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Tennessee poised to become first state to restrict drag performances in 2023

SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA - MAY 07: Asia O'Hara performs during Drag N Drive San Francisco at Southland Mall on May 07, 2021 in Hayward, California. (Photo by Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images)

(CNN) — Tennessee is set to become the first state this year to enact legislation to restrict public drag show performances.

The state Senate on Thursday is expected to pass a bill to limit “adult cabaret performances” on public property so as to shield them from the view of children, threatening violators with a misdemeanor and repeat offenders with a felony. It was passed by the Tennessee House last week and Gov. Bill Lee, a Republican, has said he will sign it.

Once signed, the law would go into effect on July 1, 2023.

Tennessee’s is the first of nearly a dozen such bills presently working their way through GOP-led state legislatures. Republicans say the performances expose children to sexual themes and imagery that are inappropriate, a claim rejected by advocates, who say the proposed measures are discriminatory against the LGBTQ community and could violate First Amendment laws.

As transgender issues and drag culture are increasingly becoming more mainstream, such shows — which often feature men dressing as women in exaggerated makeup while singing or entertaining a crowd, though some shows feature bawdier content — have occasionally been the target of attacks, and LGBTQ advocates say the bills under consideration add to a heightened state of alarm for the community.

Tennessee Republican state Sen. Jack Johnson, who sponsored the legislation, previously told CNN that his legislation “is not anti-drag. It is pro-child.”

“I am carrying the legislation to protect children from being exposed to sexually explicit drag shows that are inappropriate for minor audiences. It is similar to laws that prohibit children from going to a strip club,” Johnson said.

In recent days, Lee has been accused of hypocrisy after an unidentified Reddit user posted a photo from a 1977 high school yearbook, which purports to show the future governor dressed in women’s clothing and a wig alongside female students dressed in men’s suits.

CNN has been unable to verify the authenticity of the photo.

At a news conference on Monday, Lee ignored a question about whether he had once dressed in drag but rejected any comparisons between the purported image and the drag show legislation.

“What a ridiculous, ridiculous question that is, conflating something like that to sexualized entertainment in front of children, which is a very serious subject,” Lee said, according to CNN affiliate WZTV.

A spokesperson for Lee further elaborated to the Daily Beast, saying, “The bill specifically protects children from obscene, sexualized entertainment, and any attempt to conflate this serious issue with lighthearted school traditions is dishonest and disrespectful to Tennessee families.”