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Tennessee drag star Eureka O'Hara reflects on the new law against drag performances

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Next week, Tennessee will become the first state to criminalize drag performances on public property. The new law aims to limit access to entertainment that appeals to, quote, "prurient interests," unquote, by minors. After the bill takes effect on April 1, people who flout the law could face misdemeanor, even felony charges. Eureka O'Hara is a drag queen from Johnson City, Tenn. She rose to prominence on the ninth and 10th seasons of the hit TV series "RuPaul's Drag Race."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AMERICAN (SEASON 10 REMIX)")

EUREKA O'HARA: (Rapping) Watch me smile, and watch me slay 'cause I'm living for my true self every day. It's not about your color, gender, or size, but if we come together, we can rise. I came from nothing.

SIMON: And Eureka O'Hara currently hosts her own reality show on HBO called "We're Here." Eureka O'Hara joins us now. Thanks so much for being with us.

O'HARA: Hi. Thank you so much for having me. It's an honor.

SIMON: Well, the honor is ours. What do you think of this bill?

O'HARA: Chew it up, spit it out like the chewing tobacco that the men used to chew in Tennessee when I was younger. You know, honestly, the bill is just - it's a little disheartening because drag, which is specific queer art, is very uplifting, so I just think that they are pigeonholing all types of drag into this one negative sexual connotation to instill fear. And, you know, we're not trying to harm anybody. We're just trying to be fierce and fabulous and celebrate each other.

SIMON: Do you think you'll be able to keep performing in Tennessee?

O'HARA: Obviously, there are nightclubs, right? And that's the realm where drag has always existed. But there is Drag Story Hour where people are starting to diversify their children with queer books being read by drag queens. There's also - I think in Nashville there's a bus that drives around where drag queens, you know, give a tour in an exclamation of fierceness to bridesmaids and their bachelorette parties and all these things. They empower women to just feel fabulous and fierce in an environment where they can celebrate themselves without feeling actually sexualized, which can happen a lot of times in the normal heteronormative nightclub scene.

SIMON: Yeah. What about the argument that it's just responsible to protect minors, young people, from sexual references and sexual jokes?

O'HARA: I don't know any past history where kids were affected negatively by drag queens performing in public. So the argument that it is trying to censor performance for children - well, that's the same thing that we're doing at the movies, right? But parents have the right to take their children and choose what movies they allow their children to see. In a diverse world where people are starting to grow and evolve, where we do have the World Wide Web and so many elements that connect these children, they're able to find out who they are much sooner in life, and to distract them from them being able to discover who they are is, I think, the worst harm that you could do, more than a drag queen performing in front of one of them.

SIMON: You've said in the past that drag kind of saved your life.

O'HARA: Well, yeah, drag did save my life. You know, I was bullied and harassed with toxic masculinity my entire life, growing up a white cis male in East Tennessee. And later in life I discovered I was transgendered, and I'm female. And I transitioned when I was 18, and I was so abused mentally, physically, sexually, it caused me to detransition and take a step back. I started listening to those voices and those people that were passing judgment of, you know, you don't know that that's who you really are. You're going to regret it one day. And I finally decided to live authentically as myself again. And I just came out recently again as trans. You know, I still ended up exactly who I knew I was the entire time.

SIMON: What do you think Pride parades, which are on public property typically throughout Tennessee, are going to be able to do or not do with this law?

O'HARA: I'm not sure how we're going to make it work, but we will make it work. As soon as I'm invited to a Pride, I'll be there loud and proud and in full drag. And maybe I'll make sure that I'm dressed appropriately in quotation marks, but overtly artistic, exaggerated femininity that I was beaten down and told I was never allowed to express growing up. But then when I decided to express it through this art form of drag, it opened up a whole new world of a career and family and friends and chosen family when a lot of my family had kicked me to the curb.

SIMON: Ms. O'Hara, what are your - what do you think of your home state of Tennessee at the moment?

O'HARA: I love where I come from. There's a lot of really amazing things about Tennessee that are now being shadowed by the hatred and discrimination. I always believe in the light overcoming the dark. And this to me is a little more darkness than light. Although some people might be thinking that they're being protective with these laws, they're actually endorsing more hate than they know.

SIMON: Eureka O'Hara - drag performer, television host and proud Tennessean - thank you so much for being with us.

O'HARA: Thank you for just hearing my voice.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.