed half the fraternity in drag, as barroom girls and Southern belles to uproarious applause.
If drag was all in wholesome fun — Lee’s office called his drag outing a “lighthearted school tradition” — in some instances, why do Tennessee Republicans have a problem with others?
One need only look at the spate of anti-LGBTQ bills that have dominated Tennessee’s legislature since Johnson sponsored a 2016 bill allowing therapists to decline treatment of gay patients to see Republicans don’t have a problem with straight men dressing as women: it’s only about gay men, who typically make up the core of drag troupes.
Lawmakers are targeting one group — in this case, Tennesseans who aren’t straight, white men in drag — and singling it out for criminal prosecution, saying “it’s about the children,” while turning a collective blind eye to hungry children, children in inadequate state care, and kids failing school.
That’s obscene. And I know it when I see it.
This commentary was first published by the Tennessee Lookout, part of the States Newsroom network of news bureaus with the Louisiana Illuminator. It’s supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Tennessee Lookout maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Holly McCall for questions: [email protected]. Follow Tennessee Lookout on Facebook and Twitter.