NASHVILLE — A federal judge on Friday temporarily blocked Tennessee’s implementation of a law aimed at restricting public drag shows just hours before it took effect.
Friends of the George, a Memphis theater company that frequently stages drag shows, challenged the law this week, arguing that the law’s vagueness violated the theater’s constitutional rights. Violators are charged with a single misdemeanor or series of offenses.
The measure, passed by the Republican-dominated Legislature, was signed into law on March 1 and is set to take effect Saturday. It does not explicitly mention drag, but bans “adult cabaret” and performances on public property of topless, go-go or exotic dancers, strippers, or male or female impersonators “harmful to minors.”
But the bleakness of the language, combined with a concerted effort among conservative lawmakers across the country to limit the rights of the LGBTQ community, raised concerns about the implications for drag performers and transgender and gender-nonconforming people.
Judge Thomas L. Parker agreed to delay implementing the law for at least 14 days, saying the company’s concerns about upcoming shows — whether they would impose age restrictions or be subject to legal scrutiny — “are not trivial problems for a theater company — certainly not. We have our country as a free, civil society.”
“If Tennessee wishes to exercise its police power to restrict speech it deems obscene, it must do so within the constraints and framework of the United States Constitution,” Judge Parker wrote in the order. “As the Court stands, the record here shows that when the Legislature passed this law, it missed the mark.”
Steven J., District Attorney for Shelby County, which includes Memphis. Mulroy and Republican Gov. Bill Lee did not immediately return requests for comment Friday. Mr. Mulroy did not oppose the request for a temporary injunction.
In its case, the theater company highlighted the global history of drag shows, from male actors playing female roles in William Shakespeare’s plays to American vaudeville productions. It also pointed to Republican state Assemblyman Chris Todd’s successful effort to ban drag performance at last year’s Pride parade in Jackson, Tenn., and noted that many companies had already dropped plans to host drag events. Pride celebrations this year because of the law.
“We won because it was a bad law,” said Mark Campbell, chairman of the theater company’s board of directors. In a statement. “We look forward to our day in court where the rights of all Tennesseans are upheld.”
“Drag Rocks”, a mix of comedy and drag shows, will open the theater on April 14.