Drag queen Vanity is under a spotlight in the foreground, while most of the background is black. Her red hair is teased high in an up-do, with the front smoothed back. She's in profile, looking off to the side, and is wearing a large earring with many large gemstones. She's wearing a low cut muted green dress, with a crystal broach at the waist.
Drag artist Vanity performs during a Human Rights Campaign rally in Nashville. (Erica Calhoun/AP Images)

Tennessee’s Anti-Drag Bill Doesn’t Exist in a Vacuum

Attacks against LGBTQ rights—largely targeting trans people—have been ramping up. It isn’t hard to imagine what will happen next.

Since the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges legalized same-sex marriage nationwide in 2015, we have been living through an era of fierce fascist backlash against progressive politics and “wokeness” in general—much of it targeted against the LGBTQ community. With each passing year, Republican theocrats have pushed the envelope in state legislatures, paving the way for the eventual passage of severe restrictions on LGBTQ rights. Across the board, these attacks have disproportionately affected transgender people.

In this era of defunding and banning gender-affirming healthcare—and, most recently, a ban on drag in the state of Tennessee that will likely lead to police harassment of anyone deemed gender-nonconforming, if it survives its legal challenges—the bathroom bills of yesteryear seem almost quaint. The Right’s onslaught has progressed incrementally but quickly, with the state bans on trans girls participating in school sports that began to pass in 2020 effectively serving as “gateway” bills to make today’s terrifying state-level, anti-queer crackdown possible. And now, congressional Republicans are threatening to take state persecution of the LGBTQ community nationwide once more: H.R. 734, the first national anti-trans sports bill to advance in Congress beyond committee, is currently awaiting a floor vote in the House of Representatives. This bill comes just days after the House passed a new “parental rights” bill, more accurately described as a “don’t say gay” bill: legislation that would force schools to out queer children to their parents in order to receive federal funding, among other repressive measures.

Neither of these bills will pass the narrowly Democratic-controlled Senate, of course. But should Republicans regain both houses of Congress and the presidency in 2024, national bills attacking queer schoolchildren (and the parents who support them), gender-affirming healthcare for both minors and adults, and public expressions of gender-nonconformity are very likely to become federal law. With the precedent set by the recent overturning of Roe v. Wade as a key turning point, the Roberts Court will already have established the “constitutionality” of allowing such cruel, draconian laws. And they will be passed, of course, in the name of “protecting children,” even though queer children will be severely harmed by these policies—forced to remain closeted or subjected to outing and conversion “therapy,” and, in far too many cases, driven to suicide as a result.

Using children as pawns to push a radical Christian agenda is nothing new. To make their enemies seem truly monstrous, authoritarians need innocent “victims” to “rescue.” This is where “the children” come in, so long as the children are never permitted to speak for themselves. We’ve seen this playbook before. The Christian boys supposedly subjected to ritual murder by Jews, according to the medieval European blood libel. The fertilized eggs that anti-abortion extremists insist to us are “persons” whose “murders” must be prevented and/or punished. And now, the all-American schoolchildren who might observe happy, thriving queer adults, or read about queer people in school libraries, or hear a female teacher talk about her wife, and thus “decide” to be queer against the wishes of their good Christian parents.

Of course, if proponents of anti-trans legislation actually cared about children, they would rally behind, for example, sensible regulations to make sure that homeschooling isn’t being used by parents to abuse, neglect, or indoctrinate their children. They would support initiatives like those in the state of California that provide wellness centers in public schools, where any student can get mental health help and queer children can get safe and confidential guidance without fear of being outed to parents that it may not be safe to come out to. Instead, the people concerned with “saving kids” from “transgenderism” promote the opposite—including unregulated homeschooling and Christian schooling where possible, and attempting to control public schools where it’s not.

As John Stoehr of The Editorial Board aptly put it, “The rights of children—the right to grow, develop and change—is conspicuous for its absence in the debate over anti-trans laws, book bans and other oppressive forms of government control.” In the United States, children’s rights at the federal level are almost nonexistent. We are the only United Nations member state not to have ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. And if patriarchal, anti-pluralist, authoritarian Christians who treat their children like chattel want to keep things this way—and they do—fomenting a conspiratorial politics of moral panic is an effective means of doing so.

