The Tea In Tennessee | Crooked Media
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June 30, 2023
What A Day
The Tea In Tennessee

In This Episode

  • This week marks the anniversary of the Stonewall riots — the very reason we celebrate Pride in June every year. In honor of the drag queens that have always been on the front lines of the fight for equality before, during, and after Stonewall, we dive deep into the troubling saga of Tennessee’s first-in-the-nation attempt to ban public drag performances. Memphis-based drag queen and Tennessee native Bella DuBalle joins us to discuss the impact the legislation has had on local performers ever since was introduced, the community’s resilience that ultimately led to the law being overturned, and why the world needs drag.

 

Show Notes:

 

 

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TRANSCRIPT

 

Tre’vell Anderson: It’s Saturday, July 1st. I’m Tre’vell Anderson. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: And I’m Priyanka Aribindi and this is What A Day. 

 

Tre’vell Anderson: On today’s show, we’re shaking things up a little bit. Now I know it’s the weekend and you’re like, why the hell is What A Day in my feed? You’re also probably very over the news and have had enough after the firestorm of a week we have had with all of this Supreme Court foolishness. But–

 

Priyanka Aribindi: –you’re not alone. You’re not alone. 

 

Tre’vell Anderson: You’re not alone. But we couldn’t let Pride Month just come and go without circling back to the very reason we celebrate pride in June in the first place, especially given that the high court took up a case about gay rights this year. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Yes. This is so important. I’m very glad we are going to get into it today. The floor is entirely yours, so take it away, Tre’vell. 

 

Tre’vell Anderson: Love this for me. [laugh] So for those of you who don’t know your gay history, this week marks the 54th anniversary of the Stonewall riots. On June 28th, 1969, New York City police raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in Lower Manhattan. Now, back in the day, cops would often raid gay bars and viciously enforce a law that prohibited people from wearing clothes that didn’t align with the sex on their IDs. They called them the three article rule. And on that day, June 28th, 1969, the queer community fought back. Now, queer folks across the country had fought back against this type of police violence a number of times before this fateful night. But something was different this time. The folks at Stonewall threw everything they could find at those cops, bricks and all. And for six days, they kept on fighting. The Stonewall riots or uprisings, as they’re sometimes called, continued through July 3rd. And this moment in history is often credited with transforming the movement for LGBTQ+ rights in this country. You’ll remember that we did a special episode for the occasion last year where we dove deep into how drag queens, particularly drag queens of color like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, that is the language that they used for themselves at the time, how they have always been on the front lines of the fight for equality before, during and after Stonewall, and how drag itself is inherently an act of political protest. If you haven’t listened to that episode, you absolutely should. We spoke to actor, activist and drag veteran Terence Smith, better known by his iconic drag persona Joan Jett Blakk, about what it was like to do drag in the eighties and nineties when the artform was a lot more stigmatized than it is today. 

 

[clip of Terence Smith] We live in the patriarchy. Anything that takes away from that, and dressing up as a woman is the ultimate [grunt] to the patriarchy. It’s the ultimate anti-patriarchy in a way. 

 

Tre’vell Anderson: We also spoke to Miss Peppermint of RuPaul’s Drag Race fame. That’s the reality competition show that launched drag into the mainstream and cemented it into pop culture. And we asked her about the importance of using her platform to advocate for the queer community. 

 

[clip of Miss Peppermind] We know that arts and entertainment is where most people are going to learn. Knowing that it’s really important for me to use my platform that can reach all those people to talk about the things that queer and trans people, that Black queer trans people can face. 

 

Tre’vell Anderson: And lastly, we also spent some time with Taylor Alexander, a local drag performer from Atlanta, who describes drag as a tool for political organizing throughout the South. 

 

[clip of Taylor Alexander] Every time that I’m able to use my art to benefit somebody else and to create a space that maybe wasn’t there is always something that I feel incredibly grateful to do. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Yeah, it’s so clear through these interviews that drag is so much more than what some people might think it is like then your basic idea obviously not even getting into the people who villainize drag performing, but like, you know, people who just think it’s fun. There’s so much more to the entertainment and what they’re doing. It’s really such an amazing episode that you guys made. So thank you so much to you and to our producer Raven for working so hard to make that episode happen. 

 

Tre’vell Anderson: Absolutely. Absolutely. And so, you know, with that in mind, when we were thinking about, you know, how we could commemorate the Stonewall riots this year, okay it was pretty obvious what came to mind in terms of what we needed to focus on. 

 

[clip of unspecified news reporter] Tennessee became the first state in the country to restrict drag show performances. The bill signed yesterday limits performances on public property considered harmful to minors to shield children from seeing the performances. 

