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An anti-drag law under litigation is impacting Pride planning in Tennessee

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

We go to Tennessee, one of a few states that passed measures this year restricting drag performances. Tennessee's law is currently under litigation with a decision expected soon. But it's awkward timing for festival organizers in the state who are planning events for Pride Month, which kicks off tomorrow. Marianna Bacallao of WPLN has more.

MARIANNA BACALLAO, BYLINE: On a dark stage, drag queen Phyllis Feathers tells the audience an unusual fairy tale.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PHYLLIS FEATHERS: Once upon a time in the land of Tennessee, an evil spell was cast called Senate Bill No. 3.

BACALLAO: Senate Bill 3 has been called a drag ban, but drag isn't mentioned anywhere in the law itself. As written, it prohibits, quote, "adult cabaret" and refers to drag performers as male or female impersonators. Tennessee's drag restrictions were set to go in effect April 1. That was going to make Phyllis Feathers' performance difficult. She's a member of Friends of George's, an LGBTQ theatre nonprofit that performs for all ages and the plaintiffs in the case against the state's anti-drag law. A judge temporarily blocked the law, or she wouldn't have been able to do performances like the one in this video.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FEATHERS: Never mind that Shakespeare created this whole darn mess. It's ghastly to see a woman in pants or a man in a fabulous dress.

BACALLAO: But the judge is expected to give a final ruling in the case in early June. That's left pride organizations across Tennessee in uncertain territory. Mac Huffington, president of Nashville Pride, has been a part of the organization for longer than she wants to say on record. And this is the first pride where she had to plan without a pillar of the celebration.

MAC HUFFINGTON: Because the law was written, you know, so vaguely that we just needed to make sure that we were going to be presenting a legal, you know, festival.

BACALLAO: That vagueness is exactly what makes the law so dangerous, says Melissa Stewart. Her civil rights firm is representing Friends of George's in challenging the law. She says it leaves enforcement up to individual police officers. But even if the case is thrown out...

MELISSA STEWART: The harm is already done. I mean, you put anyone in Shelby County jail in full drag, and I am not going to guarantee that they come out alive.

BACALLAO: Stewart says that law enforcement historically doesn't have a great track record with the LGBTQ community.

STEWART: Surveillance and raids and arrests - that is the history of queer rights, and this law seeks to set that movement back 60 years.

BACALLAO: The fear is palpable in the state's queer spaces leading up to Pride. Metal detectors have popped up outside Nashville's LGBTQ events. Micah Winter, a drag queen with Friends of George's, says they had to increase security before their Drag Rocks event.

MICAH WINTER: There is a legitimate new fear, and it's not about litigation. It's about physical harm.

BACALLAO: But despite the danger, Winter will still be performing at Memphis Pride this year.

VANESSA RODLEY: I know we're all afraid, and we're all scared to be out there. But we need to be present, and we need to be visible just for that.

BACALLAO: That's Vanessa Rodley, the president of Memphis Pride. She says it's been hard to recruit drag performers and secure sponsors.

RODLEY: And without the funds, you - how can you provide the security or the safe space you need to, right? So it's become a huge obstacle this year and a struggle where we never struggle.

BACALLAO: The drag queens are not going out without a fight. Here's Phyllis Feathers again on the stage at Friends of George's.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FEATHERS: It makes me mad. You know how mad it makes me? It makes me mad as hell.

(CHEERING)

BACALLAO: For NPR News, I'm Marianna Bacallao. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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