In a matter of days, Slade Kyle’s livelihood could land them in jail.
The Memphis-based drag queen was visiting their family on Thursday in West Tennessee when they first heard that the state’s ban on drag performances had passed the House.
The bill, HB 9, classifies “male and female impersonators” as adult cabaret performers and bans them from public property or anywhere a minor might be able to see them, invoking the state’s obscenity law.
HB 9, which is now headed to Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee’s desk, would also be the country’s first legal ban on drag. In 15 states across the country, there are more than 20 bills that target drag performances. At the same time, the governor could make Tennessee the third state to ban trans healthcare for minors this year, after Utah and South Dakota. A similar bill in Mississippi is also a governor’s signature away from becoming law.
“I was not surprised,” Kyle told BuzzFeed News. “But it is still disheartening to sit there out in the middle of the woods on a rainy back porch trying hard to enjoy the beauty of nature and wondering why these people are sitting in a room debating my humanity and trying to strip my rights away.”
The Republican governor now has a little over a week to sign the bill — but even if he vetoes it, the Legislature can override his actions and enact the bill into law as soon as April 1. A first violation of the law would be a misdemeanor, and subsequent violations would be classified as a felony charge, punishable by up to six years in prison and a $3,000 fine.
When Kyle, 42, who performs as Bella DuBalle (a play on the 17th-century idiom “belle of the ball”), started drag a decade ago, they could not have imagined such a law could prohibit — and potentially criminalize — their artistic career.
Last weekend, a patron at a drag brunch recorded Kyle, in drag as DuBalle, as they urged people to stand up against this legislation, drawing parallels to the 1969 Stonewall rebellion.
“The original Pride was a riot and this year we need to remind them that we will fight for our liberation,” Kyle says in the video, which has garnered millions of views across TikTok and Twitter. “We will raise our bricks up high again and let them know that we will not go quietly.”
As a child growing up in rural western Tennessee, Kyle said drag helped them come to terms with their nonbinary identity.
“As trite as it is to say, drag saved my life. Drag completely changed me, and I can't imagine having to give it up,” Kyle said. “I take deep personal offense to people telling me that it’s ugly or sexual or wrong when I know that’s not true.”
Republican state Rep. Chris Todd, who filed the legislation, however, has insisted that drag is inherently inappropriate and that the law would protect minors from obscenity. Todd first pushed for this bill after he took issue with a drag show at a public Pride event in Jackson, a two-hour drive from Memphis, in October last year.
The public event at Jackson Pride was initially billed as a “family-friendly drag show,” but after weeks of heated debate between city officials and members of the Pride committee, the event was moved indoors and restricted to patrons over the age of 18.
Todd, at the time, filed a request for an injunction to block the event from happening at all, calling the drag show a form of “child abuse,” the Tennessean reported.
Kyle, who performed at the Jackson event, said Todd’s actions were “really harsh,” and they worry about how this law could be enforced. They worry not only for their own safety and future drag career but also for the other performers and the Atomic Rose nightclub, where they are the show host and director.
“There is a lot of fear among my performers,” Kyle said. The others are worried about their ability to pay rent or feed their children, and the difficulty of finding other employment opportunities as trans or gender-nonconforming people, they added.
As Kyle and others across the state await the governor’s signature, advocates say the biggest unknown is how the law will be enforced. Tennessee already has laws on the books that regulate where adult cabaret can take place, but this legislation expands the definition of adult cabaret beyond a specific place to mean any kind of male and female “impersonation” performance.
Kathy Sinback, the executive director of the ACLU in Tennessee, said that because the bill’s language around what constitutes performance is “not well defined,” it could lead to broader attacks on trans people across the state.
“[The bill] gives everyone who’s enforcing it across the state a license to bully not only drag performers but potentially trans people who are doing any sort of performance. … It can be interpreted as broadly as the narrow-minded people in the state want to interpret it,” Sinback said.
She also worries the bill will create a lot of confusion around what is and isn’t legal — and could lead to people being harassed for expressing themselves in a way that’s protected by the US Constitution.
Sinback said it has been “terrifying” to see how the introduction of this bill has already emboldened anti-trans legislators and protesters to target drag events across the state. Last month in Giles County, local lawmakers tried to stop a drag performance from happening in a public park. A week later in Cookeville, a group carrying swastikas and hurling accusations of child abuse protested a drag brunch.
Sinback said that the ACLU plans to sue the state if the bill becomes law. The civil rights organization also plans to immediately challenge Tennessee’s ban on gender-affirming care for trans youth through an injunction, if Lee signs it.
Lee is expected to sign both pieces of legislation, though his office did not immediately respond to BuzzFeed News’ request for comment.
Kyle, however, plans to keep performing as usual at the club on Beale Street in Memphis; they said they plan to march today alongside dozens of other drag performers in the city and have organized with others about how they will take care of one another when the bill becomes law.
On April 1, the day the ban is set to go into effect, the Atomic Rose will host its Brick Ball, a drag show to commemorate the 54th anniversary of the Stonewall rebellion. Kyle said they are inspired by trans advocates like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, two trans women who are largely credited for throwing the first brick as police raided the New York gay bar in the 1970s.
“It’s a reminder that we will fight for our freedom, if necessary. It’s not a threat. It’s a promise,” Kyle said. “And I am terrified to have to hold that promise … but we have to fight even if we’re terrified. Nobody wants to have to be the next Marsha P. Johnson.”