NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee's Republican-dominant Legislature on Tuesday advanced a handful of proposals that would ban gender-affirming care for transgender youth and severely limit where drag shows can take place.
The push in Tennessee comes as state lawmakers across the United States are introducing dozens of restriction s targeting LGBTQ people, even as critics warn that such proposals are discriminatory and harmful.
Tennessee in particular has been caught in the center of this conflict ever since video surfaced on social media last year of a Nashville doctor touting that gender-affirming procedures are “huge money makers" for hospitals.
The video prompted calls by Tennessee’s Republican leaders for an investigation into Vanderbuilt University Medical Center, but to date, it’s unknown if any authorities have done so. The private nonprofit hospital said it had provided only a handful of gender-affirming surgeries to minors over the years but put a temporary pause on the procedures to review its policies.
Meanwhile, GOP leaders have used the incident to try to expand Tennessee's ban on transgender medical treatment for children. These services have been available in the U.S. for more than a decade and are endorsed by major medical associations.
If enacted, doctors would be prohibited from providing gender-affirming care to anyone under the age of 18, including prescribing puberty blockers and hormones. However, the legislation includes exceptions that would allow doctors to perform these medical services if they're treating an abnormality or if the patient's care had begun prior to July 1, 2023 — which is when the ban is proposed to go into effect — and the doctor believes ending the care would harm the patient.
Advocates on both sides of the issue crowded hearing rooms Tuesday, as some claimed that the legislation was needed to prevent what they called “child abuse” while others warned that Tennessee taxpayers could end up footing the bill if a court found the ban illegal.
“This law will trigger strict or heightened scrutiny, and it will be your burden to defend it in court. Tennessee, like Alabama, Texas, and Arkansas, will not be able to do so," said Chase Strangio, deputy director for transgender justice with the American Civil Liberties Union's LGBT & HIV Project.
However, Republican lawmakers appeared unmoved Tuesday by the warnings.
“Our preacher would say, ‘If you don’t know what you are, a boy or a girl, a male or a female, just go in the bathroom and take your clothes off and look in the mirror and you’ll find out. You’ll find what you are,’" said Republican Rep. Paul Sherrell, whose remarks sparked shocked gasps and condemnation from those opposing the bill.
On Tuesday, the bill advanced out of a subcommittee. It still needs to clear additional committees and the GOP-controlled House and Senate chambers before it can be reviewed by Republican Gov. Bill Lee, who supports the legislation.
Meanwhile, Republican lawmakers also advanced legislation designed to limit where drag shows can take place by classifying them as an “adult cabaret performance.” The legislation doesn't explicitly include the words “drag show,” but instead the definition of adult cabaret in Tennessee's law would be expanded to include “male or female impersonators who provide entertainment that appeals to a prurient interest, or similar entertainers.”
Prurient interest is not defined in the bill.
In Tennessee and across the country, drag has been cast in a false light by right-wing activists and politicians who complain about the “sexualization” or “grooming” of children. Perpetrators of the false rhetoric can then cast themselves as saviors of children and try to frame anyone who disagrees as taking the side of child abusers.
If approved, drag shows would be banned on public property and any place where they could be viewed by a child. Critics warn that the language is overly broad and could apply to drag performers walking around their own children at home.
Drag does not typically involve nudity or stripping, which are more common in burlesque, a separate form of entertainment. Explicitly sexual and profane language is common in performances meant for adult audiences. These routines can consist of stand-up comedy that may be raunchy — or may pale in comparison with some mainstream comedians.