As the state-sponsored persecution of transgender Americans continues across large swathes of the United States this year, Tennessee has earned the dubious distinction of being the first state to pass a law banning drag performances in the presence of minors.

How it will be enforced remains to be seen, but the law, which Republican governor Bill Lee signed along with a ban on gender-affirming care for minors early this month, goes into effect in just a few days, on 1 April. It stipulates that a first offence constitutes a misdemeanour punishable by a fine of $2,500 and up to one year in jail. A second offence constitutes a felony, punishable by up to six years in prison.

But what exactly constitutes a violation? The new anti-drag law bans “adult cabaret performances” within 1,000 feet of schools, public parks or places of worship, or where minors are present or might be able to see the performance.

As summarised by Brooke Midgon in The Hill, the Tennessee law “builds on existing restrictions on ‘adult-oriented businesses’ in Tennessee, expanding the state’s obscenity laws to include performances that feature topless or exotic dancers or ‘male or female impersonators’ that provide entertainment appealing ‘to a prurient interest’”.

Anyone who has an authentic understanding of drag as a type of performance art devoted to playing with and stretching the boundaries of gender, and who is arguing in good faith, would undoubtedly conclude that many approaches to drag do not constitute “adult cabaret performances”. But that won’t matter to the authoritarians who will be enforcing laws like Tennessee’s – laws similar to those that were previously used well into the 20th century to give cops free rein to harass queer Americans.

With that in mind, the vagueness of the law’s wording is probably the point – it leaves much open to the interpretation of the enforcer. Pride Month is in June, not much more than two months away. While it is unclear whether this law will be used to arrest performers or even people dressed in a way that a police officer deems gender-nonconforming and “prurient” at Pride festivals, the very existence of the law will undoubtedly produce a chilling effect, likely driving most drag in Tennessee underground.

A Tennessee drag queen and LGBTIQ+ historian explain a new law that will ban drag shows in the state from April

The Pride festival in Nashville, Tennessee’s capital and largest city with a population of about 700,000, is scheduled to take place in a public park. This law will undoubtedly make such festivals and accompanying parades a target, if not necessarily (but as far as we know very possibly) for the police, then for the Christian fascists who have been relentlessly conflating drag and support for queer youth with the sexual ‘grooming’ of children over the last year.

As an observer of the right’s anti-queer activism and rhetoric, I can state confidently that, along with inaccurately conflating drag with being transgender, the US’s authoritarians are attempting to paint drag as always and inherently sexual (except when they’re caught having worn it, in which cases it wasn’t sexual, so please move along, nothing to see here).

It’s a natural enough move for people who insist on seeing gender nonconformity and non-heteronormative sexualities as all about sex, but of course that is a false framing. In fact, gender and sexuality are just facets of people’s lives. Being gay or bi or trans is no more all-encompassing or all about sex than being straight or cisgender is. But that’s not how anti-queer bigots, who are unhealthily obsessed with other people’s sex lives, see the world.

striking example recently emerged during a floor debate over a ‘don’t say gay’ bill currently under consideration in the state of Missouri. The bill, introduced and sponsored by Republican state representative Ann Kelley, would ban all discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in public school classrooms in her state.

Her Republican colleague, Phil Christofanelli, who is gay, pressed Kelley on the bill’s language, arguing that she would be making it illegal to teach Missouri’s schoolchildren that Martha Washington was George Washington’s wife. She replied: “So, to me, that’s not sexual orientation.”

Grilled by Christofanelli, Kelley eventually simply admitted that her motivation for seeking to specifically ban non-heteronormative sexual orientations and gender identities from classroom discussion derives from the Bible.

Meanwhile, right-wing activists are vigorously attacking drag in states where it isn’t banned. In Texas, where the legislature is considering several drag ban bills, a university president – Walter V Wendler of West Texas A&M – unilaterally cancelled a drag show that students had been organising as a fundraiser for the Trevor Project, a charity focused on LGBTIQ youth suicide prevention. Wendler, who has been open about his Christian faith, unabashedly couched his decision in the language of Catholic natural law theology in an email sent to all current students, faculty and staff.

“I believe every human being is created in the image of God and, therefore, a person of dignity,” Wendler stated. Noting that “being created in God’s image is the basis of Natural Law” (capitalisation in original), he asked a rhetorical question: “Does a drag show preserve a single shred of human dignity? I think not.”

Attempting to invoke more secular terms, Wendler went on to compare drag to blackface and to call it “derisive, divisive, and demoralising misogyny”. But it’s striking to me that his original justification for banning the drag show, which had been scheduled for 31 March, was explicitly Christian in nature.

Wendler’s unilateral action is likely illegal under the first amendment to the US constitution, which protects freedom of expression, while his religious “justification” for the ban is a clear affront to the separation of church and state. He is facing both a petition to reinstate the drag show and pressure from free speech and secular advocacy organisations.

Even so, the fact that Wendler felt emboldened to make such a radical move at a state university – on the grounds of his Christian faith, no less – does not bode well for LGBTIQ Americans. And Wendler is not alone.

A few weeks ago in north central California, local right-wing activists, including a megachurch pastor, intimidated an LGBTIQ youth support group, the Landing Spot, into cancelling its own youth drag show fundraiser – an annual event that has taken place for the past two years without particular controversy, but which had attempted to rent a high-school auditorium this year because it needed a bigger venue.

In a move that serves to foster the false and vicious ‘groomer’ narrative, the right-wing activists made much of the fact that the show was going to take place in a school, even though the school was in no way affiliated with the group and the event was not scheduled for school hours. Later, the local pastor who serves as the Landing Spot’s adult leader, Casey Tinnin, was targeted by the right-wing disinformation organisation Project Veritas with a deceptive smear campaign.

Bigoted actions like those of Walter Wendler in Texas and the activists in California operate in a functional feedback loop with legislative initiatives like the one that passed in Tennessee. Republican legislators and their activist base are crafting a harmful narrative that falsely links drag to the sexualisation of children and stirs up hatred against gay, trans and gender-nonconforming people, which endangers our lives and threatens to drive us back into the closet.

Mark my words, just as state-level bills targeting the participation of trans girls in school sports served as ‘gateway laws’ to the far harsher anti-trans healthcare bans we now face, bans on drag in the presence of minors will serve as a gateway to harsher repressions against gay, lesbian and other LGBTIQ individuals – unless we are able to reverse the right’s momentum.