1 of 2 | Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee has signed legislation to restrict public adult cabaret shows. However, critics worry it will be used to censor and punish drag performers in the state. File Photo by Debbie Hill/UPI | License Photo
March 3 (UPI) -- Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee has signed controversial legislation restricting public "adult cabaret" performances, becoming the first state this year to enact such a law amid a conservative backlash against drag queens reading stories to minors at public libraries.
The Republican governor signed the law Thursday after the state's Republican-controlled Senate voted 26-6 in favor of Senate Bill 3, which makes it an offense for a person to perform adult cabaret in public where minors could be present. The state's House passed the bill 74-20 on Feb. 23.
The restriction, which goes into effect July 1, punishes a first violation as a misdemeanor with a second violation being treated as a felony, punishable by up to six years imprisonment.
The bill is one of more than a dozen that Republican state-level politicians have introduced in response to the growing attention of Drag Queen Story Hour, where drag queen performers read stories to children in libraries, schools and bookstores.
Supporters of such legislation describe it as needed to protect children from being sexualized while critics and civil rights advocates say it is an attack on the LGBTQ community and free speech.
"This bill gives confidence to parents that they can take their kids to a public or private show and will not be blindsided by a sexualized performance," Tennessee Senate majority leader and bill sponsor Jack Johnson said in a tweet after Lee signed the legislation.
Johnson has repeatedly defended his bill from criticism, stating it is not an attack against the LGBTQ community but a way to protect children from sexual content.
"The intent of this bill is to simply say that here in Tennessee you cannot have any kind of illicit or sexually explicit entertainment taking place where kids are present," he tweeted mid-February.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee said in a statement that it is disappointed that Lee signed a bill it described as intended to censor drag performances.
The civil rights group warned that the law does not make drag illegal in the state as the legislation seeks to prohibit only illicit performances. If it is used to censor drag performers or shut down family-friendly LGBTQ events, the ACLU will challenge its enforcement in court.
"We are concerned that government officials could easily abuse this law to censor people based on their own subjective viewpoints of what they deem appropriate, chilling protected free speech and sending a message to LGBTQ Tennesseans that they are not welcome in our state," it said in a statement, asking performers, event organizers and business owners who are negatively affected by the law to contact them.
"If the state uses this law to punish a drag performer or shut down a family-friendly LGBTQ event, they will see us in court."
According to literature and human rights organization Pen America, 14 bills that seek to restrict or censor drag shows have been introduced in eight states.