 

Tre’vell Anderson: On March 2nd, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee signed SB three into law, which, as you just heard, banned drag performances on public property. The law classifies drag queens, or, as the legislation puts it, male and female impersonators as adult cabaret performers. And it would have charged violators of the law with a misdemeanor or a felony for a repeat offense punishable by up to six years in jail. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Yeah, we have been covering the battle over this law on the show, you know, ever since, from the day that it passed, to the day that it was overturned on June 2nd, just in time for pride, it has been outrageous the entire time. But it’s been a journey. 

 

Tre’vell Anderson: Yeah, it has been. Right. And you just mentioned June 2nd. That was when a federal judge ruled that the law was unconstitutional, saying that it was way too vague and encouraged discriminatory enforcement because obviously, you know. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Yeah, [laughter] like could have thought that through for 2 seconds. 

 

Tre’vell Anderson: Right. But even though drag performers in Tennessee have lived to slay another day, this new wave of anti drag rhetoric has become yet another rallying cry for the GOP this year that has spread to other states. In late May, Montana became the first state to specifically ban drag performers from doing storytime events for kids at public schools and libraries. Just last week, a federal judge in Florida temporarily blocked a law that seeks to ban children from attending drag shows entirely in the state. And a handful of other Republican led states are considering similar legislation as we speak. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Yeah, I mean, the way that Republicans have justified these attacks on drag performers and painted them to be malicious people, sexual predators, and then have basically been fearmongering by saying that, you know, children need to be protected from these performers who, you know, that’s like not even at all what drag is about. It’s baffling. It becomes so clear what they are doing. It’s the same play that they always do. They’re trying to take anything that is other from what they are that deviates from what their idea of normal or good or whatever is, and just make it seem like the worst evil that the world has ever seen. When in fact, like if they had taken I mean, it’s extraordinarily clear that they have not taken any time to attend a drag show or understand anything about drag– 

 

Tre’vell Anderson: Right. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: –and culture around it. It’s baffling. It just is, is baffling. 

 

Tre’vell Anderson: It absolutely is. Right. And I want to be clear here, right, that this isn’t just about Tennessee giving other red states foolish ideas. It’s about how the concept of a drag ban has had real consequences for drag performers in Tennessee and beyond. We’ve heard so many stories over the past few months of drag performers in Tennessee specifically getting harassed and threatened ever since the news of SB three started making the rounds. Attacks that unfortunately just are not new for the drag community. Businesses were reported to the police for hosting drag shows that were open to all ages, full time drag performers were worried about whether or not they would still be able to make a living off of their art. Take a listen here to Tennessee drag queen Britney Banks as they retell this chilling story in a documentary for the media outlet Brut that focused on the experience of Queens in Nashville before the law was overturned. 

 

[clip of Britney Banks] There were five people that were posted up across the street from the local Nashville drag gay club. And apparently they had guns and masks. And one of the young queens here went up to them and asked them what they were doing. And they told her to back the fuck up. Just watch and see. So yeah, that’s what we’re living with now. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: That’s terrifying. If that happened to absolutely any one of us listening or here, we would be terrified. But the law was overturned. But that doesn’t mean that things like this, this kind of behavior is stopping like what they have done by even introducing the idea that there’s this need for bans and then following through. Sure, it’s overturned, but like they have introduced like this idea that’s been there for a long time but was starting to get better, like they’ve brought it back. They brought back this hatred. 

 

Tre’vell Anderson: Absolutely. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: And it’s dangerous and will continue to be there whether or not these bans are actually there, which is the worst part. 

 

Tre’vell Anderson: And, you know, if it wasn’t clear before, drag is absolutely political. Republicans have made that clear by targeting drag performers and using this issue to drive the huge wave of anti-trans and anti LGBTQ+ legislation that we’re seeing right now in GOP led states across the country. But I don’t want to just focus on this hateful law and others like it. Priyanka, I want to take some time to honor the beauty of drag and why the world needs it. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Yes. 

 

Tre’vell Anderson: So we’re going to be back to answer that question in just a little moment. But first, some ads. [music break] 

 

[AD BREAK]  

 

Priyanka Aribindi: All right. So back to our conversation. Tre’vell, who did you chat with to discuss the beauty of drag and why it is so critical for our world today? 

 

Tre’vell Anderson: Yes. So I really wanted to sit down with a drag performer from Tennessee to recount this foolishness from start to finish. And I was really excited to get in touch with Drag Queen and Tennessee native Bella DuBalle. Bella is a host and show director at Atomic Rose. That’s the largest drag club in Memphis, and she went viral on social media earlier this year when SB three was still making its way through the state legislature for warning people about what would happen if this law took effect. You might remember that we played a clip of it on the show back in February. 

