NASHVILLE, Tenn. – When Tennessee lawmakers passed legislation this month targeting drag performances and transgender youth, many musicians living and working in the state felt their community, their audiences and their artistic expressions were also under fire.
The trend of conservative-led legislatures introducing laws limiting LGBTQ rights or using hateful rhetoric about trans people has led the tightly knit musical community in Tennessee to use their voices and songs to raise awareness and money, as well as encourage music fans to get out and vote.
Love Rising, a concert held on Monday in Nashville, featured Grammy-winning artists like Sheryl Crow, Jason Isbell, Maren Morris, Hayley Williams and Brittany Howard alongside drag performers and trans and queer singer-songwriters. The following night, the effort continued with a second show, We Will Always Be, featuring a showcase of LGBTQ artists in collaboration with Black Opry.
“No one is in danger from our community, from our beautiful greater rainbow coalition of those of us who identify as LGBTQ+ or a drag performer or trans or just a loving ally or just someone who enjoys music,” said Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter Allison Russell, one of the organizers of Love Rising.
LGBTQ people have long been a part of the state’s lucrative musical and entertainment industries and drag performers and shows have a storied history in Nashville and beyond.
Artists like Reba McEntire, Dolly Parton and Elvis Presley have inspired — or been inspired by — drag performances for decades. Parton once told an interviewer that she entered a drag show alongside performers dressed like her — and lost. Nashville has a street named after drag queen Bianca Paige, who was an advocate for those living with HIV.
But in a state that long championed its artistic and creative communities, some musicians now feel threatened by its laws. The bill that passed this year changes the definition of adult cabaret as “harmful to minors” and says that “male or female impersonators” now fall under adult cabaret, along with topless dancers and strippers.
On Monday night backstage at the Love Rising concert, Adeem the Artist, a non-binary singer-songwriter living in East Tennessee, pointed to their flowery blouse and their plum-colored lipstick and wondered if their stage outfit would run afoul of the new law starting April 1.
“I don’t always wear dresses, but I don’t even know if this is OK,” they said. “Am I allowed to wear lipstick? What does it mean to be dressed as the wrong gender?”
Adeem explained that only a few weeks ago, they had been invited by the state to an event honoring songwriters. They politely declined.
“You don’t honor me. You’re challenging my livelihood, you’re challenging the safety of my kid,” they said.
The bill bans adult cabaret from public property or anywhere minors might be present. While the ACLU of Tennessee has said the bill does not directly prohibit drag performance and that drag is not inherently obscene, the intent still has had a chilling effect on performers. Drag artist Justine Van De Blair wondered if just walking from a venue to the parking lot where minors might see her would be cause for arrest.
“I’m able to support myself. Drag is my creative outlet,” she said. “Unfortunately it’s so vague right now, we don’t know what’s going to happen.”
At Love Rising, the drag artists earned some of the biggest cheers as they rallied the audiences in between musical sets with passionate speeches arguing that the bills were a harmful overreach of government and a fear-based campaign to roll back rights. They walked through the crowds to greet and take photos with fans, blowing air kisses and waving.
The money raised at the concerts was directed to LGBTQ support organizations such as Tennessee Equality Project,Inclusion Tennessee, OUTMemphis and the Tennessee Pride Chamber. Donations were being matched by foundations created by Grammy-winner Brandi Carlile and the family of the late Nashville singer-songwriter John Prine.
Artists have found other ways to show their opposition to the record number of anti-trans bills introduced last year, as well as other legal rulings regarding bodily autonomy. Rock band Yo La Tengo came out in drag during a recent tour stop in Nashville. Aaron Lee Tasjan, a Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter, is in the middle of working on his next record and wrote a song that reflects the “nightmare” that queer and trans people are experiencing.
“I’m seeing people in a great amount of mental and emotional distress over it,” he said.
Izzy Heltai, a pop singer-songwriter from Massachusetts, said he moved to Nashville recently because of the industry connections that were there. But he soon fell in love with the welcoming people and friends he met, which he found at odds with the state's politics. As a trans man who transitioned when he was in his teens, he called the bans on gender-affirming care for youth life-threatening for a population already at high risk for suicide.
“There are a lot of kids that are going to die in the state because of these laws,” said Heltai, who played both benefit concerts. “It’s not theoretical anymore. It’s just that these laws are murdering people."
But even with the benefit shows, artists said the music industry in Nashville — still dominated by white men at the executive level and on the stages — should be doing more to support marginalized artists who are facing discrimination.
Black Opry founder Holly G started her organization to give Black artists more opportunities to perform and grow their audiences because the mainstream country music industry was not willing to open those doors. Those barriers also exist for LGBTQ singers, musicians, songwriters, producers and others, she said.
“The fight for racial equality is also the fight for LGBTQ+ equality,” she said. “We have to do all of that at the same time and together.”
Backstage at the Bridgestone Arena, drag queen Cya Inhale said she initially thought that her drag community would have to stand alone, but has felt that "the entire arts community in Nashville standing up saying, ‘No, that’s not OK.’”
Besides, Inhale argued, drag and country music have often run in the same circles.
“Do you think Dolly Parton is wearing all those rhinestones because a straight guy told her to? I don’t think so,” she said.
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This version of the story corrects the date of when the drag legislation takes effect to April 1, not July 1.