Understanding Drag Bans: The Latest Legislative Attacks on Queer Communities

Recently Tennessee enacted the nation’s first “Drag Ban,” prohibiting all drag performances in public or in the presence of minors. Anyone who violates the drag ban could face misdemeanor charges punishable by a fine of $2,500 and/or up to a year in jail. Repeat violators could face felony charges and up to six years in jail. At least 14 states have introduced similar legislation to criminalize drag, and many of these bills could also prohibit any public expression of gender nonconformity. In North Dakota, a proposed drag ban categorizes drag shows as an “adult-oriented business,” putting all drag shows in the same category as sexually explicit performances like exotic dancing. In Arizona, the proposed drag ban penalizes drag performers with at least ten years in prison and registration as a sex offender. These bans are incredibly harmful, and many broadly impact queer communities, not just drag performers. One version of a West Virginia drag ban included language that would prevent minors from being around any “transgender exposure, performances or display.” These broad definitions could criminalize trans and non-binary (TNB) individuals being around minors under any circumstances, and prevent TNB individuals from holding a job, accessing healthcare, or simply leaving their homes due to the potential legal risks. Below, learn about both the historical and current political context of drag bans, and find out about action steps you can take to advocate for TNB communities!

While this current wave of legislation is the first to specifically target drag as an art form and a job, these drag bans are rooted in a long history of legislation in this country aimed at preventing nonconforming gender expression. For example, “cross-dressing” bans and other laws restricting gender expression have existed in this country for over 100 years. San Francisco was the first city to enact a cross-dressing ban in 1863, prohibiting people from going out in public “in a dress not belonging to his or her sex.” This led to a flurry of similar laws in other states and cities aimed at restricting gender expression. Some jurisdictions, like Columbus, Ohio, would simply copy San Francisco’s legislation. Other jurisdictions, like New York state, would reinterpret existing masquerade laws to criminalize gender nonconformity. New York’s masquerade law made it illegal to have your “face painted, discolored, covered, or concealed, or [be] otherwise disguised… [while] in a road or public highway.” These bills were intended to prohibit people from participating in illegal activities while disguised or in costume, and they often did not mention cross-dressing at all. Even so, in New York and in other states, masquerade laws were used to arrest queer and gender nonconforming people for simply existing in public. These new drag bans are the continuation of a long legacy of political attacks on queerness and gender expression, and we must take a stand to break the cycle.

Drag bans are just the latest in a surge of horrible legislative attacks on LGBTQ+ communities, including increasingly severe and dangerous bans on gender-affirming care. In 2023 alone, over 340 anti-LGBTQ+ bills have been introduced across the country, with at least 150 bills aimed specifically at TNB individuals. At least 21 states have enacted legislation or administrative policy attacking TNB people. Currently 19 states ban trans youth from participating in the sports aligned with their gender identity. At least 10 states have passed laws or policies that restrict access to gender-affirming care. This is all part of a larger strategy to score political points at the expense of marginalized communities. Politicians are spreading misinformation and hateful rhetoric—for instance, that drag performers are “groomers” or that gender-affirming care is “child abuse”—in order to manufacture problems that they can then solve with a slew of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation. These legislative attacks on TNB communities are being used to rally voter support, especially heading into a contentious election year.

The constant debate around anti-LGBTQ legislation and our right to simply exist in public spaces has increased negative health outcomes and safety concerns for queer people. A report from Human Rights Campaign and the Center for Countering Digital Hate revealed that the average number of tweets per day using the terms “groomer” and “pedophile” in reference to LGBTQ+ people increased 406% in the month after Florida passed its “Don’t Say Gay” bill in March 2022. In response to hateful rhetoric and legislation, there have been several high-profile protests by the dangerous right-wing group the Proud Boys at various drag shows in California, Texas, and North Carolina. The current political climate has also taken a significant toll on LGBTQ+ individuals’ mental health. Based on a survey from the Center on American Progress (CAP), more than half of LGBTQ+ adults (51%) reported that recent debates about anti-LGBTQ+ state laws had affected their mental health or made them feel less safe to a moderate or significant degree, including more than 8 in 10 TNB individuals (86%). According to the Trevor Project, 93% of TNB youth are worried about being denied gender-affirming care while 83% worry about being denied the right to play sports.

While these new drag bans may seem narrowly focused on drag, it is important to understand both the historical context and current political context surrounding these bills. Drag bans are about the continued policing of gender expression, and they work in tandem with other current anti-LGBTQ+ legislation to advance extremist agendas at the expense of LGBTQ+ human rights and health equity. If you are concerned about this new drag ban legislation and other anti-LGBTQ+ legislation, there are many ways you can become involved!

Respond to new anti-drag bills:

Track and respond to anti-LGBTQ+ legislation across the country:

Learn more about the current surge of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation and how to respond to misinformation:

To learn more about how Howard Brown Health contributes to vital advocacy work and has an impact on local, state, and federal policymaking, please visit our Advocacy webpage. To stay up to date with advocacy and policy news like this, sign up for the Center for Education, Research, and Advocacy (ERA)’s newsletter.


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