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Bills targeting drag have a long history in the U.S., says historian

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Tennessee passed a bill last week restricting drag shows. The law specifically bans, quote, "adult cabaret performances in public or in the presence of children," and Tennessee's not alone. In more than a dozen states, Republican lawmakers have been pushing similar bills. There's a long history of laws targeting drag in the U.S. Historian Jules Gill-Peterson of Johns Hopkins University is here to give us some context. Good to have you back.

JULES GILL-PETERSON: Thanks so much for having me.

SHAPIRO: To start in the present day, how do the Tennessee law and other bills like it aim to restrict drag?

GILL-PETERSON: The Tennessee law is a very narrowly conceived law. It really is almost like a zoning statute. It declares where drag performance is allowed to take place, how far it has to be from schools, places of worship, things like that, and who's allowed to be in the audience, specifically by equating drag with sexual performances, such as stripping or exotic dancing. It really prohibits, you know, children from being present in the audience. It's the first one to pass, and a lot of the other legislation in other states have much more expansive definitions of drag and sort of a definition of drag that essentially means being transgender in public, which is to say, you know, someone who, according to the law, dresses or wears makeup or acts in any way that supposedly reflects a gender identity different from the gender that they were assigned at birth. These other bills, I think, really raise a lot of alarm in the sense that they really sort of start to get to the point where imagining just walking down the street in public as a trans person technically might be breaking the law.

SHAPIRO: And we, as a country, have, in a way, been here before, so tell us about the history of these kinds of laws. It's far from the first time that dressing in a way that doesn't conform to gender norms has been banned in the U.S.

GILL-PETERSON: That's right. We actually have almost 150 years' worth of laws in this kind of zone. So in 1863, San Francisco was actually the very first place to enact what it called a sort of cross-dressing or masquerade ordinance, which prohibited someone from being out in public if they were wearing clothing that was different from their sort of legal sex or assigned sex. And those kinds of laws really took off in the late 19th century as a way of enforcing racial segregation, of confining LGBT people to certain neighborhoods and, really, you know, empowering the police to harass and target people based on their appearance. And they were really used for many, many decades, well, into the 20th century, so we're talking about a really long history here.

SHAPIRO: I'm curious what this could mean for - I don't know, for example, Pride Month in Nashville in June, when this law will be in effect. If there's a drag queen on a float and children in the audience, like, is the effort going to be to cover up and conceal or is the effort going to be to throw bricks - not encouraging violence, just making a reference to Stonewall.

GILL-PETERSON: Exactly. I think this is the big question. On the one hand, this all feels very familiar, but on the other hand, we are in uncharted territory. The notion that the police might arrive at Pride and start arresting drag queens or, frankly, anyone - right? - who could be just sort of dressed in a costume because there could be children in the crowd is really, you know, kind of an incredible thing to imagine happening. But I think this is the sort of uncertainty of how these laws are written. But certainly some of the other laws being considered in other states definitely would, and so the question is, what is going to be the newfound danger that folks are going to face at a popular family-friendly event like Pride?

SHAPIRO: And so as a historian, what lessons do you draw from your research that you think may be applicable to this next phase of life for LGBTQ people in America?

GILL-PETERSON: Yeah, I think the return of these kinds of anti-drag bills in their updated form, you know, is really painful for a lot of LGBT people. There are plenty of people alive today who remember what it was like to live under these laws, and so in that sense, it's a really discouraging moment, but at the same time, that means that there's a lot of expertise and know-how in the community about how to deal with these laws but also how to successfully oppose them. They have been repealed before, and to me, that, you know, reminds us that, no matter what kinds of legislation are being passed today and how cruel or devastating the impact is, these aren't foregone conclusions. And so even if there isn't an inevitable progress for LGBT people in this country, by the same token, we're not necessarily locked into the terrain that these new laws prescribe. They could always be opposed, and they could always be overturned.

SHAPIRO: Jules Gill-Peterson of Johns Hopkins University studies transgender history and the history of sexuality. Thanks a lot.

GILL-PETERSON: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kai McNamee
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.
Ivy Winfrey
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.