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Actors’ Union Joins the Fight Against Drag Bans

Actors’ Equity Association (AEA) has joined the legal fight against Tennessee’s “Drag Ban.” Next steps? AEA should continue to push forward actions with worker solidarity in the fight against anti-drag / anti-trans legislation.

Claire Latourette

April 23, 2023
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The Actors Equity Association logo superimposed on a background of the trans flag colors

This past Friday, the Actors’ Equity Association (AEA), a national labor union representing more than 51,000 professional actors and stage managers in live theater, filed an amicus brief in Tennessee opposing the state’s new “Drag Ban.” This bill was signed into law by Governor Lee in early March; the law would ban “adult cabaret entertainment” on public property or at locations where they could be viewed by minors and updates the definition of “adult cabaret entertainment” to include “male or female impersonators.”

The broad, vague language of this bill, and many other anti-drag bills, is by design: a clear attack on trans rights and gender expression. By providing a blanket statement of “adult cabaret entertainment,” right-wing reactionaries are providing legislative backing to continue the coordinated attack on the trans community and anyone who engages in public gender-nonconformity. Under the overbroad language of these anti-drag bills, the trans community could face legal charges for simply existing in public. Singing karaoke at a restaurant, speaking at a protest or rally, engaging in any kind of performance in public — all of these activities could have grave consequences. 

You might be interested in: “The Unprecedented Attacks on Trans Rights”

Kate Shindle, AEA president, released a statement: “News flash to the Tennessee legislature: drag performance is not inherently ‘prurient’. Have they ever heard of Shakespeare? The Ancient Greeks? Live theater has always had male actors (in drag!) playing female roles, and vice versa.”

Shindle goes on to say, “It is also quite clearly part of a much broader campaign in which Republican legislators use transgender/non-conforming human beings as political footballs, which is as cynical as it gets, but at least perhaps a metaphor they will understand.” Currently, in this 2023 legislative season, there is a record number of 469 anti-LGBTQ bills in the United States attacking LGBTQ+ rights, especially transgender youth. 

While Shindle is correct that these prejudiced laws primarily stem from Republicans, the solution is not limited to the binary of Democrat vs. Republican legislation or legal success in the court system. The solution lies in worker power and uniting through vigorous class struggle. An amicus brief is a productive legal step, but Actors’ Equity can and should continue to push forward actions with worker solidarity in the fight against anti-drag / anti-trans legislation. 

AEA should authorize an ongoing strike and call for a work stoppage in Tennessee — a state where, according to Americans for the Arts, the nonprofit arts and culture sector is a $1.17 billion industry. Theater professionals should not be expected to put their health and safety on the line in order to continue making profit for the state. AEA should encourage other entertainment unions, like IATSE (International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees) or SAG (Screen Actors Guild), to follow suit — not only by joining the legal fight, but to strike and halt production in solidarity with the LGBTQ+ community. 

Theatrical professionals deserve to execute their craft, but it is imperative they are safe in their workplaces and have their identities respected and protected. As with any crisis, we cannot rely on politicians to prevent harmful laws from being introduced or sworn into law. We’ve seen time and time again that worker power creates the biggest change: we can organize, we can withhold our labor, and we can take to the streets. Entertainment professionals need to show up and fight alongside the LGBTQ+ community with the same energy and dedication that we give to our creative pursuits. The art of theater and performance has the power to create change, but that only happens if entertainment workers fight for the true safety and inclusivity of all. 

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