The Tennessee ‘Drag Ban’, signed into law by Governor Bill Lee on Mar. 2, 2023, has sparked controversy over its potential violation of First Amendment rights and the rights of LGBTQ+ individuals. In recent years, drag shows have become a more mainstream form of entertainment where individuals (typically men) use makeup, wigs, and costumes to transform their appearance and perform in front of an audience by dancing, lip-syncing, and doing comedy. It is a unique and creative way for individuals to celebrate diversity, entertain others and empower themselves.
The vague wording of this bill allows for a broad interpretation and implementation that threatens the LGBTQ+ community at large. The law prohibits “male or female impersonators” from performing in front of children or within 1,000 feet of public parks, schools and places of worship. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Tennessee has characterized the law as a “subtle and sinister way to further criminalize just being transgender.” The ACLU is concerned that officials could “abuse the law” to further censor individuals based on their subjective perception of what they deem appropriate, raising additional concerns about the law’s potential impact on freedom of expression.
Violators of this law are subject to a fine of up to $2500 and six years of jail time with possible felony charges for repeat offenders. Similar bills are being introduced in many other states nationwide. The Human Rights Campaign’s State Equality Index found that in 2022, 315 anti-LGBTQ+ bills were introduced across the country. Since the start of 2023, the group has tracked about 750 anti-LGBTQ bill introductions nationwide. The rapid increase of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation signals a stark shift in political tolerance in the United States.
Political tolerance is defined as the willingness to extend civil and political rights and liberties to individuals and groups someone may dislike or disagree with. It refers to the ability to tolerate, respect and accept the opinions and actions of others, even if they are unpopular or challenging to one’s personal beliefs. Political tolerance is important because it promotes open and constructive dialogue between people with different views. It allows individuals to engage in political discourse without fear of retaliation or persecution, which is necessary for the functioning of a healthy democracy. Moreover, political tolerance is critical for protecting the rights of minority groups. When individuals tolerate those with different beliefs and identities, they are less likely to discriminate against them and more likely to support policies that promote equality and justice.
In American society, political tolerance is closely tied to First Amendment rights, which protect freedom of speech, expression, press, assembly, religion and the right to petition the government. In the United States, individuals are socialized to believe in and support these rights from a very young age. Whether it’s saying the Pledge of Allegiance every day, learning about the American Revolution, the Declaration of Independence or the U.S. Constitution, the American education system places a particular emphasis on civil rights and freedoms. Most Americans hold these beliefs abstractly; however, some falter in defending these rights in practice when their animosity toward certain groups overrides their adherence to these democratic norms.
The Tennessee ‘Drag Ban’ raises important questions about the limits of political tolerance and freedoms in the United States.
Understanding the concept of political tolerance in the United States requires recognizing the psychology of cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance occurs when people hold conflicting beliefs or attitudes, which creates a state of mental discomfort. To reduce this discomfort, people may change their beliefs or behaviors to align with their attitudes. So, when lawmakers believe that all U.S. citizens deserve First Amendment rights but have a negative image or personal values that conflict with a particular group, they experience cognitive dissonance. This discomfort can motivate them to change their beliefs or behaviors to align with their attitudes toward that group. For instance, due to their personal beliefs toward the LGBTQ+ community or gender nonconformity, some conservative lawmakers view drag shows as morally objectionable. This cognitive dissonance may prompt them to implement legislation that reflects their beliefs, like banning drag shows in Tennessee and limiting the freedom of speech and expression of the LGBTQ+ community nationwide.
Lawmakers allow their personal values to override their belief in the First Amendment due to threat perception. When individuals experience cognitive dissonance, they are more vulnerable to what is known as the framing effect. The framing effect is a cognitive bias that skews the ability to evaluate information objectively. In short, information can be presented with positive or negative connotations, which bias decision-making. When drag shows are described as ways to “groom” children or influence their gender identity or sexual orientation, individuals are more likely to view drag as a threat, regardless of the accuracy of these claims.
An individual’s level of political tolerance has a strong direct relationship with their perception of threats. Once individuals hold a negative view of a particular group and see that group as threatening, they are much less likely to be politically tolerant of that group. So, when lawmakers hold values that lead them to view drag shows and the LGBTQ+ community as morally objectionable, and they are exposed to information that frames these groups as threatening, this can override their support for the First Amendment rights of the LGBTQ+ community.
It has been shown that conservatives often have a strong natural predisposition to perceive environmental threats and are much more responsive to these political “threats.” Studies of children show that childhood personality characteristics predict future political ideologies. Preschool children characterized as vulnerable, fearful, and rigid were much more likely to self-identify as politically conservative later in life.
The widely studied ‘theory of conservatism’ states that genetic and environmental influences shape feelings of uncertainty and insecurity that predispose individuals to feel more easily threatened. Consequently, these natural predispositions lead individuals to identify with the conservative ideology that favors traditionalism, stability and order. Furthermore, research has consistently demonstrated that conservatives are less politically tolerant of groups they dislike than their liberal counterparts.
Political tolerance is important for protecting minority groups, and education is the key to increasing it. Education exposes individuals to civil libertarian norms which promote fundamental freedoms and tolerance of others. In addition, it fosters an appreciation for diverse perspectives and cultivates empathy and constructive dialogue among individuals. These qualities make individuals more politically tolerant and enable them to engage more actively in politics.
What’s next for Tennessee?
Fortunately, a few hours before the ‘Drag Ban’ implementation on April 1, U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Parker issued a temporary 14-day injunction delaying enforcement of the law while he investigates its constitutionality.
The injunction came after a Memphis drag theater troupe, ‘Friends of George’s,’ challenged the law. The troupe filed a lawsuit on the grounds that the Tennessee ‘Drag Ban’ is a direct violation of the First Amendment rights of drag performers. Their attorney, Brice Timmons, stated that the law seriously threatens drag performers and core American ideals. He also regarded the law as a “warning sign about the state of American democracy and a telling indicator of what uber-conservative politicians would like to accomplish in the near future.”
In his injunction statement, Judge Thomas wrote that Tennessee “missed the mark” in providing “a compelling government interest” for the heavy regulation of drag performances. He also wrote, “If Tennessee wishes to exercise its police power in restricting speech it considers obscene, it must do so within the constraints and framework of the United States Constitution.” The LGBTQ+ community and its advocates remain optimistic the ‘Drag Ban’ will be considered unconstitutional and that future efforts to curtail their rights will be rejected at the federal level.
The First and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution were created to explicitly safeguard the rights of minorities and ensure that all citizens are afforded equal protection under federal law. Political tolerance promotes acceptance of these fundamental rights that our nation was founded upon. Suppressing the rights of individuals based on disagreement undermines these values and poses a significant threat to our democracy. The surge of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation nationwide is indicative of a decline in political tolerance among lawmakers. Citizens must recognize that political tolerance is essential to preserving a robust democracy and fight against legislation that promotes intolerance.