Feb 23 (Reuters) - Tennessee lawmakers passed a bill on Thursday restricting drag performances in public or in front of children, putting the state at the forefront of a Republican-led effort to limit drag in at least 15 states in recent months.
The more than 20 bills nationwide are a pushback against modern drag, which has grown from an underground performance art using costumes and makeup to play with gender norms, which flourished in lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender venues, to a mainstream entertainment, helped in part by the popularity of the televised pageant show "RuPaul's Drag Race."
Performers and civil rights groups have condemned the proposed drag regulations, saying they are unconstitutional, redundant under existing obscenity laws, and would lead to further harassment and violence against gay and transgender people. They see the bills as part of a Republican effort to advance laws limiting LGBT people's conduct across the country.
Supporters of the bills say they are intended to protect children.
"It 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," Tennessee Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson, a Republican, said in a statement.
Representative Chris Todd, a Republican, said he sponsored the bill in the House of Representatives after seeking a court order last year to stop an advertised "family-friendly" drag show during an LGBT Pride event at a park in Jackson, which he said was a form of child abuse.
"It was forced to be indoors and 18 and up, and I was asked to come up with legislation that would make this much more clear," Todd said in the House on Thursday.
This month, Johnson and his Senate colleagues passed a bill criminalizing "adult cabaret entertainment" in public or where it could be seen by children, though it would still be allowed in age-restricted venues. The bill defined such entertainment as including "adult-oriented" performances by strippers, go-go dancers or "male or female impersonators."
A first offense would be a misdemeanor crime, and a subsequent offense a felony, carrying a sentence of between one and six years in prison.
On Thursday, the House passed the bill, which will head to Governor Bill Lee, a Republican, for signing into law.
The lawmakers also voted to send a bill to the governor that bans doctors from providing gender-affirming medical treatment such as puberty blockers, hormone therapy and surgery, for transgender minors.
Tennessee, like other states, already has public indecency and obscenity laws that ban excessively violent or sexual performances in front of minors, regardless of the performer's gender. Drag performances typically do not involve nudity or stripping.
Peppermint, a drag performer who rose to fame on "Drag Race," said anti-drag bills were just the latest in a long history of anti-LGBT legislation that is premised on false, dangerous slurs against gay and trans people: that they are "grooming" children or seeking to sexually exploit them.
"It's a straw man, it's a boogie monster, it's not really a real thing, so they make up stories," she said. "The first thing they do is target us, dehumanize us, villainize us, and then they pass legislation against us."
As a trans woman, Peppermint said she would now hesitate going to Tennessee, saying trans performers even when not doing drag might be accused of being a male or female impersonator, terms not defined in the statute.
In recent years, drag has become increasingly visible. Drag queens have starred in fast-food and car commercials. Restaurants organize all-ages drag brunches, with performers entertaining diners. Established in 2015, Drag Story Hour, in which costumed drag performers read to children, has expanded to at least 20 states.
There has been a backlash, too. Drag Story Hour in particular has become a target for Republican lawmakers and conservative Christian groups, and the Proud Boys, a violent far-right group, have protested against libraries and other host venues around the country.
Drag performers say they are just as able to tailor their act to their audience as other artists, like an actor who might appear in both a sexually explicit R-rated movie and in a children's movie.
"Drag is best known for humor and for glamour: We're talking about people lip-syncing to pop songs and dancing around in elaborate costumes," Lynne Pervis, a Tennessee courts administrator who has sometimes done drag, testified in opposition to the bill at a committee hearing.
"Seeing a drag queen doesn't make a kid gay or trans, but it can help queer kids who are suffering so that there's hope of being able to one day freely express themselves."