Tennessee’s new law criminalizing public drag performances takes effect April 1. The law, which refers to “impersonators of men or women who provide entertainment that appeals to favorable interests,” makes it a crime for a person to participate in an adult cabaret performance on public property — or in a place where the performance can be viewed by children.
A first offense violation of the law is a misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of up to $2,500 and/or up to 12 months in jail. Subsequent offenses may be felonies punishable by up to 6 years in prison.
Tennessee native Bella DuBallet is an ordained priest and also the show’s director and host at Atomic Rose, Memphis’ premier drag club. She says Tennessee’s law was written by lawmakers who don’t understand what resistance is.
“The idea that they think every drag performer is doing something hypersexual or obscene obviously means they don’t know much about it,” says DuBal. “I can’t put into words what the whole art of drag is, and the fact that these legislators who know a lot less about the art than I do and have never been to a drag show are sitting there making these laws — it’s a little upsetting. “
DuBalle points out that the law’s vague language — particularly the reference to “male and female impersonators” — could be misused to target trans, gender non-conforming or non-binary people.
“As a non-binary person who wears clothes that don’t necessarily match the gender I was assigned at birth, I’m afraid that … someone will see me in Kroger in a dress and call the cops and say, ‘That a man is being obscene in front of my children,” says DuBal.
DuBal says she’s always seen drag as a political act, but now the stakes are much higher. Since speaking out against the Tennessee law, she has received threats of violence and even death. However, she is determined to stand her ground. She vowed that Atomic Rose would continue all its concerts – including the all-ages brunch – even after the ban came into effect.
“I will not be intimidated or silenced,” she says. “If one undertakes to silence my voice, there are many, many others to take my place. Strange voices will never be silenced.”
Highlights of the interview
On her drag persona, which is part Miss Piggy, part Dolly Parton and part Mr. Rogers
Miss Piggy, I think, is the big costumes, “I’m a movie star. Every room I walk into is the story of me.” It’s the ultimate drag fantasy. For Dolly Parton, it’s big, flashy suits and the fact that you can continue to be a real, sweet Southerner and still be successful. And then to me, Mister Rogers is probably the most important, and that’s just acknowledging the humanity of each person and hopefully letting them see themselves in something that you’re doing and showing them that no matter how different to be all of us, we are actually much more alike.
About the fact that everyone has difficulties in their own way
You get up in the morning and decide what you want to wear based on how you want the world to perceive you. What I’ll wear for a lazy day cleaning the house is very different to what I’ll wear if I’m going to a wedding or a funeral, and it’s very different to what I’ll wear if I’m going out clubbing on a Saturday night with friends. You change your appearance based on how you want the world to perceive you. That is all. And for me, when you can look at this creation that I did on stage and say, “Wow, that’s not really who this person is. This illusion that I’m seeing is not who this person is,” my hope is that then the light bulb goes off and you realize, “Wow, this illusion that I’m presenting is not really who I am.” And it’s really liberating to realize that you’re not married to the shell, the aesthetics, the things that people see. We are much more than our body.
About how the new law affects the club and her personally
If the law remains as it is and is enforced the way they would like it to be, then we will not be able to welcome people under the age of 18 to our all-ages brunch. If it’s the case that they won’t allow any drag to be classified as adult cabaret here in public, that means no drag performers at the pride parade and festival. I, as a minister, was asked to marry couples publicly in drag. I don’t know if that would be legal anymore, if my religious freedom supersedes that law, or if it would be violated. …
Amazing defiant speech from Bella Dubol in Tennessee against the anti-drag bill there.
“If they try to take us away, this year we will remind them that we will fight for our liberation. We will raise our bricks high. pic.twitter.com/Tnst4GuOaZ
— Erin Reed (@ErinInTheMorn) February 21, 2023
I get ready here at home and then go to the venue. So I’m worried [in] Is the short time I walk from the parking lot to the venue public? Our place has large windows and is off Beale Street. If there are people walking by with their children and looking through the windows, is that now viewed by a minor, despite the fact that they are looking through the windows in our private establishment? So for me, again, there’s some really, really unclear terminology, and that’s where most of my fear and confusion lies.
