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Small town America and the rise of the drag queens

Warning: It could happen in your town


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Small town America and the rise of the drag queens

I live in Jackson, Tenn., where I teach theology at Union University. Jackson is sane. It is a good place. West Tennessee is not the place where you’d expect debates about drag queens to emerge.

For those who are watching, what is happening in our culture represents an extremely odd moment: drag queen “story hours” in public libraries, drag queen shows in this or that venue, and even drag queen “sermons” in certain “churches,” and drag queen events sponsored by, or held in, churches.

It was with alarm and sadness that I learned earlier this fall about an upcoming “pride” event that was scheduled to take place in October at a local public park, known as Conger Park. The Jackson community also learned that there was scheduled to be a “drag queen” show. And even worse, this event was being promoted as a “family friendly” event.

The Mayor of Jackson wrote: “A government entity cannot discriminate or deny usage of public facilities due to our personal beliefs. The group [JacksonTN Pride] is protected under federal law, and the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.”

This did not satisfy those concerned. An injunction was filed against the city by State Representative Chris Todd and others. A compromise was reached, with the whole “pride” event relocated to Jackson’s Carl Perkins Civic Center. The drag queen part of the event would be restricted to adults 18 and over.

Children are, of course, central to this discussion. Jackson’s civic center is not known as The Carl Perkins Civic Center by accident. This is of course the Carl Perkins of “Blue Suede Shoes” fame. The same Carl Perkins who was buddies with Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, and Roy Orbison. But in a particularly ironic twist, Jackson is also home to the Carl Perkins Center for the Prevention of Child Abuse. The mission of this center reads: “The mission of the Center is to provide support to families in preventing and dealing with child abuse in West Tennessee and to help both parents and children meet the practical needs of preserving and improving the quality of family life.”

We should all agree that if obscenity laws are meant to protect against that which is prurient, drag queen shows surely meet that threshold.

What a wonderful mission statement, especially the affirmation of “preserving and improving the quality of family life.” I suspect Carl Perkins would be proud of seeing his name being put to the good use of preserving and improving family life. I suspect he might not be as excited in seeing the civic center which bears his name being used for drag queens parading in front of young children. It is not irrational to see such “entertainment” as a form of child abuse itself.

Jackson—like many communities in the U.S.—is at a crossroads. Would Jackson rather be known as the kind of city in which people lock arms to protect and care for children or would Jackson rather be known as the kind of place in which the City of Jackson sponsors and lends its name to an event in which drag queens parade themselves before minors?

In short, Mayor Conger and one of the city lawyers essentially said that the law is on the side of JacksonTN Pride. According to this logic, cities like Jackson are legally bound to allow virtually any group to use public facilities. And there is a (contested) measure of truth in this argument.

The short version is this: The First Amendment clearly places prohibitions on Congress. The Fourteenth Amendment (of 1868) speaks of the “privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States,” as well as of “due process.” Over the time the Supreme Court has determined—essentially—that the “due process” clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which bars a state from depriving “any person of life, liberty, or property,” should be taken to mean that individual states cannot “deprive” someone of the freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, etc. This would come to be known as the doctrine of “incorporation.” The individual states have become—ostensibly—administrative units of the federal government. And now in 2022, a local mayor can simply say that his hands are tied by the (federal) law of the land.

Traditionalists should ask what might be done to turn the tide in terms of jurisprudence related to the way the Fourteenth Amendment has been interpreted by the Supreme Court. We should also revisit how current-day obscenity laws are enforced or, in this case, unenforced. We should all agree that if obscenity laws are meant to protect against that which is prurient, drag queen shows surely meet that threshold.

Things could get much worse. Does anyone really think that this kind of moral downgrade will stop with a silly (but perverse) drag queen show in Jackson’s civic center? There is a good argument to be made that Jackson has the legal power to do something as simple as to say: “That’s not going to happen here.” I hope our community has the will and courage to do the right thing. Our kids will be watching.


Bradley G. Green

Bradley G. Green is professor of theological studies at Union University and professor of philosophy and theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.


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