Days before Blount County, Tennessee’s annual Pride festival, a local district attorney released a letter threatening to prosecute the event’s organizers under a defunct anti-drag act. The festival went on as scheduled this weekend—and more than doubled its 2022 attendance.
Blount Pride is an annual LGBTQ+ celebration in Maryville, offering music, art, drag performances, and community resources. But this year’s festival came under legal threat last week when Blount County District Attorney Ryan Desmond warned that he would prosecute organizers if they violated a short-lived anti-drag law.
After a last-minute lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union and a ruling from a federal judge, the festival went on as planned, with more than twice as many attendees as last year.
In March, Tennessee passed the Tennessee Adult Entertainment Act, a law designed to crack down on drag performances. The law classed drag performances as “adult cabaret entertainment” and banned “male or female impersonators” from performing in public spaces, or places where minors could see them.
Critics panned the law as overbroad, anti-gay, and in violation of Tennesseans’ First Ammendment rights. A federal judge agreed with them on the final count and this June, issued a permanent injunction against the legislation, writing that “the AEA was passed for the impermissible purpose of chilling constitutionally-protected speech” and that its language was “unconstitutionally vague and substantially overbroad.”
Tennessee officials disputed the ruling. Tennessee Attorney General Johnathan Skrmetti filed an appeal and claims the law is still in effect everywhere in Tennessee, except in Shelby County. Desmond, the Blount County DA, pointed to that argument last week when he wrote a letter to local lawmakers and Blount Pride organizers, warning that he could prosecute if Blount Pride hosted drag performers.
Local police warned about potential prosecutions over drag shows, and even told the president of Maryville College (where Blount Pride was scheduled to take place) that he and college officials could face charges.
One day after Desmond’s letter, the ACLU sued Desmond on behalf of Blount Pride and a drag artist who was scheduled to perform at the event. A federal judge ruled in the festival’s favor on Friday, blocking Desmond or police from taking action against Blount Pride.
Even without threat of prosecution, Blount Pride still faced opposition from anti-LGBT demonstrators, who stood outside the event. Footage showed demonstrators waving anti-gay signs and holding a large wooden cross.
Inside the event, however, attendance was booming. Blount Pride organizers told WATE that attendance had more than doubled since last year.
At least one of those attendees traveled across the country for the event. Montana State Representative Zooey Zephyr, who is transgender, said she decided to attend Blount Pride after learning about Desmond’s letter last week.
“When you come to an event like this, you don’t see people who are going back in the closet and hiding. You don’t see people who are scared to be themselves,” Zephyr told WATE.
“You come to these events and you say, ‘You can do many things in the law, but you will not make me deny who I am and you will not make me afraid. I will stand here tall and I will celebrate my existence with my community,’ and that’s what we’re seeing here today and what I’ve been blessed to see around the country.”