Drag Law Has Memphis Performers, Theater Groups Wary of Becoming Targets
"Drag Queen Bingo," every Thursday night at Bar DKDC in the Cooper Young neighborhood, is in no way suitable for children.
"Tonight it's '69 Shades of Bingo,'" says the hostess titillated by the evening's theme. The prizes all come from a bondage playbook, like paddles and duct tape. Sex toys are frequently awarded. Simultaneous bingos are settled via twerking contests.
This is exactly the kind of adult-themed cabaret performance already age restricted by Tennessee's obscenity laws. IDs are checked at the bar.
Which is why drag performers like Matthew Bowlin, whose larger than life character Pattie O'Furniture churns out hours of gags, jokes, insults, and lip syncs, are concerned about the new state law that takes aim at "male and female impersonators" performing in public spaces with — or without — minors in attendance.
“It’s my theater world," Bowlin says. "And it’s my inner self as a kid. And I channel all my redneck family that I grew up with. They become Pattie, they created Pattie, this country girl who loves everybody."
Bowlin also loves kids. He’s been a music teacher in Memphis-Shelby County Schools for 24 years. He does not bring Patty to work. But when the character does appear in public where minors may be present, he cleans up the act. It's improv, after all.
The implication in these laws -- that drag queens pose an inherent danger to children -- makes him angry.
"I would literally beat someone if I knew you were trying to touch a child in some fashion,” he says. “And I would never set and say, 'Oh here! You need to go throw this wig on, see what you look like in it. C'mon, baby, let's dress you up.' We're not into that mess."
Shahin Samiei, Shelby County Chair of the Tennessee Equality Project, says even the two lawmakers who sponsored the bill in the state house and senate could not agree on what constitutes sexualized entertainment — whether it’s in the content of the show or the costume itself.
"How are we as individuals supposed to interpret it?" he asks. "How are law enforcement officers and agencies supposed to interpret it? What this does is confuses everybody. And I think that's not a bug. That's a feature."
A feature, he says, that is designed to create fear and doubt more than protect children.
Once a month at the Evergreen Theater in Memphis, a group called Absent Friends screens the more than 40-year old movie, "The Rocky Horror Picture Show." Starting April 1, when the law goes into affect, teenagers will no longer be admitted.
"There’s the cast on stage that acts along, and you know, we have several people that are in drag, male and female," says the group's leader Mystie Watson.
She says no one in the cast wants to risk being arrested on a felony obscenity charge for singing along to a movie. "We're just concerned. We don't want to get into trouble, basically," she says.
This will put a dent in the group's revenue. The movie is a rite of passage for many teens. Watson says kids turning 16 or 17 will occasionally host their birthday parties at the midnight screenings.
Parents who grew up with the movie frequently bring their teens to see the cult classic. That would be perfectly lawful in a regular movie theater, even with an R-rated feature. It's the live content that introduces the prospect of arrest for "obscenity."
Gov. Bill Lee’s signature last week made Tennessee the first state in the country to identify drag as illegal sex-centered entertainment, categorized like stripping and exotic dancing. But enforcement is vague.
In a recent statement, Shelby County’s District Attorney Steve Mulroy said most drag in Memphis wouldn’t be prosecutable under the current law.
"It only bars those [drag shows] which 'appeal to the prurient interest,' which in Tennessee means 'a shameful or morbid interest in sex.' And even then, only if it’s on public property or allows minors access," Mulroy wrote. "I anticipate that this will not prevent any drag show activity currently underway in Shelby County. It’s important to understand the narrow scope of this law so that it doesn’t have a chilling effect on constitutionally protected expression."
But Bryan Stephenson, a Nashville criminal attorney who has offered a pro bono defense for anyone charged under this law, says the state has not only set the stage for an epic and costly First Amendment battle, it has created a public safety issue.
“The more hysteria we put around the fear that drag performers are going to abuse your children," he says, "the more it puts a target on their backs.”
And that, activists say, is the underlying message behind this law; that a very specific group of people are harming children: ludicrous caricatures like Pattie O’Furniture, who happen to wear makeup and lead singalongs in bars.