Fight against drag shows takes center stage across East Tennessee

A new bill could criminalize people putting on drag shows or cabaret events in public and in front of kids.
Published: Nov. 13, 2022 at 5:30 PM EST|Updated: Nov. 13, 2022 at 6:48 PM EST
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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WVLT) - A new bill could criminalize people putting on drag shows or cabaret events in public and in front of kids.

Tennessee Republican Senator Jack Johnson filed a bill on Nov. 9, which could lead to federal punishment if someone leads an adult cabaret performance.

The bill defines adult cabaret as performances in a location other than an adult cabaret that “features topless dancers, go-go dancers, exotic dancers, strippers, male or female impersonators who provide entertainment that appeals to a prurient interest, or similar entertainers, regardless of whether or not performed for consideration.”

Joshua Ricker hosts family-oriented drag shows across East Tennessee and said he’s been facing backlash for his events.

“The bill is scary and barbaric. I think the bill is very transphobic, and it puts so many people in danger,” said Ricker. “Drag is not strictly sexual. We had to kind of change what was happening with our shows and consider them to be a costume dance party. That way it would kind of take the target off of our backs.”

The bill comes as lawmakers and some local critics claim they’ve seen children attending inappropriate drag shows.

East Tennesseans like Pastor Ken Peters with Patriot Church have put in many calls to several mayor’s offices and police departments trying to shut down certain shows.

On Nov. 1, Knox County Mayor Glen Jacobs shared a tweet acknowledging calls related to all-ages drag shows. Additionally, he wrote “let me be clear: I don’t care what consenting adults do, but leave kids out of it. As Mayor, I will do everything I can to ensure these events don’t happen on Knox County property.”

“We love the people, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t going to engage in a culture war,” said Peters. “You’re not taking our kids.”

Peters claimed a tribute drag show at The Concourse in Knoxville is an illegal show, referencing the Tennessee law that prohibits an adult-oriented business or adult cabaret from being within 1,000 feet of a child care facility, a residence or a place of worship.

“I also think drag, in general, is sinful and immoral, and I think we should enforce the law that is on the books and just like we would a strip club and keep it outside of certain boundaries,” Peters said.

The owner denied Peters’ claims to WVLT News as the establishment itself is a multi-genre concert and event space, and it was an 18 and older event.

A Knoxville Police Department spokesperson told WVLT News “That state statute does not apply within the city. That TCA code allows for cities to establish their own regulations for adult-themed businesses, and Knoxville City Code does not address or prohibit drag shows.”

If the recently-filed bill passes, it would go into effect in July 2023.