Local Asheville drag performers respond to anti-LGBTQ legislation


Sarah Booth

Local performer Nova Jynah taking the stage at the Getaway River Bar in Asheville.

Sarah Booth, Contributor, [email protected]

Due to new laws, members of the Asheville drag scene fear for the well-being of the LGBTQIA+ community.  

“Drag has always been inherently  political and about pushing for change. It’s clear this bill is an attack on our specific community with a long term strategy. Very similar to the attack on AFAB individuals when our government attempted to abolish Roe V. Wade,” said Stephan Evans, a trans man and Tennessee native. 

Currently residing in Asheville, Evans frequents the drag space as a king going by the name Will Pounder.

The North Carolina state senate proposed a bill in Feb. limiting the discussion of gender and sexuality in classrooms.

MJ Smithson, a gender and sexuality studies student at UNC Asheville and former preschool teacher, said the bill risks turning public schools into a hostile environment for queer youth.

“If you are a kid in a household where you can’t be out to your parents, enforcing this in schools makes it one less place where you can be safe and be comfortable,” Smithson said. 

Smithson said spreading these bills across the country is risking future generations’ views of one another, creating a more closed-off society and enforcing segregationist efforts.

“Why would you not want your kid to have a broad diverse world view? Kids are curious and are going to ask questions. Even if you try to pretend queer people and families don’t exist, your kid is going to encounter it eventually. Children are curious and want to understand and connect with the people around them. Denying your kid the opportunity to do that is neglectful in my opinion,” Smithson said.

The North Carolina bill asserts to broaden parental rights in the classroom.

In a move to protect children in Tennessee, legislation banning trans medical care and male/female impersonation raised new laws to limit young queer individuals’ right to health care and accessible social spaces.

A recent graduate of UNCA and Asheville drag performer Ethan Fletcher, aka Nova Jynah, said the consequences of the bill passed in Tennessee are colossal as their drag family is based in Knoxville at Club XYZ. 

“This does not only impact people who are drag performers because it does not include a limit on what they deem female impersonation, which means trans people who are trying to live their day-to-day lives, and present who they are, can be targeted and charged with a misdemeanor, or even a felony by just existing,” Fletcher said. 

The proposed bill regulates adult cabaret performances, including entertainers such as go-go/exotic dancers and male/female impersonators.

Legislators across the United States have proposed bills banning gender-based medical care. The Florida Department of Health proposed bans on gender-affirming health care for patients below 18, including social gender transition, puberty blockers, hormone therapy and gender reassignment surgery. 

The Tennessee General Assembly is in the process of passing a bill that targets administering medical procedures to a minor if it enables them to identify with a gender other than the one assigned at birth.

Republican senator Jack Johnson, the primary sponsor of the bill in Tennessee, said the bill clarifies what type of performance is inappropriate for children. 

“This legislation is about protecting children,” Johnson said. “There are certain performances,

movies and places that are inappropriate for children. Just as current law prohibits strip clubs from admitting children, this legislation would also prohibit sexually explicit adult entertainment from being performed on public property or any non age-restricted private property where a minor could be present. This is a commonsense measure with broad support from Tennesseans.”

According to the Tennessee Senate this legislation, which has advanced onto the floor to be considered by the full senate, states it aims to protect children from exposure to adult entertainment. 

 “Obviously this entire situation is upsetting to the queer community. However, it should be equally enraging to the parents of Tennessee. Their leaders are literally saying they don’t think you’re capable of choosing what is good for your child and what is not, so we’re going to decide for you,” Evans said.

Evans does not stand as the only entertainer who views this bill as an overstep of the Tennessee Senate. 

The drag performer Joshua Stewart, aka Ivanna Cookie, originally from Maryland, worked with children as a teacher and behavioral health technician. 

“Why are they trying to mute other people’s voices that are different from theirs? Drag is a form of freedom of speech,” Stewart said. “There are parents that want their kids to be exposed to this. This is more so a persecution of pride. It has everything to do with showing who you are in public.”

