This week is a heavier one. Yesterday, Tennessee passed a bill "restricting" public drag performances. As journalist Will Groff points out in our interview (below) the language in the bill is vague, making it possible to arrest anyone who is "performing drag" (ie, existing as a gender non-conforming person) in public. Everything old is new again -- before the Stonewall uprising, police targeted queer people by examining their clothing and underwear to ensure that they were conforming to gender norms.
Before I'd even had a chance to read Will's brilliant article about how this bill impacts country music in The Boot, I was transphobia'd on the street. I had an extremely frustrating conversation with my straight cis therapist, who was concerned that my pain was somehow being transformed into self-blame and that my concerns about society were maybe a little extreme. All I wanted was a space to be in my feelings, something she knows I hate doing! Probably all of us hate it, which is why we dissociate and channel our pain through country music.
It gets grimmer, because the NY Times (ignoring their transphobia) just ran a piece about Shane McAnally's struggles to gain acceptance in Nashville even though he's one of the most sought-after songwriters in the business. I haven't had the capacity to read it, but I'll give my take on it next week.
It's rough out here now, but I'm guessing most of us were politically aware during the 2004 election, in which the Republicans worked really hard to weaponize the threat of gay marriage becoming legal. It didn't work out for them politically, and I would argue the pain and alienation that engendered in me as a high school is very much there. But it's also a reminder that we can't and won't be chased back into the closet. They're fighting hard because they know they've already lost.
Will Groff is a music and culture writer based in Brooklyn. He has written about country music for Pitchfork, PAPER, No Depression, and various other publications. He's also up to some very exciting projects, which we discuss here! Once our schedules sync, we'll get more in-depth on a future episode of the Rainbow Rodeo podcast.
1. So I know you're on a Fulbright right now. What is your project, where are you, and how's it going? How is it to write about country music and LGBTQ+ rights from abroad?
Yes! So, I’m currently placed in an outer borough of Mexico City on an English teaching grant. My day-to-day is teaching English at a school for future teachers, and as a side project I’ve been running a free creative writing workshop for educators here in Mexico. It’s a strange time to be in Mexico City, because there are massive issues with gentrification and lots of people are angry about it. Basically, remote workers from the US and other wealthy countries started flocking here during the height of the pandemic because of Mexico’s lax policies around COVID (not to mention the strength of the dollar vs. the peso) and they just never left. The problem is that because so many of these “digital nomads” are now living here, prices are skyrocketing, locals are being pushed out, and the vibe of the city just feels a little off. When you have entitled Americans walking around screaming in English about how cheap everything is and making zero effort to integrate into the community, it’s hard to blame locals for feeling fed up.
As for my writing, I’m no stranger to reporting remotely on country music since I’m normally based in New York, but my time in Mexico has definitely given me a different vantage point. Actually, a lot of my students are very curious about country music and see it as not altogether different from what’s known as “regional Mexican music” (a catch-all term for genres including banda, mariachi, norteño, tejano, etc.).
2. You did a lot of possible research for this article. For me, reading about all of these policies just makes me overwhelmed. Could you lay out what exactly is going on in Tennessee and how it relates to the raft of anti-trans legislation throughout the country?
I’m glad you asked because there is a lot much happening in Tennessee and it can definitely be overwhelming. Essentially, the bill we’re talking about is an amendment to Tennessee’s existing obscenity laws that more explicitly defines drag shows as “adult cabaret performances” and increases the penalty for performing them in public (or anywhere anyone under 18 could be present) to a potential felony. Tennessee is far from the only state to prioritize cracking down on drag shows, with similar bills being introduced this session in Arizona, Arkansas, Kentucky, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas and West Virginia.
What makes the drag ban in Tennessee especially insidious is that it doesn’t actually use the words “drag show” or “drag queen.” Most of these bills are pretty explicit about trying to ban drag shows (a result of this ridiculous backlash against drag queen story hours), but the Tennessee bill only mentions “male or female impersonators,” which is why it’s so scary to trans and non-binary people. As Shana Goldin-Perschbacher, among others, has pointed out, the way the bill is written leaves so much room for interpretation that the results could be outrageous. What exactly is a “male or female impersonator”? What about a cis male artist performing in a Halloween costume? What about Sam Smith performing in a gown at the Bridgestone? Could they be arrested?
All of this dovetails with unprecedented attacks on trans people, and specifically trans youth, that are happening in state legislatures all across the country. More bathroom bills, LGBTQ book bans, laws prohibiting trans kids from playing sports, efforts to eliminate gender-affirming care for trans kids and sometimes adults… It goes on and on. Just this week, the Tennessee senate passed a bill banning gender-affirming care, including puberty blockers and hormones, for trans youth. A different bill that was introduced last week would make it illegal for private insurance companies that cover gender-affirming care to contract with TennCare, the state’s Medicaid program. They’re trying to get private insurance companies to stop covering gender-affirming care for adults nationwide.
3. You have a few artists on the record discussing their experiences -- Adeem the Artist, Mya Byrne, and Paisley Fields. But none of them are based in Nashville proper. Did anyone from Music City express their concerns off the record? If so, what were those concerns?
I started reporting on a version of this story last year and spoke to a lot of queer people both in Nashville and outside of it. I chose to focus on these performers because a) they had very interesting things to say and b) I wanted to make the point that living in Nashville is just not an option for a lot of queer country artists. These are three of the most visible trans and non-binary artists in country and Americana, and none of them live in Nashville. That is not an accident.
