Members of the indie rock band Yo La Tengo took to the stage in Nashville, Tennessee, dressed in drag during a recent concert in protest against the state’s new ban on “obscene” drag performances. Though the band did not specifically mention the law during their performance, they made a bold statement with their attire. Frontman Ira Kaplan appeared in full drag with a wig and a dress, while bass player James McNew donned a sun hat and a knit shawl. The photos of their performance quickly went viral on social media, drawing attention to Tennessee’s restrictive legislation on drag performances.
Tennessee was the first state to pass a law restricting drag performances, but Republican legislators across the country have introduced at least 40 similar bills in state legislatures. According to the ACLU of Tennessee legal director Stella Yarbrough, the law only bans drag performances that are “harmful to minors.” Yarbrough stated that drag performances do not inherently fall into this category and are protected by the First Amendment. The ACLU has vowed to challenge the enforcement of this law if it is used to punish a drag performer or shut down an LGBTQ+ event.
Henry Seaton of the ACLU of Tennessee told NPR that the real purpose of the law is to isolate and criminalize transgender and gender non-conforming individuals. Many performers and activists have spoken out against the law and are working to raise awareness and funds for LGBTQ+ causes in the state. On March 20, a “Love Rising” concert featuring artists such as Sheryl Crow, Maren Morris, and Hozier will take place in Nashville, with proceeds benefitting the Tennessee Equality Project, Inclusion Tennessee, Out Memphis, and the Tennessee Pride Chamber.
The drag protest by Yo La Tengo highlights the ongoing struggle for LGBTQ+ rights in Tennessee and across the country. While the state’s drag law may not explicitly make drag performances illegal, the vagueness of the “harmful to minors” language and the enforcement of the law could have a chilling effect on artistic expression and freedom of speech. The actions of Yo La Tengo and other performers and activists are critical in raising awareness and fighting back against this discriminatory legislation.