Yo La Tengo Flout Tennessee’s Adult Cabaret Law in On-Stage Drag Protest

While performing in Nashville, the distinguished indie rock band’s Ira Kaplan and James McNew dressed in women’s clothing but made no comments

Members of the seminal indie rock band Yo La Tengo took to the stage in drag earlier this week as a protest against the controversial new law surrounding “adult cabaret performances” signed by Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, which is widely viewed as anti-drag and anti-LGBTQ legislation.

Following a brief intermission after the band’s first set, Yo La Tengo singer/guitarist Ira Kaplan and singer/bassist James McNew returned in full drag to kick off their incendiary second set with their new song, “This Stupid World.” Kaplan could be seen on stage wearing makeup, a red dress, and a long black wig, while McNew came out in a sensible, fashion-forward shawl and sun hat; singer/drummer Georgia Hubley remained unchanged.

The band made no comments on the law nor made any acknowledgment from the stage of the wardrobe change during the performance. The Tennessean reports that a statement from Yo La Tengo made the following day reads: “What we did last night couldn’t have been clearer, and requires no further comment.”

While the state’s new law does not make it illegal to perform in drag in Tennessee, it targets events like drag queen story hours and family-friendly drag brunches. SB0003, signed by Lee on March 2, “creates an offense for a person who engages in an adult cabaret performance on public property” and includes spaces where an “adult cabaret performance could be viewed by a person who is not an adult.”  The law limits where these events can take place and bans performances within 1,000 feet of schools, houses of worship, public parks, and other places where minors may see them. Offenders are subject to a misdemeanor charge carrying up to a $2,500 fine and one year in prison.

Those opposed to the law say it’s both arbitrary and begs for cynical readings from conservatives and is ultimately meant to effectively shift “gender-nonconforming people out of the public sphere.”

“Drag performances are not inherently obscene,” Stella Yarbrough, ACLU of Tennessee legal director, tells LAMag. “However, we are concerned that government officials could easily abuse this law to censor people based on their own subjective viewpoints of what they deem appropriate, chilling protected free speech and sending a message to LGBTQ Tennesseans that they are not welcome in our state.”

The signing of the anti-drag law comes amid many similar laws that discriminate against the LGBTQ community in Tennesee. This includes one that allows taxpayer-funded adoption and foster care agencies to operate in alignment with the organization’s own religious and moral beliefs, even if that means discriminating against potential adoptive parents; opponents say this only jeopardizes the best interests of children in the system. There’s also a law being floated that bans transgender minors in Tennessee from receiving gender-affirming care like puberty blockers, hormones, and surgery.

Human Rights Watch has noted that laws of this nature strike the wrong balance when it comes to equality and religious freedom, and lawmakers must not “unnecessarily burden the exercise of religious conscience.”

“When exemptions to laws to accommodate religious beliefs or practices impinge on the rights of others or core societal values like nondiscrimination, lawmakers should proceed with caution,” the organization said.

Meanwhile, more musical artists are stepping up to protest the law in the state. The Tennessee Equality Project announced that on March 20, Sheryl Crow, Hayley Williams, Hozier, Brittany Howard, and the Brothers Osborne are joining forces with other acts for Love Rising, a benefit concert in Nashville for LGBTQ organizations.

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