 

[clip of Bella DuBalle] If this law passes on April 1st, public drag will now be criminalized. [cries of outrage] I could go to jail for 15 years for appearing outside in drag. [audience member yelling ‘Oh shit’] They also seek to classify us as adult cabaret performers. So that means that we would have to get a stripping license. If you have one of those, you cannot also have an alcohol license. So our bar wouldn’t even serve liquor anymore. This is an attempt to erase race drag in Tennessee. This bill will further harm trans people who are literally just living their fucking lives. I need you to contact your house representative and tell them this will not stand. Tell and urge them to vote no. Because if they don’t, this will make public pride illegal this year. 

 

Tre’vell Anderson: Now, thankfully, none of that happened, but it felt natural to come full circle and get Bella on the show to talk about what it was like for her as a local queen to watch this all unfold in the state she’s called home for 42 years. I started by asking Bella about what drew her to drag in the first place. 

 

Bella DuBalle: So I am a founding company member of Tennessee Shakespeare Company, and as you may know, it is very traditional that all the roles in Shakespeare were played by males. And so I played a couple of female roles on stage. But the one that really clicked for me was playing Puck in a Midsummer Night’s Dream. And they gave me this really transformative, full body makeup, hair, costuming. And I was in like 10 minutes into my first scene, and I hear my mother out in the audience go, Oh, that’s my kid. And I was like, Oh, wow this transformative power of the makeup and the costume, this is really something. But it was a student matinee audience when I heard a student exclaim, is that a boy or a girl? And for the very first time in my life, I felt gender euphoria. And growing up as a queer kid in the South, I had learned to suppress everything that people labeled feminine about me as a defense mechanism. You know, that was weakness, and that was shameful. And drag was the first time that I took all that femininity and put it to the forefront. And it was strength and pride. And I was like, Oh, I can’t ever let this go. I can never put this down. And I’ve been doing it ever since. 

 

Tre’vell Anderson: Absolutely. How did you get your drag name, if I can ask?

 

Bella DuBalle: So I wanted something that was a pun. I wanted something classically Southern. And so I played off of the belle of the ball. Belle was my favorite Disney princess because she was very smart as well as being beautiful. And if you go back and look at where I started ten years ago, it was very presumptuous to think I was going to end up pretty one day. [laughter]

 

Tre’vell Anderson: What would you say people can expect at a Bella DuBalle show? 

 

Bella DuBalle: I kind of like to describe myself as the intersection between Dolly Parton, Miss Piggy and Mister Rogers. [laughter]  I am a classic Southern lady. You’re going to get, you know, the big hair, the flashy costumes. But I don’t stunt. I don’t dance. I am there to give, like, the big, warm mama hug. I love a ballad that speaks to the heart. I love songs about confidence and being yourself. So for me, you’re probably going to get, you know, just sweet Southern charm. But if you come to a show that I book, you’re going to get diversity. As far as drag goes, I love every crayon in the drag coloring box. And because my venue is right off of historic Beale Street, a lot of my audience is full of tourists who have never experienced drag. And so I like to show them the full gamut of all of the things that belong under the delightful umbrella of drag. So you’re going to get a stunting girl and a comedy queen. Maybe we’re going to have a king in the mix, a horror entertainer. You never know what you’re going to get so. 

 

Tre’vell Anderson: I love that. So as a working girl in Tennessee, I want to know, what was your initial reaction to hearing, you know, about the anti drag laws and bills and all of that foolishness when it initially began making headlines? 

 

Bella DuBalle: Terror. [laugh] I would have to say terror. No, I’ve been doing drag for a decade. But it wasn’t until I became show director at Atomic Rose that I was able to do drag full time. As soon as things really took off and our venue really got successful, COVID hit and we were terrified that we were going to tank during quarantine. We successfully came back. Things are bigger and better than ever. And then here comes a legislation that says, now we’re going to make it illegal to do what you do. Our initial reaction, of course, was fear. Is this law going to pass? How is it going to be enforced? What does this mean for us as entertainers? What does this mean for trans people and gender nonconforming people? But really soon thereafter, we started seeing a whole lot of the cavalry show up. Our local district attorney said, hey, this law is unnecessary and it’s going to have a chilling effect on constitutionally protected free speech. And then it wasn’t but just a little while later before the White House press secretary came out and said, hey, this stuff in Tennessee is off the mark. And when it was a Trump appointed federal judge that issued the restraining order against our law. I was like, no, we’re right. This is crazy. They cannot do this. They can’t legislate not only our freedom of expression, but just queer existence, which is what we’re we’re seeing right now. 

