NASHVILLE — Soon after we moved to Nashville in 1987, I started hearing stories about a brilliant Belle Meade man who didn’t exactly behave according to Belle Meade norms. Neil Cargile was the president of a Nashville-based dredging company with business the world over. Born into wealth in 1928, he played football for Vanderbilt, flew planes for the Navy, married and divorced — twice — and fathered three children. He was a small-government conservative. He was also famous in Nashville for his pleasure in wearing women’s clothes on social occasions. Mr. Cargile called his alter ego “SheNeil.”
Just before he died, Mr. Cargile was the subject of a 1995 New Yorker profile by John Berendt titled “High Heel Neil.” Mr. Berendt called his subject “probably the most uninhibited, socially prominent cross-dresser in America since Edward Hyde served, in drag, as the governor of New York and New Jersey in the early 18th century.” Like those Easterners of old, Nashvillians were unfazed by their high-profile drag queen. Mr. Cargile consistently gave only one explanation for wearing such extravagant clothes: “It’s fun.”
That same spirit of play is presumably what motivated Bill Lee, the Republican governor of Tennessee, to dress like a cheerleader for a powderpuff football game when he was in high school. Mr. Lee doesn’t have fun with such things anymore: He just signed into law a bill that makes it illegal to appear in drag in public spaces where children might be present.
Until Holly McCall, the editor of the nonprofit news site The Tennessee Lookout, mentioned Mr. Cargile in an editorial decrying the state’s new anti-drag law, I hadn’t thought about him in years, perhaps because the distance between his world and mine — in time, in politics, in basic human decency — is so vast and so extreme.
Laws like the one Mr. Lee just signed in Tennessee have been passed or are being debated in at least 14 states. “These bills have not only been numerous; they’re also coming very early in the legislative session,” Emerson J. Sykes, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, told Kimberly Kindy of The Washington Post. “They seem to be a top priority this year for the G.O.P. lawmakers.”
The idea that this legislation is a top priority for anybody is ludicrous, and once upon a recent time, even Republicans knew that. Men have performed in women’s clothes for centuries, with no harm to children. Drag is part Saturnalia and part camp and part artistic expression, and all manner of human beings enjoy it. Dolly Parton, Tennessee’s favorite daughter, often says, “If I hadn’t been a girl, I’d have been a drag queen.”
It’s worth noting that a lot of men out there are wearing a lot of garments that look a lot like dresses. Priests, for instance. Judges and justices. College graduates and Scotsmen in formal wear. Actors in “Mrs. Doubtfire” and “Hairspray,” both of which are on the new schedule at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center. Are they all now obliged to don trousers?
I’m joking, of course. This is a law that bans “adult cabaret.” It doesn’t bar men from wearing ritual gowns. But here’s the real question, and it’s not a joke: If it’s fine for men to wear gowns in other contexts, what’s the problem with drag queens at a Pride parade or a library’s story hour? Why wouldn’t it be fine for a drag queen to mingle on Lower Broad with all the bridesmaids wearing penis whistles?
“The murkiness of this law is causing a lot of people to be on edge,” Micah Winter, a performer and board member of Friends of George’s, a theater company in Memphis, said in an interview with The Times.
The claim that anti-drag laws, as well as the new laws banning gender-affirming care for minors, are designed to protect children is also ludicrous. If Tennessee Republicans were serious about protecting children, our public schools would be fully funded. The Tennessee Department of Children’s Services wouldn’t be in calamitous disarray. The General Assembly would be trying to stem the tide of guns in a state awash in them instead of looking for ways to add to the flood.
But red-state Republicans are fixated on the threat to children of “groomers,” and they have decided they know what groomers look like: It’s men in drag, trans women and trans men, teachers and librarians who make sensible and useful books available to children who are asking questions. These legislators ignore all evidence that real groomers most often look like a child’s uncle, a child’s coach, a child’s youth pastor, a child’s neighbor, a child’s Scout leader.
The grooming of children for sexual exploitation is a serious issue, but that’s not what G.O.P. leaders are trying to eliminate. They don’t even care all that much about drag shows. As the columnist Charles Blow has pointed out, this is nothing but smoke and mirrors. What right-wing legislators really want is to legislate the entire L.G.B.T.Q. community out of existence. Among themselves, they are perfectly straightforward about that goal, using the language of extermination to talk about their own trans citizens.
The problem for the hard right is that Americans — whatever other faults they might harbor — aren’t generally big fans of hatred, and the inevitable pushback against these undemocratic and dangerous laws has begun, from the cheeky to the urgent.
A T-shirt featuring Mr. Lee’s yearbook photo is being sold to benefit unhoused L.G.B.T.Q. teens. The Human Rights Campaign took out a full-page ad in The Tennessean, Nashville’s daily newspaper, calling on Mr. Lee “to stop legislating hate.” A glorious arena show called “Love Rising Tennessee” has just been announced. Headlined by a group of country and Americana artists that includes Sheryl Crow, Jason Isbell, Maren Morris, Allison Russell and Yola, the concert will benefit L.G.B.T.Q. advocacy groups. Its tagline: “A celebration of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
And that’s the whole point, isn’t it? For all of us?
In the South it has never been safe to be gay, much less trans, but Southerners used to be people who hated it when government tried to tell them what they could wear, whom they could gather with, how they should raise their children. If you were white and male and professed to be straight, at least — especially if you were also rich — you could get away with almost any form of self-expression you cared to engage in and almost any pursuit of happiness, too. People would merely laugh and shake their heads and tell stories about you at parties.
In the ordinary loosening of strict social norms that comes with the passage of time, most Americans have arrived at a better understanding of the complexities of love and gender identity. But that isn’t true for elected officials in the red states. Goaded by Christian extremists, they are moving rapidly toward a “Handsmaid’s Tale”-level dystopia.
After killing abortion rights and gender-affirming care for minors, they’re now rejecting federal funds for H.I.V./AIDS prevention, targeting birth control and going after gender-affirming care for adults, too. It’s time for everyone everywhere to speak out against it. Because this evil is just getting started.
Margaret Renkl, a contributing Opinion writer, is the author of the books “Graceland, at Last: Notes on Hope and Heartache From the American South” and “Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss.”
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