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As LGBTQ+ advocates and drag entertainers navigate state bills seeking to curb drag performances, an order to move a show off of a Nevada military base and a judge’s ruling against Tennessee’s restrictions illustrate the tension of the moment.
A drag performance originally scheduled to take place on the Nellis Air Force base in Nevada during Pride Month is now expected to be moved to an off-base location. This change came two months after a House Armed Services Committee hearing during which Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin responded to questions about the use of department resources for drag events. Defense Department officials called for the show to either be moved to an off-base location or canceled, according to reporting by NBC News.
A spokesperson for the Department of Defense cited rules regarding the use of military property and resources as a reason for the directive. The Modern Military Association of America (MMAA), an organization for LGBTQ+ service members, veterans and their loved ones issued a statement expressing disappointment with the decision.
“Drag shows and events on military bases have become increasingly politicized, stemming from the moral panic that drag may be harmful due to the perception that it is sexual in nature,” MMAA wrote. “These events on military bases are often sponsored by private groups and do not utilize federal funding.” The group then highlighted the role drag performances have played in U.S. military history.
While supporters of drag faced a setback in Nevada, on Friday, a federal court set a different tone in Tennessee where a district court judge, Thomas L. Parker, declared the state’s restrictions on drag performances to be unconstitutional.
Tennessee is one of nearly 20 states that have either introduced or passed legislation regulating drag performances. These bills are part of a wider campaign by some lawmakers to limit transgender health services, education about LGBTQ+ history as well as the ability of queer people to participate in sports, among other issues.
On drag shows, Florida and Texas have taken aim at prohibiting children from attending shows that state lawmakers deem to be sexually explicit. The Tennessee law signed by Republican Gov. Bill Lee in March targeted performances on public property that are “adult-oriented” and “harmful to minors” because of nudity, sexual content or violence. That same day the governor also signed a law banning gender-affirming care for minors.
Chase Strangio, deputy director for transgender justice and a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, said on Instagram in February that Tennessee’s law on drag shows is limited in scope and should not be depicted as a total ban on public drag performances. Still, he added, “we should be extremely concerned about all the ways law enforcement will abuse this bill and existing law to target our communities. It is already happening and will escalate.”
These types of bills, despite their legal limitations, have had ripple effects.
Singer Hayley Kiyoko said in an Instagram post May 2 that she was warned by local law enforcement that she could face legal action if she followed through with her plan to allow drag queens to perform at her Nashville concert. Kiyoko said that she alerted the drag performers about the warning, but they decided to move forward with the show as planned.
In Florida, leaders of the nonprofit organization Tampa Pride told Axios they canceled its Pride on the River festival, set for September, because of the state’s law.
As local officials and LGBTQ+ advocates navigate the new legislation, congressional Republicans are pushing against federal support for policies they deem to be “woke,” a misappropriation of a term first used among Black people to urge their communities to stay alert to racial and social injustices. This has in recent months been a talking point in relation to military funding.
In one House Armed Services Committee hearing in March, Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida questioned Defense Department leadership about drag queen story hour events held on military bases. Austin responded that these story hours are not something his department “supports or funds.”
The relocated Nellis Air Force base show would have been the third drag performance held at the base, according to news reports. The 2021 show included CoCo Montrese and Alexis Mateo, who each have hundreds of thousands of social media followers.
In response to The 19th’s questions about the Nellis drag show, the Defense press office shared a statement from deputy press secretary Sabrina Singh stating that “certain criteria must be met for persons or organizations acting in non-Federal capacity to use DoD facilities and equipment.”
“Hosting these types of events in federally funded facilities is inconsistent with regulations regarding the use of DoD resources,” she added. “We are proud to serve alongside any and every young American who takes the oath that puts their life on the line in defense of our country.”
The press office did not address The 19th’s question about why their response to a drag event on base was different this year compared to previous years.