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Driving alongside a row of honky tonk bars is the electric purple Big Drag Bus, a 90-minute performance on wheels that weaves through bachelorette booze cruises and tourists chugging beer on party bikes. There are usually two drag queens performing on it, sometimes Reba McIntyre or Dolly Parton impersonators, lip-syncing, telling jokes, or hosting games.
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Much like other Nashville staples, the goal of the Big Drag Bus is to bring the party and spread joy—and they’re often successful. Co-owner and operator Josh Cloud started the venture after he was furloughed during COVID, and while he was originally concerned about the reaction it would receive, he says the Drag Bus just made people happy. Nearby pedestrians often dance along, wave, or tip the queens through the windows.
But a select group of politicians aren’t so enthusiastic. In March, Tennessee's Republican Gov. Bill Lee signed a bill into law labeling “adult cabaret” performances or “male or female impersonators who provide entertainment that appeals to a prurient interest” in front of kids or in public a criminal offense. Even though the word “drag” never appears in the bill itself, it’s vague enough for a public bystander to report a drag performance as cabaret.
Pushback to the legislation was swift; Friends of George, a Memphis-based sketch and theater group focused on drag queens and kings, challenged the bill in court, which was paused on March 31, on the basis that it violates the First Amendment. The fate of that challenge will be determined Friday, June 2.
But the law is part of a larger war against drag shows raging across the country, and activists say it’s just the latest way Tennessee is zeroing in on LGBTQ+ people, following a state law blocking transgender children from access to gender-affirming care. It's “blatantly targeting the LGBTQ+ community and so clearly unconstitutional,” says Todd Roman, co-owner of Big Drag Bus and owner of Nashville gay bar and dance club Play, adding that it could take the state back 50 years in terms of LGBTQ+ acceptance.
Drag is a multi-million dollar business nationwide, and its roots go back decades in Tennessee, whose bigger cities like Nashville and Memphis host vibrant drag scenes—so it’s ironic that the conservative-backed bill comes from a party that has built a pro-business and small government platform. Fortune spoke with six drag queens, business owners, and LGBTQ+ leaders in the state who say that the “anti-drag bill” not only delegitimizes Tennessee drag performers’ lives and identities, but instills a fear it will hurt their ability to earn money and negatively impact the local and state economy.
“Within the gay community, there is a great sense of fear on a number of things, for the performers themselves, their livelihoods,” says Roman.
RuPaul’s Drag Race has helped drag become a major part of mainstream American culture, providing some stars with a creative outlet and catapulting others into fame and fortune. But many of Tennessee’s drag workers were exposed to the industry way before Drag Race came onto the scene.
The first time Tracey Ottomey ever saw drag was as a child watching the 1995 film To Wong Foo (Ottomey, like all other drag performers Fortune spoke with, asked to be referred to by her stage name). When she got older, Ottomey went to her first drag bar—Play. “I saw my first drag queen in real life, and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, that is the coolest thing,’” she says. “That's what I wanted to do.”
A drag queen for more than 10 years now, Ottomey first took to the stage intending to channel Britney Spears, but has since realized she’s “more of a Tina Fey,” given her knack for stand-up. She says she loves how drag lets her be a different person and tap into the strong women that she once idolized growing up.
It was a similar experience for Obsinity. Twenty years ago, she watched awestruck as a drag performer dressed as Wonder Woman twirled fire batons and set a stage on fire. At the time, she thought it “was the coolest art form.” But as a self-proclaimed shy kid, she never thought that would one day be her—until a friend dared her to enter a drag talent show two years later. After winning, her drag career “just blew up from there,” she says.
Drag ultimately helped bring Obsinity, who has been performing an impression of Reba in Nashville for the past 10 years, out of her shell. “I walk out [on stage] and the first thing I hear is like five people scream Reba,” she says. “It’s a very rewarding feeling.”
Obsinity and Ottomey, along with other Tennessee drag workers, say that the artf orm elicits creativity, imagination, and joy. “It's a great way to find bits of yourself that you didn't know existed; when you put on another persona, you really take on a new identity and you never quite know who that's going to be until they manifest themselves,” says drag queen Veronika Elektronika.
Originally from New York City, Electronika has been performing since her theater kid days. She says drag appealed to her as a way to stretch out her “theater wings” so she could “be the star” of her own show and learn a new skill. Through it, she found freedom, expression, diversity, and connection, a common theme among many of the queens who said the close-knit community they discovered in Nashville’s drag scene helped them feel at home—something important for LGBTQ+ members who can sometimes find themselves shunned by family.