What if the club closes
This is my livelihood. And all these people who are like, “Well, you shouldn’t have this as a job. You shouldn’t be around children!” It gives me great joy to tell them, “[If I] I have to stop doing drag, I’m going back to my old job, teaching. So you, if you don’t want me around your kids, I’ve got really bad news for you!” … I’m a founding member of the Tennessee Shakespeare Company, and so I’ve been to almost every school here in the mid-south for to teach Shakespeare. It was through Shakespeare that I first got into it. I was paid really big money by the National Endowment for the Arts and the state of Tennessee to go to all these schools and act in drag in front of their students. It was good then, but it’s not good now.
For children’s performance and reading
I think most kids are so into the aesthetic that if they’re young enough, most of them just think I’m a Disney princess. People sometimes ask, “How do you explain drag to kids?” And I say to myself: “No need!” They are the creators of drag. The children invented a dress-up game. They understand it much better than the rest of us. Some of us just never stop playing.
I have [books] that i love A few of my favorites are Red: A Crayon Story, and it’s about a blue crayon with a red tag trying to find its way and being told that’s who you are, despite the fact that they know they’re a different color. There is one called Aunt Uncle: Drag Queen Hero. It’s about a little kid’s uncle who’s also a drag performer. And how they combine the being of uncle and aunt in one person. And then I love My shade is purple. It’s about the world where everyone seems to have a shade of blue or pink, but my shade is purple.
So they tend to be books about self-acceptance, about knowing that there are other people who may be made differently than you, and your job is just to love and accept what they tell you. As a minister I read the Bible cover to cover and that book is full of rape, murder and incest and I would never read it to a child. But what do I know? I’m just a drag queen. Most of the books I choose will be very, very much in the style of Mr. Rogers’ encouragement.
When heterosexual men pull themselves together, it makes a joke of femininity
When a straight guy does it, it’s a joke. … When I put on a dress, it is an expression of power. It’s a statement about how powerful my femininity is. So for me, I think it’s about how we approach the feminine. Patriarchy has always used resistance as another way to reinforce that women are weaker. I think we, as a queer community, actually protect that pride or that femininity. We are very proud of something that other people are deeply ashamed of.
In a 1977 yearbook photo of Gov. Bill Lee in drag at a powder football game that appears
Here in the South, we have these old fundraisers that have been going on for decades, and one of them is powder puff football, where the boys dress up as cheerleaders and the girls dress up as football players. … So it’s a very, very old Southern style. And when I asked the governor about being stalled…he said, “It’s ridiculous to associate something like this with having sex in front of children.” And I totally agree. They are not the same thing. But he disagrees that he signed a law that makes no such distinction. The law makes no distinctions between a school fundraiser, theater or opera ballet, wrestling cosplay, people dressing up for Halloween. It’s so unclear. And that was the real hypocrisy. Not that she was in a dress, but that she didn’t realize that what she was doing was just as innocent as I was.
About this legislation that is “legal harassment”
RuPaul said they are a bunch of bullies making these laws. It evokes great feelings when you see someone love something about themselves that you hate about yourself. I think when you see someone else who’s proud of a part of themselves that you’ve been taught to be ashamed of – that makes people lash out. “How dare you not be ashamed of this thing that I’ve been taught to be ashamed of, this thing that I know to be shameful?” And to me, that’s a big reason why we’re seeing these laws being passed.
About praying for the lawmakers who created the ban
Never in my life have I known the freedom of spirit and freedom of heart that I know now. And all I want is for every other person to experience the same joy, to be so unashamedly proud of who they are that they live without fear and don’t let the opinions of others hold them back. I know that if other people’s hearts were open in the same way, they wouldn’t be in the business of trying to legislate other people’s love. They wouldn’t be concerned with trying to dictate what other people should do with their lives because they would be so busy enjoying their own lives.
About what she dreamed of as a child on a farm in rural Tennessee
I think I’ve always dreamed of making the world a little better than the way I found it. I always hoped that some moment would come that would give me a sense of purpose, that I was meant to be here and that I mattered by being here. … I will be 43 in just a few weeks, and this is the first time in my life that I have a real sense of purpose.
Audio interview produced and edited by: Seth Kelly and Susan Nyakundi. Audio interview adapted for NPR.org by: Bridget Benz and Molly Seavey-Nesper.