Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee signs laws banning gender-affirming care for transgender youth, restricting drag shows

Tennessee’s Republican Gov. Bill Lee on Thursday signed legislation banning minors from receiving gender-affirming care despite threats from civil rights organizations that vowed to sue if and when the bill becomes law.

Lee also signed another law restricting drag shows from taking place in public or in front of children. 

Across the United States, state lawmakers have introduced legislation attacking gender-affirming medical care for young people, even as such services have been available in the U.S. for more than a decade and are endorsed by major medical associations.

House lawmakers in Tennessee voted 77-16 on Thursday, with three Democrats joining their Republican colleagues to pass the bill limiting care for transgender youth.

Under Tennessee’s new law, doctors are prohibited from providing gender-affirming care to anyone under the age of 18, including prescribing puberty blockers and hormones — and could even be penalized.

However, the legislation spells out exceptions, including allowing doctors to perform these medical services if the patient’s care had begun prior to July 1, 2023 — which is when the ban is proposed to go into effect. The bill then states that that care must end by March 31, 2024.

“These children do not need these medical procedures to be able to flourish as adults,” said House Majority Leader William Lamberth. “They need mental health treatment. They need love and support, and many of them need to be able to grow up to become the individuals that they were intended to be.”

Similar bills have advanced in Nebraska, Mississippi, Oklahoma and South Dakota. In Utah, the Republican governor recently signed a transgender medical ban into law. Meanwhile, a federal judge who blocked Arkansas’ ban on gender-affirming care for minors is now considering whether to strike down the law as unconstitutional. A similar ban in Alabama has also been temporarily blocked by a federal judge.

The American Civil Liberties Union said it planned to sue over Tennessee’s bill.

“We have taken away a woman’s right to determine her health care and her health outcomes — and now we’ve gone to children,” said Democratic Rep. Gloria Johnson, referencing the state’s strict abortion ban that was allowed to go into effect last year.

“If a doctor and a family feels that taking hormone blockers is going to be healthy and productive and life-saving for these children, that’s a decision that should be made,” she added.

On Thursday, Tennessee became the first state in the country to sign a bill banning public drag performances by classifying them as adult cabaret along with topless dancers, go-go dancers, exotic dancers and strippers. 

Other states are considering similar bills, but none has acted as fast as Tennessee. Across the country, conservative activists and politicians complain that drag shows contribute to the “sexualization” or “grooming” of children. 

The protestations have arisen fairly suddenly around a form of entertainment that has long had a place on the mainstream American stage. One academic who studies drag told the Associated Press that it “is not a threat to anyone” and that “it makes no sense to be criminalizing or vilifying drag in 2023.”

“Our concern remains that this will include some censorship from the government that is not in compliance with our First Amendment-protected rights,” said Kate Miller with the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky.

Bessie Venters

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