In recent years, a number of commentators have convincingly argued that the QAnon conspiracy theory is of a piece with the Satanic Panic of the 1980s and 1990s—essentially the resurgence of an American impulse toward Christian-inflected moral panic. Then as now, conspiracy theorists have conjured up a phantasmagoric enemy, projecting their fears, anxieties, and grievances both personal and social onto a monstrous “other” in the name of protecting “children” from cabals of ritual child abusers who happen to be populated by the out-groups conservative Christians most despise: “heretics” and nonbelievers, liberals and progressives (including progressive Christians), Jewish-coded “elites,” and members of the LGBTQ community.

Again, this is nothing new. In 1977, Anita Bryant named her Miami, Florida-based organization that fought, successfully, for anti-gay discrimination “Save Our Children.” Similarly, in the original Satanic Panic, the panicking populace in question rallied around “believing the children.” The irony is that the adults involved did not, in fact, believe the children—the supposed victims of the supposed satanic ritual abuse, of which no physical evidence has ever emerged. It was only under prompting from their paranoid parents, wildly irresponsible mental health practitioners pushing “recovered memory” therapy, and police and prosecutors at the height of the “tough on crime” era that the children were “believed” at all—after they at last broke down and told the adults what they wanted to hear, by regurgitating those adults’ absurd dark fantasies back to them. In recent years, some of these children, now able to speak for themselves as adults, have explained the ways in which they were manipulated into lying. Some have even gone to court to formally recant their childhood testimony in an effort to exonerate innocent people who were falsely convicted. Not coincidentally, many of those innocent people who were unjustly locked up for years as a result of the Satanic Panic were also queer.

This historical context has been on my mind as I consider the American Christian Right’s current moral panic, in which fixations on Hollywood, the Democratic Party, and the “deep state” coincide with the rebooting of baseless 1970s and 80s era conspiracy-mongering about queer people as supposed “groomers” and “pedos.” In fact, most child molesters identify as heterosexual. But as the website of the Zero Abuse Project, a nonprofit dedicated to preventing sexual abuse, puts it, “Abuse is about power and control and is not anchored by sexual orientation.”

Never mind the fact that 93% of child sex abusers are known to their victims, and 34% of child sex abuse victims are abused by members of their own families. Statistically, attending church on a regular basis is far more dangerous for children than attending an occasional family-friendly drag show in the company of their parents. Yet only the latter are regularly targeted by raving mobs of angry, mostly white, mostly male Christian fascists, carrying the Christian flag and shouting things like, “The fist of Christ will come down on you very soon!”

Abusers and authoritarians can’t handle ego threats, so instead of self-reflection on the real threats of violence within their own communities, they scapegoat members of vulnerable groups, casting them as “demonic” and connected to powerful, “evil” forces, thus allowing them to paint themselves as victims rather than victimizers. Rather than grapple with the ways in which their patriarchal ideology directly fosters abuse against women, children, and queer folks, they push actively harmful policies that purport to “help” them. Such are the contours of majoritarian grievance-mongering—and it’s the out-groups and the children the fascists claim to be so concerned about who suffer as a result.

Like other kinds of abuse, today’s right-wing American moral panic is about power and control—the power and control of the aggrieved, privileged population who fear they are losing their “right” to put the rest of us in our place. So far, the current moral panic isn’t generating an epidemic of false convictions for “indecency” or sexual misconduct involving minors, as happened during the Satanic Panic. But if we let them get away with it, today’s American fascists will simply criminalize queer existence, and then, you can be sure, the arrests will start in force.

Tennessee’s new drag ban, which would have gone into effect on April 1 before it was temporarily blocked by a court, stipulates that a second offense is a felony, punishable by up to six years in prison. And let’s be clear: While lower courts may still block laws like Tennessee’s from going into effect as they work their way through the court system, the illegitimately stacked, far-right Supreme Court can almost be counted on to stand on the wrong side of history. If the law does go into effect within the next year or two, how it is enforced may give us a hint of what lies in store for the rest of the nation if Republicans take full control of the federal government. We need to be aware of the stakes even as we continue to fight state-level battles, and we need to start pressuring blue states to commit not to enforce unjust laws targeting marginalized people, as dictated by an angry fascist minority who hold disproportionate power in our flawed American system. Fascists should not be allowed to frame the national discourse, and they have proven time and time again that they don’t truly care about the wellbeing of actual children, as opposed to the voiceless victims they’ve created in their heads. They only care about retaining power and control—and pitting scapegoated “demons” against objectified “children” is a means to that end.