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Drag queen (and ordained minister) Bella DuBalle won't be silenced by new Tenn. law

Bella DuBalle describes her drag persona as a combination of Miss Piggy, Dolly Parton and Mr. Rogers.
Bella DuBalle
Bella DuBalle describes her drag persona as a combination of Miss Piggy, Dolly Parton and Mr. Rogers.

Tennessee's new law criminalizing public drag performances goes into effect April 1. The law, which refers to "male or female impersonators who provide entertainment that appeals to a prurient interest," makes it an offense for a person to engage in an adult cabaret performance on public property — or in a location where the performance could be viewed by children.

The first offense for violating the law is a misdemeanor, with a fine up to $2,500 and/or up to 12 months in jail. Subsequent violations could be felonies, punishable by up to 6 years in prison.

Tennessee native Bella DuBalle is an ordained minister and also the show director and host at Atomic Rose, the largest drag club in Memphis. She says the Tennessee law was written by legislators who don't understand what drag is.

"The idea that they think that every drag performer is doing something hypersexual or obscene obviously means they don't know very much about it," DuBalle says. "I cannot succinctly put into words what the entire art of drag is, and the fact that these legislators who know far less about the art than I do and have never been to a drag show are sitting out there making these laws — that's a little upsetting."

DuBalle points out that law's vague language — particularly the reference to "male and female impersonators" — could be misused to target trans, gender non-conforming or non-binary people.

"As a non-binary person who wears clothing that does not necessarily match the gender that I was assigned at birth, I am fearful that ... someone's going to see me in Kroeger in a dress and call the cops and say, 'This person's being obscene in front of my kids,'" DuBalle says.

DuBalle says she's always seen drag as a political act, but now the stakes are much higher. Since speaking out against the Tennessee law she's received threats of violence and even death. Nevertheless, she's committed to standing her ground. She's vowed that Atomic Rose will continue all its shows — including its all-ages brunch — even after the ban goes into effect.

"I will not cow to intimidation and I won't be silenced," she says. "If somebody takes it upon themselves to silence my voice, there are many, many others to take my place. Queer voices will never be silenced."

Interview highlights

On her drag persona, which is part Miss Piggy, part Dolly Parton and part Mr. Rogers

Miss Piggy, I think, is the big costumes, the "I am a movie star. Every room I walk into the story is about me." That's the full fantasy of drag. For Dolly Parton, it's big, flashy costumes and the fact that you can continue to be a genuine and sweet Southern person and still be successful. And then for me, Mr. Rogers is probably the most important, and that's about just recognizing each person's humanity, and hopefully letting them see themselves in something that you do and to show them that no matter how different we all are, we're actually a whole lot more similar.

On everyone being in drag in their own way

It's really freeing to understand that you're not married to the shell, the aesthetic, the things that people see. We're so much more than our body.

You get up in the morning and you decide what you want to put on based on how you want the world to perceive you. What I'm going to wear for a lazy day at home cleaning is very different than what I'm going to wear if I'm going to a wedding or a funeral, and that's very different than what I'm going to wear if I'm going out on a Saturday night clubbing with friends. You change your exterior based on what you want the world to perceive you as. That's all drag is. And for me, when you can look at this creation that I made on stage and say, "Wow, that's not really who that person is. This illusion that I'm seeing is not who that person is," my hope is that then the light bulb goes off and you realize, "Wow, this illusion I'm presenting is not really who I am." And it's really freeing to understand that you're not married to the shell, the aesthetic, the things that people see. We're so much more than our body.

On how the new law affects the club and her personally

If the law stands as it is and is enforced the way that they would like it to be, then we would not be able to welcome people under the age of 18 into our all-ages brunch. If it stands that they will not allow any drag being classified as adult cabaret here in public, that means no drag performers in the Pride Parade and festival. I, as a minister, have been asked to marry couples in public in drag. I don't know if that would be legal anymore, if my religious freedom supersedes this law or if it would be infringed upon. ...

I get ready here at home and then I go to the venue. So I'm worried [in] the small amount of time that I'm walking from the parking garage to the venue, is that public? Our venue has large windows and we're off of Beale Street. If there are people walking by with their kids and they glance through the windows, is that now being viewed by a minor, despite the fact that they're looking through the windows into our private establishment? So for me, again, there's just some really, really vague terminology, and that's where most of my fear and confusion lies.

