How drag was pushed back into the shadows in Tennessee
March 25, 2023
By Jonathan Allen
COOKEVILLE, Tennessee (Reuters) - Last April, when drag could still be performed in Tennessee without noticeable complaint, the curtains parted at Tennessee Tech University's Backdoor Playhouse to reveal Joshua Lancaster wearing a black cowl, white face paint, black lipstick and white contact lenses.
He was excited for the debut of his new drag persona, Witchcrafted. But the four-minute video of Lancaster lip-syncing and sashaying across the stage, recorded by his boyfriend, would sit on his Facebook page largely unseen for months until it was found by Landon Starbuck, a conservative activist.
The video appalled Starbuck.
On Sept. 7, she posted an edited version of the video on Twitter, focusing on a few moments when children approach to tip Witchcrafted with dollar bills as he lip-syncs to Hozier's 2013 hit "Take Me to Church." Mid-performance, the audience cheers as Witchcrafted throws off his cowl to reveal a floor-length lacy skirt and a corset over a long-sleeved lacy top.
Starbuck, who lives outside Nashville, had been complaining about drag acts performing with children present for years, and now she had a vivid example from Tennessee. She said the performance was inappropriate for children and mocked her Christian faith, and urged people to complain to the university.
Now, a Tennessee law restricting drag in front of minors is due to come into force on April 1. Lancaster has become one of the faces of a sweeping effort by Republican lawmakers across the country to introduce hundreds of laws regulating the conduct of gay and transgender people, ranging from what can be taught in classrooms to bathroom use and medical care.
"It spiraled out of control and everybody started doing crazy stuff," Lancaster said. "We are being forced back into the closet. We are being told we have to go back into the shadows."
Lancaster's performance was disapprovingly discussed by state senators in Nashville after Tennessee became one of 16 states where Republicans have proposed laws restricting drag since last summer. In January, Lancaster, who has done drag for more than a decade, for the first time encountered armed neo-Nazis, Proud Boys and other far-right groups protesting outside one of his events.
The Tennessee legislature passed the bill earlier this year banning "adult cabaret performances," including at least some drag acts, in public or in front of minors, with prison sentences for violations. Its impacts are already being felt.
Several planned drag events were canceled over the winter after protests, and many venues felt forced to make previously family-friendly drag shows into adults-only events. Drag performers and venue owners say they are worried about their livelihoods and their rights of free expression. Some transgender Tennesseans fear being arrested under the law's vague language, which lumps together "male or female impersonators," a term not defined in the law, in the same X-rated category as strippers and exotic dancers.
"It's not about getting the law to stick," said Joslynn Fish, a trans woman who hosts 18+ drag shows at South Press Coffee, her business in Knoxville. "It's about creating fear."
After Starbuck posted the video, the next monthly drag show at Tennessee Tech was canceled by the university president, Phil Oldham, who released a statement saying he was "disturbed and dismayed" by Witchcrafted's performance.
The video was broadcast by Tucker Carlson on Fox News and by other conservative news outlets. Lancaster, who lives in a one-story house with a cluttered porch in the farmlands outside Cookeville, a small city dominated by the Tennessee Tech campus, began receiving threatening messages. He peeled off the large Witchcrafted decal he had stuck on his car. The cowl he wore in the video he put out with the trash.
He says he would not dream of mocking Christianity in his act, not least because it would earn a slap from his mother, a devout Christian who has sewed costumes for his drag.
What particularly pains him, he said in an interview, is that the kids pictured with him in the video are the children of drag performers and were there with their parents. He resents the accusation he would harm them.
"The little girl that's tipping me is my honorary niece," Lancaster said. "She's my best friend's kid. I've known her since she was born."
VENUES FEEL THE HEAT
Starbuck was a recording artist in Los Angeles until a few years ago when she moved with her former movie video director husband and three children to Franklin, a wealthy Nashville suburb, seeking more conservative-minded neighbors.
Last year she founded Freedom Forever, a non-profit organization that campaigns against the sexual abuse of children and gender-affirming medical treatment for minors, such as puberty blockers and surgery.
Her husband, Robby Starbuck, hosts a conservative podcast and last year unsuccessfully ran for the Republican nomination for a Tennessee congressional seat.
A few weeks after the Starbucks circulated the Witchcrafted video, the couple released a legislative agenda they called the Child Protection & Restoration Act, which called for the banning of drag shows and gender-affirming medical care for minors.
"We started noticing an alarming trend of these sexually explicit all-age family-friendly drag shows popping up," Landon Starbuck said. "They want to expose children to other identities that are not heteronormative."
By November, Senator Jack Johnson, a Republican, had introduced the bills restricting gender-affirming treatment and drag that the Starbucks had sought, in the latter case citing the videos he had seen. Landon Starbuck testified at hearings, where senators asked her about the Witchcrafted video and other videos she had since posted. Both bills were finally passed by the legislature on the same day in February.
The Starbucks say they are speaking to Republicans in half a dozen other states about passing similar laws, and they continue to seek videos of children at drag shows. "That's what woke these legislators up to the problem," Robby Starbuck said.
Much of the debate in Tennessee has been over whether drag is inherently a sexually explicit artform.
The Starbucks say there is no such thing as family-friendly drag; drag performers cite Bugs Bunny, Shakespeare's cross-dressing comedies and the Robin Williams film "Mrs. Doubtfire" among counterexamples.
"Drag is not inherently sexual," said Story VanNess, a drag queen and the trans program director at Knox Pride. "It can be a lot of things, but the vast majority of drag, if anything, is comedic."
She noted there was reams of video from her group's annual Pride festival in downtown Knoxville over the years with both drag performers and children in attendance, yet no clips had gone viral "because responsible producers put on a responsible show."
Outside of public Pride events, most Tennessee drag performers largely work in clubs and bars that admit only those over 18. Even with an adult audience, performers are bound by state laws barring strip shows and other sexually explicit entertainment in venues with a liquor license, so Tennessee drag shows tend to be relatively chaste.
DJs remind the audience that only hand-to-hand tipping is allowed. Tennessee queens know to wear multiple pairs of stockings, lest they be accused of showing too much skin.
In the more conservative areas outside Tennessee's major cities, some LGBT-friendly venues are under threat.
Drag shows have been held for years at Temptation, a low-slung building on a back road outside Cookeville that Lancaster and other regulars say is the only gay bar in the 150 miles between Knoxville and Nashville. Wendy Williams, a drag performer who owns the bar, watched as Temptation's Facebook page filled up with abusive comments over the winter as conservatives ramped up their campaign.
"First it was trans people in the bathroom, now it's drag queens," she said. "It's just trying to find something that will rile up their base because there's elections coming up."
She said the new law helped seal a difficult decision: she put the bar up for sale in February. She expects it most likely will become a church.
(Reporting by Jonathan Allen; editing by Paul Thomasch and Claudia Parsons)