When she drops to the ground in a split, the ballroom floor will thud with the force of her dreams. Some 600 adoring souls will scream their approval, revering the skill, the dedication, the opulence.
How would you feel, Yasmine asks while getting ready backstage, with a dusting of makeup powder sitting atop the bridge of her nose, if you drove to work one morning, only to find out your job was illegal?
“What would you do?” she asks, tapping her eyelids with a makeup sponge to create a fog of magenta and indigo eye shadow. “And how would you feel if your livelihood was trying to be ripped away from you, the way that you eat every day?”
On Saturday, drag shows on public property — such as this one, taking place Friday at East Tennessee State University — were supposed to become illegal. A law enacted by the Republican-controlled legislature bans “male or female impersonators” from performing “adult-oriented performances that are harmful to minors” anywhere it “could be viewed by a person who is not an adult.”
Tonight’s show is the fourth in two weeks that Yasmine has volunteered to perform in, as a protest against the law, driving to venues from her other job operating a forklift and other machinery at a warehouse near Knoxville. (“Manly things,” she notes.)
The new law, dubbed a “drag ban” by members of the LGBTQ community, is the first in the nation that has made it across a governor’s desk, although similar bills have been proposed in at least 13 other states. Although the law defines the harm to minors as including representations of “nudity, sexual excitement, sexual conduct, excess violence or sadomasochistic abuse,” some fear the vagueness of the language will be used to arrest transgender Americans for simply being out in public.
Such concerns are front of mind for Cosby, a 32-year-old performer also getting ready backstage, as queens whirl about, shimmying out of costumes and into new ones. “I live right up the road, and I would walk here in drag and never thought twice, did not care,” she says, in a velvety Southern accent. “Now I can’t do that at all. I can’t go into the store afterwards. I have to take all this off.”
The patrons don’t always appreciate what it takes to do this. “They don’t know that I just got off of work, I ran home, I had to jump on the interstate, I had no time to rest,” Yasmine notes, after some of the performers have filtered out of the makeshift dressing area. “But this is the behind-the-scenes love that we do, because we love it. We love what we do.”
“Love.” Every time Yasmine says it, she insists on it, elongating the o sound with the urgency of someone who has known loss.
“You always see a drag queen taking a picture with a child at a Pride show or at a drag bingo, or a baby walking up and dancing in the middle of they number.”
“Love. You always see it.”
Lately, that love has eluded some here. Proponents of anti-drag laws argue that the performances are sexual and inappropriate for minors. People familiar with drag culture see an art form that is more magical and inspirational, not inherently sexual, and adjustable according to its audience.
Drag now finds itself at the heated center of a political frenzy around gender identity, which only grew more intense recently in Tennessee as some conservatives seized on early police reports, still unconfirmed, that the shooter in a deadly attack at a private Christian school on March 27 was transgender. Six people were killed, including three 9-year-old students. Police shot and killed the armed suspect, whom they identified as Audrey Hale.
“I used to work right there in that area. I probably waited on some of them kids’ parents” at a restaurant near the Covenant School, says Cosby, who now lives in Johnson City. “As you can see, we’re not the ones that’s hurting the children at all. It’s the guns. And it’s these crazy politicians, these Republicans that just won’t leave us alone.”
Cosby is also the name of the town where she spent a difficult childhood. A “child of the pill epidemic,” she calls herself, adding that her family members struggled with drug use and incarceration. Drag gives her a sense of safety. A community. A freedom of expression.
The drag queens performing at East Tennessee’s show are doing so amid a flurry of disdain and conspiracy theories on local Facebook posts in the days following the shooting, falsely claiming that children are under attack from a left-wing cabal. A smattering of anti-drag protesters gathered next to the paved cul-de-sac outside the entrance of the university’s Millennium Centre, where attendees had to pass through metal detectors.
The event was organized by the ETSU chapter of the Young Democratic Socialists of America, but the people who made their way up the stairs to the spacious ballroom weren’t necessarily here for a lesson in centralized government planning. Local churchgoers and members of the clergy came to watch the show. A Vietnam veteran and the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence were there, too.