On what happens if the club closes

That is my livelihood. And all these people who are like, "Well, you shouldn't have that as a job. You shouldn't be around kids!" It's my supreme joy to tell them, "[If I] have to quit doing drag, I'm going to go back to my old job — teaching. So you if you don't want to me around your kids, I got really bad news for you!" ... I'm a founding member of the Tennessee Shakespeare Company, and so I've been to almost all of the schools here in the mid-South to teach Shakespeare. It was through Shakespeare that I first came to drag. I got paid really good money by the National Endowment for the Arts and the state of Tennessee to go into all these schools and play drag roles in front of their students. It was OK then, but it's not OK now.

On performing for and reading to children

I think most kids are so taken with the aesthetic, if they're young enough, most of them just think I'm a Disney princess. People ask sometimes, "How do you explain drag to kids?" And I'm like, "You don't have to!" They're the originators of drag. Kids came up with playing dress up. They understand it way better than the rest of us. Some of us just never quit playing.

I have [books] that I love. A couple of my favorites are Red: A Crayon Story, and it's about a blue crayon that has a red label, and trying to find their way and being told that this is what you are, despite the fact that they know their color is different. There's one called Auntie Uncle: Drag Queen Hero. That's about a young child's uncle who is also a drag performer. And how they reconcile the uncle and the aunt's existence in one person. And then I love My Shadow is Purple. It's about the world in which everyone seems to have a blue or a pink shadow, but my shadow is purple.

As a minister, I read the Bible cover to cover, and that book is full of rape and murder and incest, and I would never read it to a kid. But what do I know? I'm just a drag queen.

So they're usually books about self-acceptance, about knowing that there are other people who might be made differently than you, and your job is only to love and accept what they tell you. As a minister, I read the Bible cover to cover, and that book is full of rape and murder and incest, and I would never read it to a kid. But what do I know? I'm just a drag queen. Most of the books that I pick are going to be very, very Mr. Rogers encouragement-style.

On when straight men do drag, it makes a joke of femininity

When a straight person does it, it's a joke. ... When I put on a dress, it is a statement of strength. It is a statement of how powerful my femininity is. So for me, I think it's about the way that we approach the feminine. The patriarchy has always used drag as another way to reinforce that women are weaker. I think we, as the queer community, actually champion that pride or that femininity. We're very proud of something that other people are deeply ashamed of.

On Gov. Bill Lee's 1977 yearbook photo of him in drag at a powder-puff football game surfacing

Here in the South, we have these old fundraisers that have been going on for decades, and one of them is powder-puff football, where the boys dress as cheerleaders and the girls dress as football players. ... So this is very, very old style Southern entertainment. And when I questioned the governor about being in drag ... he said, "That's ridiculous that you would conflate something like that to sexual entertainment in front of children." And I completely agree. They're not the same thing. But he does not agree that he signed a law that makes no such distinction. The law does not draw any distinctions between a school fundraiser or theater or opera ballet, wrestling cosplay, people dressing up for Halloween. It's so vague. And that was the real hypocrisy. It was not that he'd been in a dress, it was that he didn't realize that what he was doing was just as innocent as what I do.

On this legislation being "legal bullying"

RuPaul said they are a bunch of bullies making these laws. It causes a lot of big feelings when you see someone love in themselves something that you hate in yourself. I think when you see someone else who is proud of a part of themselves that you have been taught to be ashamed of — that causes people to lash out. "How dare you not be ashamed of this thing that I have been taught to be ashamed of, of this thing that I know as shameful?" And to me, that's a big cause of why we're seeing these legislations passed.

On praying for the lawmakers who created the ban

I have never known the freedom of spirit and the liberty of heart that I know now in my life. And all I want is for every other person to experience that same joy, to be so unabashedly proud of who they are, that they live without fear and they don't allow other people's opinions to hold them back. I know that if other people's hearts were opened in that same way, they wouldn't be concerned with trying to legislate other people's love. They wouldn't be concerned with trying to dictate what other people do with their lives because they'd be so busy enjoying their own.

On what she dreamed about as a farm kid in rural Tennessee

I think I always dreamed of making the world a little bit better than how I found it. I always hoped that there would be some moment that would come along that would provide me a sense of purpose that I was supposed to be here, and that I made a difference by being here. ... I will be 43 in just a few weeks, and this is the first time in my life that I've had a true sense of purpose.

Audio interview produced and edited by: Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Audio interview adapted for by: Bridget Bentz and Molly Seavy-Nesper.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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