What I can say based on my conversations with queer artists living in Nashville is that queer people in Tennessee are really scared right now. They’re scared and they’re angry. I think as queer people we naturally have pretty thick skin, but it’s hard to hold it together in the face of flagrant attacks on civil rights by the state (which is, of course, hopelessly gerrymandered). It’s also no coincidence that some of the most hateful people on the planet are flocking to Nashville just as it’s becoming increasingly hostile to queer and especially trans people.
4. I was intrigued by the idea of artists reaching out to legislators privately to sway their votes. Did you get a chance to discuss that more with the Change Agent-cy? It's such a different approach than these artists' apolitical (supposedly) public stances.
I was intrigued by that as well! We talked about the work they had done with Fiona Prine around campaigning for an expansion of absentee voting before the 2020 election and the Tennessee Thrives initiative that found CMT joining almost 200 other businesses in combating the anti-trans “bathroom bill” in 2016 by arguing that it would be bad for business. As Lucia Folk mentioned in the story, it’s becoming harder to do that kind of thing now that everything (particularly around LGBTQ identities) is so politically fraught, but I really hope more artists start working with them, specifically around the issues we’re talking about.
5. What's something you wished more people knew about, and what's something you had to leave out of the story that you'd like to focus on further?
First, I always wish more people were aware of how much great queer country music is out there! I’ve had friends respond to this story that they had no idea there were any queer country artists outside of Orville Peck, which, lol. On a more serious note, I wish more people were aware of the breadth and depth of the attacks that are happening, in Tennessee and beyond. These legislators are doing everything in their power to make life unlivable for trans people, and we are just not talking about this enough. I think people are overwhelmed and maybe a little in shock about how powerful this backlash movement has become, but we absolutely cannot normalize this. As for the story, I had one conversation in particular with a drag queen in Nashville that I really wanted to include, but I unfortunately could not find a way to make it work within the story because I made the decision to keep a tight focus on country music. The relationship between country music and drag is something that’s fascinating to me, and I would definitely like a chance to focus further on that.
Not sure if tweets embed anymore but just in case...
How are y’all playing B chords. This is my personal hell. Goddddammmmit 🥴— Jessi England (@jessi_england8) February 23, 2023
Here are all of the queer country album releases this month! Let me know if I should add something to the list!
2/3 — Sunny War, Anarchist Gospel
2/3 — Terry Blade, Ethos: Son of a Sharecropper
2/17 — Jaimee Harris, Boomerang Town
2/17 -- John-Allison Weiss, The Long Way
2/20 — The Belle Curves, Live at Pete’s Candy Store (pre-save here)
I'm also not sure if a Mastodon toot will embed, but just in case, here's some good country music content:
Jessye DeSilva is at the 60% mark for their new album! Help them get to 100% by March 1st!
Bluegrass virtuoso Billy Gilman has signed to Pinecone Records
If you’re here, you like music zines. Longtime Wide Open Country contributor Addie Moore is taking pre-orders for their indie punk zine No Spectators
Did you know that artists at SXSW get paid in virtual pennies and still have to buy a festival pass if they want to see someone else’s show? That sucks! Demand fair pay for SXSW
You can get almost 50% off the book Queer Country using this code: F21UIP
This thread gives advice on self-managed transition in Alabama and other states that restrict our bodily autonomy
Queer songwriting circle https://www.eliconley.com/group-classes.html#circle
This month’s episode of Rainbow Rodeo is a check-in on all of the fantastic queer country that's come out so far -- plus a hint of what's to come. Featuring Sunny War, John-Allison Weiss, Jaimee Harris, Izzy Heltai, and more!
Tell your friends about the podcast!
4/15 & 16 — The High Water Festival in Savannah, GA will feature a number of queer artists like Rainbow Kitten Surprise, SG Goodman, Orville Peck, Ezra Furman, and the Black Opry. Who’s buying a ticket for me?
6/23 - 25: Melissa Carper, Alisa Amador, Maya deVitry, The Faux Paws, and Amy Martin are playing the Red Wing Roots Music Festival in Mount Solon, Virginia
All kinds of price points to advertise on the podcast, newsletter, or zine. (Deadline for the zine is 3/31!) Click here and help support the queer country community!
Updated every week!
Thanks to Catie Pearl-Hartling for making a parallel list on Apple Music!
Thanks to Heike Hausmann for making a parallel list on Tidal!
Wilmington, DE festival the Ladybug Festival is taking artist submissions! Deadline is 2/28! Thanks to Brittany Ann Tranbaugh for sharing on the Discord!
Eli Conley is hosting an LGBTQ+ songwriter circle online! Join in!
Are you on Mastodon or another part of the Fediverse? Get your music on RadioFreeFedi! https://radiofreefedi.net/
Submit your music and events to The Q LGBTQ Creative Network
This Twitter thread has a whole list of places to find jobs in the music industry
And here’s a list of resources for “women” entering the music industry — presumably they also encourage nonbinary participants
Submit your profile to the Country Everywhere which seeks to unite BIPOC, LGBTQ+, and disabled artists and professionals
Sign up to the Black Opry Revue’s interest form!
Check out the weekly Queerfolk Fest show in Nashville
Twitter kind of sucks right now and can you really make friends on Instagram? Join us on the Rainbow Rodeo Discord! We've been talking sci fi, tour lineups, press contacts, allyship, gender, and more! Just respond to this e-mail to get the link!