 

Tre’vell Anderson: Back in February, we played a clip of your viral video that went, you know, kind of wild online. And this was when the bill was just kind of making its way through the Tennessee legislature. And in that video, you warned people, right, that, like events like pride might become illegal, that venues would close, that trans people could be targeted by, you know, some of these ideas around drag, even though the law was overturned. I’m wondering how the idea of it has impacted you and your colleagues since February, since March. 

 

Bella DuBalle: The thing that it really taught us as a community, it was very galvanizing. It was a time to put aside petty differences and realize that we were under attack from a much bigger threat. And even coming out of victory from this law and seeing our law that would outlaw gender affirming health care for trans youth being challenged, it’s still disheartening to know that these are two pieces of like 650 legislations in 46 states here in our country. That’s wild to me that suddenly queer folks are such a hot button issue that everybody wants to jump on board legislating us. 

 

Tre’vell Anderson: Yeah, I feel like it has been interesting to witness and experience what is like this campaign against LGBTQ people, LGBTQ culture, trans people more specifically in a lot of places. And we know that like Republicans, particularly in Tennessee but also nationwide, are like justifying these attacks on drag in public, especially by framing drag performances as overtly sexual and inappropriate for children. The attempted law, I guess I should call it now, called drag performers, quote unquote, “adult cabaret performers,” which is, you know, completely different. 

 

Bella DuBalle: Literally, the words they use are, you know, male and female impersonators that appeal to a prurient interest, which means a shameful or morbid interest in sex. 

 

Tre’vell Anderson: Right. 

 

Bella DuBalle: So not just like they’re being a little sexy, but like it’s hypersexual. 

 

Tre’vell Anderson: Absolutely. Well, I would love to hear you talk about the characterization of your work as adult cabaret, especially as someone who, you know, you host drag shows for audiences of all ages at your club. 

 

Bella DuBalle: I do. I host an all ages brunch every single Sunday. This past Sunday, I was at a local church leading a drag queen storytime. I’m a licensed minister, so as somebody who frequently works with queer youth, I find it deeply offensive when people say that it’s not right for me to be around kids. I find it deeply offensive that these laws are made under the guise of protecting children. When I put forth the question to Governor Bill Lee, can you give me a single instance of a child ever being harmed or abused at a drag show? 

 

Tre’vell Anderson: Mm hmm. 

 

Bella DuBalle: Not one. They couldn’t produce any evidence. Meanwhile, I fired back with okay, well, then how about we look at some real statistics? Like right now, here in Tennessee, we are currently failing 9000 kids in the DCS system. Tennessee is ranked bottom last in terms of stability of kids in our foster care system in the first year. What are we doing to protect those kids? 

 

Tre’vell Anderson: Mmm. 

 

Bella DuBalle: You got 700 Southern Baptist ministers on the registered sex offendery list here in Tennessee, and that’s just one denomination. We’re not legislating whether or not parents can take those kids to church. How are you protecting those kids? The Covenant School shooting brought us to 47 school shootings here in Tennessee. Governor Bill Lee just signed a law where you don’t even have to have a permit to carry a gun in this state. How is that protecting children? And if you want to talk about protecting kids, what about the queer kids? 

 

Tre’vell Anderson: Mm hmm. 

 

Bella DuBalle: What about the trans kids? We know those kids are so much more in danger. The Trevor Project released last year, 60% of queer youth contemplated suicide. One in five trans or gender non-conforming teens attempted it. And we know these kids are not more at risk because of their sexual orientation or their gender identity. It’s because they live in states where politicians are saying crazy things like you’re dangerous to kids, you need to be eradicated from public life entirely. That kind of dehumanizing rhetoric that weighs on a child, what are we doing to protect those kids? 

 

Tre’vell Anderson: A lot of these Republicans across the country, right, who are trying to get these anti LGBTQ laws passed, a lot of them are also saying, well, if you don’t like it, you can just move elsewhere. I’d love to hear you talk a little bit about why this idea of just pick up your life and move in response to some of this local legislation just doesn’t make sense. 

 

Bella DuBalle: Well, first of all, it’s not feasible for everybody. You know, that’s that’s not an easy ask to assume that everyone has the privilege to be able to do that. Secondly, I would say if I leave, who stays to fight and make things better for the future generations? And also, if we’re tracking those laws in 46 states in the country, where would you like me to go? 

 

Tre’vell Anderson: Right. 