Who didn’t make it: children, whose families were turned away at the security checkpoints. Jill Sinnott of Johnson City says she and her husband came with their 10-year-old daughter, Loreley, but were told by organizers that the event security staff would be enforcing the 18-and-over requirement, even if the law hadn’t gone into effect yet. She made it into the show, but her husband had to drive their daughter back home.
“A lot of people are saying this whole bill is about parents’ rights and protecting children, [and yet] they’re just telling me, the parent, that I can’t make the choice of where I bring my kid,” Sinnott, 40, said after the show.
The university decided it had “a responsibility to honor the intent of the legislative bodies that govern it” and notified organizers on March 21 that it would be enforcing the law, spokeswoman Jessica Vodden said in a statement.
Inside, the atmosphere is thick with meaning. There are hundreds of queer young adults who didn’t imagine this many people would show up to appreciate the drag form. There’s Cosby, who still remembers trying on her grandmother’s Size 8 shoes as a child, lip-syncing to a number from the musical “Hairspray,” “You Can’t Stop the Beat,” along with the hopping crowd. There’s a spiritual undertone to it all, what with the calls of approval coming from the congregation every time a speaker nods to the history of gay rights or notes that tonight also happens to be International Transgender Day of Visibility.
Let’s check in with the politicians who were brought in to mobilize young voters — many of the names local, at least two national. Presidential long-shot Marianne Williamson is here, sitting next to Marsha Blackburn, the Republican senator from Tennessee, touching her arm and commiserating over the performances. Except, Blackburn is a 6-foot-6 broad-shouldered senior at ETSU tonight, in drag. (Marianne Williamson is, in fact, Marianne Williamson. The same Marianne Williamson who took some heat from gay voters during the 2020 primary campaign for her previous writings about AIDS and the “illusion” of illness — criticism that Williamson said Friday used “deep mischaracterizations” of her involvement with and caring for people with AIDS.)
This is a drag debut for Noah Nordstrom, a co-organizer for the event, and he has on black tights, a red blouse and a black-and-white houndstooth blazer. Marsha P. Blackburn’s act consists of a comedy skit in which she pans the real-life Blackburn for her financial ties to private prisons and the National Rifle Association, and follows it up with a lip-synced rendition of Rihanna’s “Bitch Better Have My Money.”
Nordstrom, who is 25 and has a blond, Thor-like mane and a cheery disposition, says he invited Williamson to the event via Twitter DM, going out on a limb, and she accepted. She’s the closing act tonight, and when she takes the stage, she quotes the Declaration of Independence and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. If the government is not helping to secure liberty, she says, then: “It is the right. Of the people” — and here her voice drops an octave for emphasis — “to alter it.”
The crowd roars. “That’s my president!” one student yells.
In the back of the room, a middle-aged woman in a pink blouse has risen from her seat and is watching Williamson with rapt attention, her hands clasped together, as the presidential candidate talks about the cost of health care, the dying planet, the depression engulfing America. “Yes!” she exclaims each time Williamson leaves a pause in her sentences.
“If the time comes where it gets a little hard, and it makes you want to cry, and it makes you feel like the burden is so heavy, and it makes you feel like trying to resist the forces in this country that are filled with injustice are almost too hard to bear, I’ll tell you what to do to get through the day: Go to a drag show,” she declares. “It’ll help.” Everyone rises to their feet, cheering and applauding.
Outside, the night is wet and windy. A pack of tornadoes sweeps the western part of the state. The exhausted drag queens will go home in their cars to watch videos of their performances — savoring their successes, pinpointing what they might do better next time. Yasmine had to go back to work the next morning. Cosby picked up a six-pack of beer.
Neither of them know that at 7:38 p.m., while they were still in drag, a Donald Trump-appointed federal judge in Tennessee blocked the ban from going into effect at midnight. It’s paused for now, for a little less than two weeks, thanks to a lawsuit from a nonprofit Memphis theater company that argued that the law would infringe on its First Amendment rights as it rehearsed for an upcoming drag show.
The news shocks Cosby, a couple of hours after waking up on Saturday. Though she was still riding the night’s high, she’d been wondering whether this would be the last time she’d get to do this kind of show.
“To wake up now to know that we actually have a chance and a leg to stand on is just even better,” she says.