Freedom of Expression

Tennessee City’s Ban of Drag Performances on Public Property Temporarily Lifted

Drag artists host performance ahead of ban in Tennessee
Bella DuBalle entertains spectators watching a drag performance ahead of the implementation of a Tennessee law restricting drag in front of minors that is due to come into force on April 1 at Atomic Rose in Memphis, Tennessee, March 26, 2023. (Reuters/Karen Pulfer Focht)

By The Associated Press

MURFREESBORO, Tenn. (AP) — A federal judge has temporarily blocked city officials in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, from enforcing an ordinance designed to ban drag performances from taking place on public property.

An order issued Friday by Chief U.S. District Court Judge Waverly Crenshaw Jr. bars the city from enforcing the ordinance during the BoroPride Festival scheduled for next weekend.

The judge’s order came in a lawsuit filed earlier this month by the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee on behalf of the Tennessee Equality Project, a nonfprofit that advocates for LGBTQ+ rights and has hosted the BoroPride Festival since 2016. The order said the city of Murfreesboro — located about 34 miles (55 kilometers) south of Nashville — and the equality project reached an agreement that the city will not enforce the ordinance during the Oct. 28 festival.

The lawsuit alleges the ordinance discriminates against the LGBTQ+ community and violates the First Amendment by chilling free speech rights.

The ACLU said the order “confirms that the community’s free speech rights will be protected at the BoroPride Festival” as the lawsuit continues to be heard in court.

“We are relieved that the court has taken action to ensure that Murfreesboro’s discriminatory ordinance will not be enforced during the BoroPride festival. We look forward to a safe, joyful celebration of Murfreesboro’s LGBTQ+ community,” Tennessee Equality Project Executive Director Chris Sanders said in a statement.

The legal challenge is the latest development in the ongoing political battle over LGBTQ+ rights in Tennessee, where the state’s conservative leaders have sought to limit events where drag performers may appear, restrict classroom conversations about gender and sexuality, and ban gender-affirming care.

Conservative activists alleged that drag performances that took place during the 2022 Pride event resulted in the “illegal sexualization of kids.”

The equality project said the performers were fully clothed and denied the shows were inappropriate. The city warned the organization it would deny any future event permits and later approved updating its “community decency standards” intended to “assist in the determination of conduct, materials, and events that may be judged as obscene or harmful to minors.”

A spokesperson for the city did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment on the judge’s order.