Stewart dismissed the notion that drag is an explicitly sexual performance style or trying to endanger children, expressing its true purpose is about the creativity of the individual and connecting to one’s community. 

“You go to any of the drag brunches in town that are children accepting, no one is doing ‘WAP’ by Cardi B. No one is wearing a G-string, and I think that is when people are confused that drag is hypersexualized. When I am doing a number with children present, I am doing my ‘Moana’ number, my ‘Wicked’ number. I’ll pick something off of Broadway or Disney. I’m in a full gown where the most skin you’ll see is my hand and my face,” Stewart said.

At Stewart’s last Sylva Pride in which they performed, their number contained a segment where their garment unfolded to create a giant white canvas spanning the entire stage. The garment then proceeded to get the words ‘Protect Queer Youth’ spray painted onto the length of the fabric.  

“A lot of my favorite memories in drag have to do with Sylva Pride. These people in this small community who have all been hated upon finally felt one with themselves and one as a community. The amount of thank-you’s I got from trans kids and even cis-presenting kids showed how much they needed that show. They needed to know there is a bigger picture than their small town situations,” Stewart said. 

Fletcher said the bill is preying on not only performers expressing themselves but transgender individuals doing something as simple as singing to themselves in line at the grocery store, being regarded as male/female impersonation and adult performance. 

“My biggest concern for the queer community is that this bill does not just stop at what they deem cabaret style shows,” Fletcher said.

Stewart and Fletcher express the legislation as inhibiting their freedom of speech and an excuse for the government to silence people who only try to live authentically. 

“How are we as a society going to grow and stop the bigotry and hatred toward each other if people are not exposed to drag, especially children,” Stewart said. “What they will be doing is erasing years of a community’s history.” 

Evans said the bill is an excuse to imprison and suppress a group of constituents not projected to vote Republican. 

“The leaders of the state of delusion that is Tennessee are more than aware of the fact that if they are able to charge and convict Queer performers and community leaders with felonies, said performers and leaders will lose their right to vote for life,” Evans said.

The Tennessee General Assembly’s proposed bill on obscenity, pornography and adult cabaret performance can charge an individual with a class A misdemeanor or a class E felony on their first offense if engaging in an adult cabaret performance on public property where a minor can view it.

Tony Montes-Lopez, aka Thotianna Lopez, is an Asheville-raised DACA recipient and drag queen living most of their life in the United States.

“I am a DACA recipient meaning I am here on work/school availability, and that’s what I am here to do. To study and be of use to the United States economy. I can’t even have my license suspended. I have to have the cleanest slate, and if something like that affected me personally, I would be immediately deported. I wouldn’t get a chance in immigration court for that, and that’s not really fair to me in terms of what restrictions I have to go through just to live my day-to-day life in this country. That bill is not going to make it easier for people like me,” Montes-Lopez said.

Montes-Lopez stresses the safety of others from a similar background as their own with the passage of the bill.

“Being a queer XYZ person who is also brown, it is really hard to navigate life in general from things like going to the store. I am already queer and a person of color and alternative presenting so if I have to go through those things here it is going to make it that much harder even as Asheville is a primarily accepting city,” Montes-Lopez said.

Montes-Lopez said not only one small group is affected, and the passage of this bill targets an intersectional group of people. 

 “I am a drag performer by night, but I am also an alternative person by day and people misgender me even as I am pretty masculine presenting. It’s scary to think people in other states want to encourage it in their own state and it’s just not fair to people like me who are immigrants and do not have second chances in terms of the law,” Montes-Lopez said.

Asheville drag performers say the bill will create a ripple effect of anti-LGBTQIA+ legislation across the country, creating an unsafe future for queer individuals. 

“As much as it is about hate, it is also a desperate move in an attempt to maintain power and control,” Evans said.