Tennessee prosecutor hit with lawsuit over threatening letter targeting Pride event

In June, a federal judge appointed by Donald Trump struck down a Tennessee law banning drag performances as an “unconstitutionally vague and substantially overbroad” restriction on free speech.

But a district attorney in the state warned Pride organizers in Blount County that the upcoming event would likely result in criminal prosecutions, arguing that the federal court ruling does not apply to his district.

“All laws will be applied equally and justly to any involved parties, and violations of any laws will likewise be prosecuted fairly and justly by this office,” 5th Judicial District Attorney General Ryan K Desmond wrote in a letter to Blount Pride organizers and law enforcement agencies.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee and civil rights attorneys are now suing Mr Desmond on behalf of Pride organizers and a Tennessee drag artist alleging that Mr Desmond is “explicitly seeking to restrict or chill protected speech and expression because they disagree with its content, its message, and its messenger.”

“Threatening to enforce this unconstitutional law amounts to a harmful attempt to remove LGBTQ people from public life, which is simply unacceptable,” ACLU of Tennessee legal director Stella Yarbrough said in a statement. “The court has made it abundantly clear that drag performance is constitutionally-protected expression under the First Amendment, regardless of where in the state it is performed.”

Blount Pride board president Ari Baker said the group is “worried that law enforcement wrongly thinks this anti-drag law applies to our event” and is filing the lawsuit to “protect that space and our entertainers’ ability to perform.”

Tennessee’s anti-drag law, passed by the state’s Republican-dominated state legislature and signed into law by Republican Govenor Bill Lee earlier this year, seeks to prevent children from “adult cabaret performances” on public property and imposes misdemeanor and felony charges against repeat violators.

The ban specifically targets “male or female impersonators” who perform in a way that is “harmful to minors.”

US District Judge Thomas Parker has barred law enforcement agencies from enforcing the law, joining similar court rulings that have blocked similar laws in Montana and Florida.

LGBT+ advocates and civil rights groups have warned that such laws will have a chilling effect on Pride events more broadly, or be used to target and criminalize transgender and gender nonconforming people in public, as part of a broader effort among Republican officials to chill, restrict and erase LBGT+ identities.

Drag performer Flamy Grant said she joined the lawsuit “to ensure that I can continue performing in Tennessee, because I have seen how drag speaks to people who simply want to belong and be loved, making them feel safe and supported.”

“That’s all I want my art to do,” she said.

Hundreds of bills aimed at LGBT+ people, particularly young trans people, have been filed in nearly every state within the last several years, parallel to a growing number of protests and threats of violence aimed at drag performers and the people and places that support them.

From June 2022 to May 2023, protests and threats of violence against drag performers accelerated across the US, according to a recent report from the Institute for Strategic Dialogue.

The report discovered 203 on- and offline threatening incidents within the last year, nearly half of which targeted drag queen story hours in libraries and bookstores. Other incidents targeted drag shows, drag brunches and drag bingo games.