Bill banning adult cabaret in public could restrict LGBTQ rights

After spending the last seven years in Memphis as an artist, Moth Moth Moth said this new bill threatens his livelihood.

MEMPHIS, Tennessee—A bill that would ban “Adult cabaret” performances deemed sexually explicit in public places or anywhere children might see them, came before the Tennessee General Assembly on Wednesday.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Jack Johnson of the 23rd District, said it’s in response to drag shows he said were “overtly sexual” in parks and libraries.

However, those in the drag industry fear it could lead to more legislation that could harm or restrict the LGBTQIA+ community.

“I would like to address our state legislators and speak directly to them,” said drag performer Moth Moth Moth. “I want them to look me in the eye and tell me that I don’t matter. Because that’s what that bill says.”

Moth is one of several drag performers who call Memphis home. After spending the last seven years in the city as a cheerleader, she said this new bill threatens her livelihood.

“This bill makes dragging in public a felony and a misdemeanor, which would ruin all of our lives,” he said.

Senator Johnson introduced Senate Bill 3which includes the following language:

It is an offense for a person to participate in a cabaret performance for adults:

(A) On public property; either

(B) In a location where the adult cabaret performance may be viewed by a non-adult.

The state senator said he crafted the bill because of sexually explicit drag shows that he says have taken place in Tennessee and other parts of the United States in “the past few weeks and months.”

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“I don’t know all the details about all these cases,” he said. “I know, however, that video has circulated online and elsewhere and there have also been some news reports about it, of a drag-type performance type that was overtly sexual in nature, was sexually suggestive and there (there were ) children around.”

Senator Johnson said the bill would not apply to drag shows that do not include sexual content. Moth said the key piece of legislation leaves it too open for interpretation.

“Straight people love to sexualize LGBTQIA people,” he said. “They look at us and see everything we do as sexually explicit.”

Age-restricted places like Dru’s Bar would not be affected by the bill if it passed. But Moth said some of his highest-paid performances have come in public spaces.

“When I enter a public space, it is because I have a message to carry,” he explained. “I have a message that queer and LGBTQIA people belong in public spaces and our art deserves to be seen.”

Tri-State Black Pride co-founder and vice president Dr. Davin Clemons called the bill “disgusting.”

“You have these rich, privileged, racist, homophobic, white men making decisions for Tennesseans who have cabaret careers,” he said.

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Moth believes his art shouldn’t be limited to nightlife and fears this bill could spawn other bills that threaten Memphis’ LGBTQIA+ population.

“You can’t tell me I’m inappropriate for public life,” she said. “I will walk and be as beautiful as I want to be and you will not harm or subjugate me because of it. I’m not harming anyone.”

Moth said he will spend the next few months organizing groups to fight Senate Bill 3 and building coalitions of support for drag performers.

Senator Johnson said he is currently seeking a House sponsor for the bill and hopes it will have numerous co-sponsors in both houses.