The future is uncertain for Tennessee drag performers

In about a week, we’ll learn what happens to Tennessee’s anti-drag legislation. The law, which seeks to severely restrict drag performances in the state, has been stymied in a legal battle over the protection of free speech.

But what did the news of the law mean for the business of drag? For Cameron Wade, a Nashville-based human resources generalist and drag queen going by the name Justine Van de Blair, business is good. “I would say the current state of affairs has backfired on the senators and those who created this ban because there has been an overwhelming wave of opportunity and support.”

The response, however, was not entirely positive. “I don’t know if my eyes are just open or you know, how much it [law] made people feel comfortable raping us on social media or in public,” Wade said in an interview with Sabri Ben-Achour of Marketplace.

The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Sabri Ben Achour: So what made you flirt originally?

Cameron Wade: Well, you know, in high school, I was always drawn to musicals and Broadway and choir and church, all that good stuff. And before I graduated from high school, I had no experience with anything other than those things. And so I went to my first gay club and they were having a drag show that night. And I just remember, there was a specific queen who turned the corner and opened the show, and I remember seeing like the rhinestones and the feathers and just being super mesmerized and captivated and everything clicked at that moment- there. I was like, ‘Oh my God, that’s all I love in one. It’s for me.’ And I ended up making my way backstage watching the performers put on makeup and get dressed. It was just… it still is and still is an interesting process for me.

Ben Achour: Your stage name is Justine Van de Blair, drag performers tend to have pretty unique names. What is the backstory behind yours?

Wade: Yeah, I know, mine is actually a mouthful. My first name comes from Justine, back when I came from a very, very, very religious, you know, and right-wing family, and some of my early friends – like coming out of high school and, you know, making my own – I had a straight couple named Justin and Christine. When they were together, unfortunately they are no longer together. But they were my first allies and the first name was a tribute to them. My last name was a show I was watching at the time, “Gossip Girl.” And the two main divas on that show were Serena van der Woodsen and Blair Waldorf. So I kind of mixed a bunch of names together and came up with my own.

Ben Achour: [Laughs] Now, is it something you like to have fun as a hobby? Or is it a real commercial activity?

Wade: Well, that’s interesting. When I lived in South Carolina, it was primarily a creative outlet. You know, I was obviously obsessed with it. I loved the transformation process. I loved the time behind the scenes and everything else, like creating your looks, your hair. When I moved to Tennessee, a lot of queens here were business. I had never been exposed to it at the business level that it is here. So I would say right now it’s definitely a business. But it’s great because it serves a dual purpose, I can also use it as a creative outlet.

Ben Achour: We’ve seen this push to restrict drag performance in multiple states, to sort of classify it as something not suitable for public spaces, to otherize it. The Tennessee law was the first and has since been temporarily blocked by a court. But what does this mean for your business?

Wade: Yeah, so you know, initially it was very vague. We had no idea what that meant. Like, okay, so if we’re not in a public space, when we’re walking in a public space and you’re just hanging out, could somebody come up and say, ‘You were playing or you was hanging out in front of my child.’ And we didn’t feel very protected, we felt very vulnerable. Now, you know, we’ve had a lot of support. I know it’s not over yet. I don’t want to say we’ve won anything. either, but it’s definitely a threat. It’s definitely…it gives you anxiety, I’ve never really had anxiety issues or issues being myself and now it’s, you know, it’s just kind of up in the air.

Ben Achour: Did it make a difference in audience?

Wade: I would say the current state of affairs has backfired on the senators and those who created this ban, because there has been an overwhelming wave of opportunity and support.

Ben Achour: Turning into drag takes a lot. There is makeup, there is hair. And inflation is basically felt everywhere these days. How has this affected your business?

Wade: Yes, so it is very expensive. I use the gigs that I basically have to reinvest. You mentioned my day job, which is an HR generalist, I do real estate on the side, that’s what I use to pay my bills but drags all sorts of stuff on its own. So when you don’t have opportunities that I don’t have, I have nothing to reinvest in my job. And yeah, you can buy stuff you can… you know, we like to say we don’t do things off the rack, we get everything custom-made. But things need maintenance, hair needs styling, so yeah, it’s a huge investment. And you know, when you threaten to kidnap it, that’s a big deal.

Ben Achour: You just got back from RuPaul’s DragCon in LA, has that pressure to limit drag been felt there? What was the experience there?

Wade: I didn’t feel the push there. You know, originally me and a local performer friend of mine, we used to go there every year and we would just go and attend, almost like a vacation. But a group that we work with here in Tennessee, inclusion tennessee, worked with us. And we brought in a group of artists. And we, too, had a booth at the conference, and we played at a club, where basically “Queens supporting Queens” was the title of the show. So we had girls from Tennessee and California all together, hugging and supporting each other. Other than that, I would say the only thing that felt was that there were very, very rude protesters near the entrance. I mean, they were… it was hateful stuff coming out of their mouths. But California has always shown love. I never really encountered any problems there.

Ben Achour: Yeah, you mentioned the protesters, you know, we’ve seen violence against the LGBTQ community before. Are you at all concerned that this kind of attention to flirting could encourage harassment and violence?

Wade: Yes, and you could see it from the day it was an idea. I had never really seen much personally. But now it’s weird because I don’t know if my eyes are just open or… you know, how comfortable it made people feel to rape us on social media or in public, but yes, I notice it everywhere now.

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