 

Bella DuBalle: Because if the GOP has their way, there won’t be any safe territory left. That argument, if you don’t like it, you can just move out of the state will become you can just leave the country because you ain’t welcome here no more. When Michael Noel said that transgenderism must be eradicated from public life entirely, he spelled out the whole plan right there. 

 

Tre’vell Anderson: Yeah. 

 

Bella DuBalle: When DeSantis moved into, we’re going to take trans kids away from their parents by law now, that was level eight of genocide, and it terrified me how many folks thought that queer people were being hyperbolic about raising the alarms and saying, hey, please pay attention. This is really dangerous. We’re really under attack here. And folks are saying, but are you, though? Are you sure maybe you’re not just blowing it out of proportion? 

 

Tre’vell Anderson: One of the things that you mentioned in that viral video we talked about was about the whole reason we celebrate pride right in this month being because of the Stonewall riots. And you said, quote: 

 

[clip of Bella DuBalle] The original pride was a riot. And if this year we need to remind them that we will fight for our liberation. [applause and music level that was quiet in background raises] We will raise our bricks high again and let them know that we will not go quietly.  

 

Tre’vell Anderson: I’m wondering, how have Tennesseans like yourselves come together to fight back against this law, especially as we navigated Pride Month during this very challenging year, at least legislatively, right for us, our community, what has the resistance looked like on the ground for you all? 

 

Bella DuBalle: There’s been such a huge show of solidarity and support, so many more folks in the community coming out to the shows. The All Ages brunch is so many families bringing their kids now just to say, I want the queens and the entertainers to know that I support them. Our decision about our law was not announced until the morning of pride. And so we were afraid with that looming that so many people would be, you know, too tentative to go this year. Mid-South Pride had record attendance. 55,000 people joined us this year. 

 

Tre’vell Anderson: Wow. 

 

Bella DuBalle: So the response that I’ve seen nationwide to this push to get us to sit down and go underground and be quiet and disappear has just been to get bigger, louder, bolder, prouder. And I think that’s what we’ve always done as queer people. 

 

Tre’vell Anderson: I want to end on perhaps a more positive note, and that’s about why the world needs drag despite all of these attacks that we are facing as a community. So I want to ask you one, where would you be without drag? And also, why does the world need drag? 

 

Bella DuBalle: I wouldn’t be here without drag. Like many entertainers, I frequently say that drag saved my life. If I had not been able to come to terms with my non-binary identity through the things that I discovered on stage, I don’t know that I would have the mental fortitude to still be here. I think drag is important because it shows everybody that once they have the light bulb moment, that that glamorous creature they see on stage is not real, that it’s all make believe. They start to realize that that’s true for everyone. You’re not what I see. You are so much more than this physical shell and how we choose to adorn it. Drag is so liberating to everybody from the oppression of gender roles or the confines of any way that somebody else says that you have to live. And historically, for the queer community, it’s always been the drag entertainers and the trans folks of color that have led our movements for liberation, that have led our resistances, our protests, our pride movements. And I think it’s necessary that we have those leaders at the forefront, those big, flashy, sparkly folks who say, look at me and follow me. We need you. 

 

Tre’vell Anderson: And that was my conversation with the legendary Bella DuBalle. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Thank you so much for that Tre’vell. Before we go, is there anything else that you would like to share with the WAD Squad as we reflect on this Pride month? 

 

Tre’vell Anderson: Yes, just that you better tip your local queens extra the next time you see them. That way they can keep on slaying every single day all year long in the face of all of this foolishness. Because, baby, they have absolutely earned it. Okay?

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Absolutely. [music break] 

 

[AD BREAK] 

 

Tre’vell Anderson: That is all for today. If you like the show, make sure you subscribe, leave a review, do a dip, and tell your friends to listen. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: And if you’re into reading and not just fliers for local drag shows like me, What A Day is also a nightly newsletter. Check it out and subscribe at Crooked.com/subscribe. I’m Priyanka Aribindi. 

 

Tre’vell Anderson: I’m Tre’vell Anderson. 

 

[spoken together] And welcome to wrath month. 

 

Tre’vell Anderson: Yes. No more rainbows. Okay. No more happy faces and glitter. Now you get our anger. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Yeah. You know, you earned it. You earned it. 

 

Tre’vell Anderson: You did. You absolutely did. [music break]

 

Priyanka Aribindi: What A Day is a production of Crooked Media. It’s recorded and mixed by Bill Lancz. Our show’s producer is Itxy Quintanilla. Raven Yamamoto and Natalie Bettendorf are our associate producers. Our intern is Ryan Cochran, and our senior producer is Lita Martinez. Our theme music is by Colin Gilliard and Kashaka. [music break]