Gov. Bill Lee, do better for kids

Tennessee’s anti-LGBTQ laws are hypocritical and harmful


Ted Eytan/Flickr

According to the UCLA School of Law, approximately 20% of people who identify as transgender are between 13 and 17 years old.

Katie Langley, News Editor

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee signed two bills into law on Feb. 28 with the potential to derail the lives of young LGBTQ Tennesseans: a sweeping suppression of public drag performances and an outright ban of essential gender-affirming care for transgender minors. These laws paint a scary future for the next generation of LGBTQ children: one where they are not free to exist. 

In a world where we teach children to be themselves, banning children from obtaining gender-affirming care is incredibly hypocritical. 

Puberty blockers, hormone treatments and surgeries help many transgender and nonbinary people to feel whole in their gender identity. Though not all transgender people decide to get surgery, use hormones or other therapies, taking away the option altogether for young people will undoubtedly lead to dire consequences. 

Gender-affirming surgery in minors is already very uncommon, with less than 300 U.S. patients between the ages of 13 and17 undergoing mastectomies due to gender dysphoria in 2021, according to Reuters

Other therapies are somewhat more common, according to Reuters, with more than 1,000 patients aged 6-17 receiving puberty blockers and more than 4,000 patients of the same age receiving hormone therapy in 2021. 

Gender dysphoria is the psychological stress that some transgender people experience due to their assigned sex not lining up with their gender identity, according to the American Psychiatric Association. Oftentimes, this diagnosis is required for patients to receive some types of gender-affirming treatments. 

Bans like Tennessee’s conflate the phenomenon of minors receiving gender care. In reality, undergoing gender-affirming therapy or surgery is not incredibly prevalent. Reuters reported that over 42,000 people aged 6-17 in the U.S. received a gender dysphoria diagnosis from their doctor in 2021, yet few of these minors sought physical or hormonal treatments for their diagnosis. 

Why? Because gender-affirming care is not something that anyone takes lightly. Some hospitals– such as the Washington University Transgender Care Center at St. Louis Children’s Hospital– already prohibits those under 18 from receiving gender-affirming surgery in order to ensure that patients, families and doctors have had time to discuss their options and decide what is best for the patient. 

Every patient’s case is different. Surgery might be necessary for some young transgender people, who will have to navigate insurance and medical providers to find the right care for themselves. Banning all procedures and treatments by law, however, makes that process significantly more difficult and places young people in the crossfire. 

Gender care bans are yet another example of lawmakers inserting themselves into a private decision between doctors, patients and parents. Gender-affirming care, like reproductive care, is a private decision that shouldn’t be taken away by the government. 

Gender care bans will compound an already critical mental health crisis within the LGBTQ community. 

A staggering amount of LGBTQ suffer from mental health issues, with 82% of transgender people having considered suicide and 40% having attempted suicide as of 2020, according to the National Library of Medicine

Risk factors including a lack of support in school and at home worsen the circumstances for transgender youth even more. Whereas 56% of young transgender people reported a previous suicide attempt and 86% experienced suicidal ideation, per NLM. 

In Tennessee, transgender kids are no longer safe to be who they are – which can have adverse effects on their mental health. Those currently taking gender-affirming medication only have a year to cycle off their prescriptions, leaving them a mere 12 months to make life-altering decisions. 

Tennessee is not the first state to target LGBTQ people, and it probably won’t be the last. As of February 2023, legislators in 27 states proposed bills to restrict care for transgender youth, according to Bloomberg Law. Many of these bills go even further to impose civil or criminal penalties to parents or medical providers who supply gender-affirming care to transgender youth. 

The dystopian concept that parents and doctors should be punished for supporting their kids and patients is incredibly alarming, and challenges the very sanctity of being a trusted guardian or medical professional. 

The government should have no say in the rights of transgender individuals’ health decisions, nor should they care about a kid going to a drag show. For some, drag is a safe haven away from rejection and prejudice. The new law would ban public displays of the art form and limit it to adult-only venues, which falsely equates drag with sexual material. 

To suggest that drag is inappropriate for children is like saying kids shouldn’t meet Snow White or Tigger at Disneyland. The truth is, kids have always been exposed to forms of costumed entertainment and drag – and no one bats an eye unless gay people are in the costumes. 

From “Mrs. Doubtfire” to “White Chicks,” male-identifying characters in drag have long been accepted in comedy. We’re entertained by drag even in kids’ shows – how many times have you seen Bugs Bunny or SpongeBob wear a dress? 

There’s no doubt that some drag performances can be raunchy, but those aimed at kids are events like Drag Story Hour, not nightclub parties. Drag Story Hour and similar events are the opposite of inappropriate. Rather, these events teach kids that they can be whoever they want and dress however they want– all while enjoying books. 

Even Gov. Lee appears to have enjoyed drag. 

The Tennessee governor was allegedly shown in an image posing in a dress and a womens’ wig in his 1977 high school yearbook. Gov. Lee is not the first– alleged images of male Republican lawmakers in drag have popped up on the internet, from New York Rep. George Santos to Texas State Rep. Nate Schatzline. The three lawmakers brushed off allegations, saying that they were just having fun or taking part in high school traditions– but isn’t harmless fun the point of drag?

Drag is meant for entertainment. It’s an art form meant to make people happy. Kids can learn essential lessons about acceptance from drag. 

For lawmakers to attempt to ban public drag performances or pass other laws targeting the LGBTQ community while they appear to have dressed in drag themselves and clearly viewed the practice as harmless is the very definition of hypocrisy. 

The images reveal that drag is nothing but a political football for these lawmakers. Rather than protect children from real issues, they blame everything on the drag queens. 

Meanwhile, the National Institute of Health reported that firearms had surpassed car accidents as the leading cause of death for children and adolescents in 2020. Over 4,700 people aged 1-19 died from gun violence in 2021 alone, more than any other cause, according to Everytown for Gun Safety

Yet, we don’t see the lawmakers who attack LGBTQ people in the name of protecting young people supporting assault weapon bans or universal background checks in gun purchases to shield children from actual threats. 

Kids don’t need protection from drag queens. They need protection from transphobic and homophobic lawmakers. 

Drag culture is built from joy, love and acceptance. Kids everywhere have a right to experience the joy of drag. Moreover, kids have a right to be themselves and explore their gender identity.

Even if you live in a state where LGBTQ rights are not under attack, hate towards the community is undoubtedly on the rise, emboldened by anti-LGBTQ legislation. This is visible in the staggering amount of anti-drag protests headed primarily by white supremacy and anti-LGBTQ groups at events like Drag Story Hour. Advocacy group GLAAD reported that there were anti-drag attacks reported in 47 of 50 states in 2022 alone. 

We cannot be ignorant of the hate that anti-LGBTQ legislators are inspiring in the U.S. It is important, now more than ever, for us to support those whose rights are being challenged all over the country, especially those who are too young to use their voice at the voting booth. 

My community is begging lawmakers like Gov. Lee to think of the kids and think of the ways that anti-LGBTQ legislation will impact their lives. They owe them that much.