(NEW YORK) – The threat by the Blount County, Tennessee prosecutor to enforce a ban on drag performances at Saturday’s LGBTQ+ pride festival is a “grave threat” to free expression, PEN America said today. A federal judge has ruled the law likely violates the First Amendment.

The county prosecutor, Ryan Desmond, sent a letter on Tuesday to local law enforcement and organizers of Blount Pride declaring his intent to enforce the state’s recently-passed Adult Entertainment Act—commonly known as Tennessee’s drag ban.

“Tennessee’s Adult Entertainment Act poses a grave threat to the free expression of drag artists and LGBTQ+ Tennesseans more broadly. Even further, it is likely unconstitutional—as stated by a federal judge who ruled on the legislation during Pride Month this year,” said Kate Ruane, Sy Syms director of the U.S. Free Expression programs at PEN America.

Ruane said: “Ryan Desmond is threatening to enforce this likely unconstitutional statute in a brazen attempt to chill the speech of Blount Pride and LGBTQ+ people and their allies simply because he doesn’t like their expression. There is a long history of legal threats that silences LGBTQ+ people in the United States, forcing them to hide who they are and conform their expression to that which the government deems acceptable. This history goes as far back to police raids on gay bars, and recently to the legal limbo impacting LGBTQ+ people caught in the crosshairs of bills like the Adult Entertainment Act. Mr. Desmond’s threat to enforce this likely unconstitutional law follows this tradition. The right to free expression by those celebrating Pride in Blount County —and in other states impacted by similar bills—must be protected.”

The Adult Entertainment Act, enacted earlier this year, was the first of an alarming number of bans on drag performances passed by state legislatures and signed into law. Criticized by LGBTQ+ and civil rights advocates, the bill’s vague wording attacks drag performance by restricting “male or female impersonation.” Taken at face value, the language could apply more broadly to theater performances requiring characters to dress in gender non-conforming ways or to transgender people dressing to match their gender identity.

In June, after a lengthy court battle, the Adult Entertainment Act was enjoined by a federal judge, who held that the law likely violated the First Amendment.

About PEN America

PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect free expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible. Learn more at pen.org.

Contact: Suzanne Trimel, [email protected], 201-247-5057