The Big Drag Bus hosts parties in Nashville, Tennessee. (Tennessee Lookout photo)
Over the past year, Wendy McCown-Williams has noted how heated political discussions about the transgender community had affected her business.
McCown-Williams, a transgender woman, has owned a gay bar in rural Tennessee for six years and welcomed everyone, regardless of sexual orientation or political leanings. Drag shows have been a common occurrence at her bar, Temptation — often used to raise funds for charities.
But in recent months, McCown-Williams’ business in Cookeville, Tennessee, has become a target of harassment.
“I’ve been at the location for six years, but over the last year I’ve had more disgusting emails and vile comments on my bar page,” she said.
And after the recent shooting of a LGBTQ nightclub in Colorado that left five people dead, McCown-Williams is wondering whether operating a gay bar in rural Tennessee is worth it.
“I don’t know if I could live with myself if something happened,” she said.
Targeted violent attacks have caused some owners LGBTQ-friendly businesses to fear for the safety of employees and patrons.
At DRUS Place in Memphis, armed security keeps watch now on most nights.
Increased security at DRUS Place was a reactionary response to the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, which resulted in more than 40 dead. More exits have been added; new windows improved the field of vision of employees, who have been trained to be aware of their surroundings at all times
“So (security) is really nothing new for us,” said DRUS Place owner Tami Montgomery.
“It is unfortunate that this is the world we live in, but the safety of our staff and customers is all that matters. We will do everything possible to make sure we continue to do everything possible,” said Montgomery.
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At Temptation, McCown-Williams discussed increased security measures with her employees following Saturday’s mass shooting in Colorado Springs.
Patrons will no longer be allowed to bring in large bags and additional cameras will be installed, McCowan-Williams said. Employees will also undergo additional safety training, she said.
But these measures might not be enough to stop “people from coming in shooting,” she noted.
Last Saturday night, a man wielding two firearms walked into Club Q in Colorado Springs and immediately opened fire, killing five people and injuring at least 19 others. The shooting suspect had evaded Colorado’s “red flag” gun laws despite a 2021 incident in which he allegedly threatened his mother with a homemade bomb, according to the AP News.
Among the dead was a Memphis native, the Commercial Appeal reported.
Violence against the LGBTQ community may be a direct consequence of political attacks on transgender youth, drag shows and LGBTQ people in general, advocates said.
In the wake of the Colorado shooting, Tennessee Equality Project and Tennessee Equality Project Foundation on Tuesday asked Tennessee lawmakers withdraw legislation targeting the LGBTQ community.
“Sen. Jack Johnson, Rep. William Lamberth, and Sen. Janice Bowling could play a significant role in keeping LGBTQ businesses and patrons safe by withdrawing their discriminatory legislation, executive director Chris Sanders said.
“The Tennessee Baptist Convention could help by revoking their recently-passed resolution attacking gender-affirming care for trans youth, drag shows, and LGBTQ people in general. There is a lot of hate to unwind, but we would be glad to talk to anyone who wants to turn the corner on the harm their rhetoric and actions do,” Sanders said.
In the past few months, Tennessee politicians have introduced legislation aimed at outlawing gender-affirming care for transgender youth and filed legislation to criminalize some drag show performances.
In October, Vanderbilt University Medical Center temporarily halted gender-affirming surgeries on patients under the age of 18 after receiving criticisms from both Republicans and the Daily Wire’s Matt Walsh.
Walsh then hosted a rally to protest gender-affirming care for transgender youth and was joined by Tennessee lawmakers, including Sen. Marsha Blackburn.
As a result, McCown-Williams said she is not surprised that the LGBTQ community has been targeted.
“Verbal garbage has gotten people riled up,” she said.
The investigation into the Colorado Springs shooting remains ongoing and the full picture of the shooter’s motives have yet to emerge.
But McCown-Williams thinks conservative lawmakers targeting the transgender community is also a factor. Her bar’s social media page often echoes far-right talking points.
“Hide your kids,” wrote one commenter, repeating false accusations of the transgender community.
“I do think that if they’re not careful, they’ll cause people to go to these events and affect people,” said McCown-Williams.
“These people didn’t wake up one day and decided drag shows that have been around for decades are grooming children,” she said. “For performers, this is a way to make a living. Can you imagine someone not agreeing with your job and making laws because they don’t like it?”
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