But they say that Tennessee’s burlesque law is threatening to take all of that away. Even though the law might be overturned, Ottomey says she feels shaken it even got this far. Taking away someone’s way to make a living is just another form of quieting trans and gay individuals, she adds: “They want to silence us completely. A lot of trans people do drag to support themselves. It's just one way for them to silence us even more.”
In Nashville, once home to Drag Race stars Brook Lynn Hytes and Jorgeous, the typical drag queen makes $100 to $200 per shift (which is often five to six hours), depending on their experience, Roman says. A part-time drag queen working four days a week shared with Fortune that she typically takes home between $900 to $1,400 a week.
While the bill wouldn’t impact adults-only drag clubs and bars, if implemented, it would affect restaurants and bars that welcome kids, along with public activities like the Big Drag Bus, and events such as Pride. A boon for local economies everywhere, Pride events can rake in as much as $30 million in bigger cities nationwide. But that kind of economic gain is on shaky ground in Tennessee, where a Pride festival in Knoxville, which draws up to 80,000 people a year, has already threatened to cancel an event if the law is pushed through. The festival in the town of Franklin agreed to not include a drag performance this year, but is still meeting resistance to city permit attempts. And in this month's Midsouth Pride festival in Memphis, drag entertainers are planning to forgo costume changes so they don’t run the risk of being reported as cabaret, as well as tips should the bill be enforced.
Tennessee already has obscenity laws in place that monitor how people dress, those in the state's drag industry say, but they’re not equally enforced. That "extra law" monitoring adult cabaret is therefore redundant, explains Friends of George board member Micah Winter Cole. Both Roman and Cloud, the Big Drag Bus owners, point out that there are restaurants that offer kids menus and have scantily-clad waitresses. Cloud calls it hypocritical that drag queens are expected to cover up. “Our girls are way more covered up than the Tennessee Titans cheerleaders on Sunday morning,” he says.
Elektronika also worries the ban will also affect drag-related retail businesses, like her company that sells cosmetics and costumes. “It has a direct effect on our business because a lot of our clientele are drag performers," she says. "The less drag there is, the less income my small business has. It affects me in multiple arenas."
Shortly after the cabaret law was signed in March, and before it was paused from going into effect later that month, Electronika recalls strutting onto a stage to ask the crowd of 600 people: “Do I look like a felon to you?” She was met with screams and cheers of support.
Both she and Cloud noted that more people have been showing up to tours and shows in the past few months, and drag workers say the law has actually given the drag business a boost —“almost the best PR we could have asked for, because it's highlighting what we do versus what we don't do,” Elektronika says.
To be sure, private drag venues, such as night clubs like Play, won’t be directly affected by the ruling either way—they are out of the public eye, and children are not allowed. That leaves many business operators and owners operating as they once would. And many queens are already operating in a PG- or even G-rated manner already. Obsinity explains she’s not changing the way she performs, and adds there’s nothing provocative about her performance.
“I mean, come on, I'm doing Reba,” she says.
Even so, the law is about an unevenly targeted policing of who can express themselves and what is considered provocative. While the drag scene is just one growing staple of Tennessee's culture, Roman says that the law would negatively impact Nashville's local economy since drag is such a major part of the city's booming nightlife and tourism industry. After all, it would still impact public performances like the Big Drag Bus and Pride events. And Ottomey is afraid that even if the law affects only part of the drag scene, it will eventually scare people away from even private drag shows. The far-right extremist Proud Boys have already been targeting drag shows across the country in recent months.
“It’s dangerous when the government tries to trample on the rights of marginalized communities,” says Elektronika. “And I think that's bad for any economy.”
Activists like Winter Cole warn that drag isn’t “where this bill stops,” arguing it poses a larger danger to transgender people because it criminalizes “what women and men look like when they get dressed.” Roman worries it will have real world implications in the form of lost lives for struggling young adults, explaining that his cousin, who didn't grow up with an accepting family, ended up dying by suicide.
In the meantime, the business owners and drag workers Fortune spoke with are waiting to see how overreaching the legislature can be. “We see the Republican Party time and time again tout the idea of small government, yet here they are trying to go into small business,” says Elektronika.
Tennessee’s LGBTQ+ community is hopeful that a judge will rule the bill partly or wholly unconstitutional, which would nullify it completely. Winter Cole remains cautiously optimistic, believing that while the road ahead will be long, but not "so rough” road ahead.
"There’s going to be a bigger fear, a louder voice in the back of our minds now about it," says Ottomey. "But as long as we keep being ourselves, they can’t take that from us."
This story was originally featured on Fortune.com
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