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Tennessee’s Anti-Drag Law Is Latest Chapter in State’s Century of Censorship

Almost 100 years after the Scopes Monkey Trial over evolution, Tennessee has again become a censorship battleground.

Dolly Would of western North Carolina rehearses her performance before a drag show and story hour held at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City, Tennessee, on March 31, 2023.

Over the past several weeks, Tennessee legislators and Gov. Bill Lee have been engaged in an increasingly acrimonious battle with the state’s LGBTQ+ community and civil liberties defenders over the permissibility of drag shows in public spaces. It isn’t the first time the state has found itself at the epicenter of a burgeoning culture war over what can and cannot be said or done or taught in public spaces and institutions.

Ninety-eight years ago next month, the small town of Dayton, in Appalachian Tennessee, played host to the era’s most extraordinary trial. John Thomas Scopes, a local biology teacher, was put on trial for the scandalous crime of teaching the theory of evolution to his high school students.

The Scopes Monkey Trial, as it came to be known, had everything: a ludicrous premise — that, in the Bible Belt, it was unacceptable for budding scientists to learn about evolution; a deeply bigoted prosecutor, in the form of three-time Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan; and a world-famous criminal defense lawyer, Clarence Darrow, who had represented a varied multitude, from anarchist bombers to trade unionists to wealthy young killers, over the past half century. It also had the attention of the world’s press, including that of the U.S.’s preeminent editorial writer, the Baltimore Evening Sun’s H.L. Mencken.

Mencken had, by then, a national reputation. His writing was brilliantly caustic, his distaste for buffoonery and hypocrisy legendary. He wrote with disdain of what he called the American “booboisie,” people who luxuriated in their ignorance and their bigotry, and who sought to impose their narrow worldview on others. A man such as Bryan was a perfect target for Mencken’s contempt. In a series of breathtaking missives sent back to his hometown newspaper, Mencken, who had relocated to Dayton for the duration of the trial, described Bryan as practically radiating hostility to the modern world — and as also being shockingly in tune with the good men and women of Dayton, people who were looking for a culture war upon which to hang their bigotries, and who were determined to convict Scopes no matter the number of intellectual contortions they had to go through in order to think him guilty of anything beyond educating the city’s youths. “His nonsense is their ideal of sense,” Mencken reported on July 14, describing their relationship to Bryan. “When he deluges them with his theologic bilge they rejoice like pilgrims disporting in the river Jordan.”

Nearly a century later, Tennessee is again at the center of a censorship battle. This one doesn’t involve Darwin and the theory of evolution; rather, it involves whether or not people have a right to perform drag shows on publicly owned land, or in places where their shows are likely to be seen by children.

Tennessee has, time and again in recent years, failed to pass even the most modest of gun control proposals — and its GOP legislators recently voted to expel from the legislature two of their colleagues who protested too loudly and vociferously about this scandalous legislative inaction, even in the face of a recent mass-fatality school shooting in Nashville.

Yet, where it can’t muster the political energy to protect children from gun violence, its legislators and governor have had no problem corralling that energy to “protect” children from drag shows. On March 2, Gov. Bill Lee signed into law a bill banning drag shows in public spaces and also outlawing gender-affirming care for minors. The law allowed for drag show participants to be sent to prison for one year for the first offense, and up to six years for repeat offenses. Fifteen other GOP-led states — none of which have mustered the political will to pass gun control legislation to protect their residents from the actual threats associated with the U.S.’s crisis of mass shootings — are also reputedly considering legislation criminalizing drag show participants, which they argue is necessary to “protect” the young.

It is, apparently, more politically palatable to embrace censorship in these states than to embrace even the most modest gun control policies. In his diaries, Mencken, one of the great opponents of all forms of censorship, wrote, “The American people, I am convinced, really detest free speech. At the slightest alarm, they are ready and eager to put it down.”

Earlier this month, Thomas Parker, a federal judge in Shelby County — one actually nominated to the bench by Donald Trump, surprisingly — temporarily put the kibosh on Tennessee’s censorious legislation. It was, he wrote in his 70-page ruling, a gross violation of First Amendment freedom of speech and expression rights, being “both unconstitutionally vague and substantially overbroad.”

And so, for now at least, drag shows can continue apace in Tennessee.

Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson — who sponsored the bill and has voted in favor of a slew of anti-trans, anti-abortion, anti-critical race theory and anti-gun control laws in recent years — responded to the ruling by decrying a judge who would provide “a victory for those who support exposing children to sexual entertainment.”

Johnson has also made it a mission to mandate that funerals be held for aborted fetuses; to allow adults to carry concealed weapons without even a permit; to permit university employees to carry guns onto campus; and to give the okay for firearms to be carried in public parks. Pick pretty much any regressive or ridiculous legislative idea in Tennessee, and it’s a pretty fair bet that Johnson has voted for it.

Ninety-eight years after Mencken shredded Tennessee over the Scopes Monkey Trial, the same censorious and bigoted instincts are on full display again. What would the so-called Sage of Baltimore have made of politicians who fetishize automatic weapons while claiming to be “protecting” children from the “scourge” of drag shows? How would he have described culture war warriors and Second Amendment absolutists who vote to expel their colleagues from the legislative chamber for protesting inactivity over gun violence, and who at the same time denigrate judges for daring to protect the First Amendment from legislative encroachment?

I don’t know what exact choice phrases Mencken would have come up with, but they certainly would have carried a sting. The legendary columnist loathed hypocrisy almost as much as he loathed prohibition — he was a determined whiskey drinker — and legislators in Tennessee in the year 2023 are throwing up every bit as much hypocrisy as did Tennessee in 1925 when the good people of Dayton condemned their high school biology teacher for his dalliance with Darwin.

In 1925, the anti-evolution mob scored a pyrrhic victory — Bryan won the case, but Scopes was fined a mere $100; and, a week later, Bryan himself died. Today, with Judge Parker’s ruling and with progressives in Tennessee mobilizing forcefully to defend free speech, it’s possible the voices of censorship will be pushed back before a single drag show in Tennessee is banned. But the very fact that such abysmal legislation got passed in the first place is a warning sign of just how willing legislators in Tennessee and elsewhere are to shred the First Amendment in pursuit of their bigoted agenda and short-term political posturing.

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