Straight-male rockers don dresses to protest anti-drag laws: “If my job is to wear a dress to help, then I’ll wear a dress all day.”

Country punk band Vandoliers and Gusters Ryan Miller dress in drag to protest anti-drag legislation in Tennessee and Florida. (Photos: Rachel Dodd, Ang Hopkins)

The country punk band Vandoliers sextet were on tour in late February when they read about a controversial new Tennessee law criminalizing public drag shows as “adult-oriented performances harmful to minors.” The Dallas band’s multi-instrumentalist Cory Graves tells Yahoo Entertainment he knew exactly what he and his bandmates needed to do ahead of their performance this week at biker bar Shed Smokehouse & Juke Joint in Maryville, Tennessee.

They took action. They went shopping for clothes.

“We had just seen that maybe by the time we were in Tennessee, the law would be signed into law,” Graves recalled. “I looked at our calendar and I was like, ‘Oh shit, we’re going to be in Tennessee in two days. I’m going to get a dress and do it because I believe in it.’ It’s like a middle finger and just a show of support for a class of people who do shit for no reason. … And so we all went to some vintage shops and let the shop ladies help us find clothes. They were trying to show us what would look good on our broad-shouldered bodies or whatever.”

“Cory is very smart and had a really great way of innocently telling someone to fool themselves,” says frontman Joshua Fleming. “And I thought that’s a really respectful way for a bunch of smelly straight guys [protest] without being violent, being a problem, or offending a group of people—just an act of kindness to a small community of people in rural Tennessee, maybe a few country bumpkins rethink and move on. And it became our voice out there.”

On March 2nd, the day of the Vandoliers’ Shed show, the anti-drag bill was signed into law by Tennessee Governor Bill Lee. That night, as the six-piece cast strutted onto the stage in their new feminine finery and Shania Twain’s “Man, I Feel Like a Woman” blared through the PA as the opening music, Fleming admitted he was “really nervous – because that’s how it was in a Harley.” Shop! At first we thought, ‘This will be Good! We’re going to get in there, frame it on some country people, give them a shot of their own medicine!’ But then it was like, ‘Um, let’s just try not to get our ass kicked.'”

However, audience response from The Shed has been “overwhelmingly positive,” says Graves. “People really saw the fun and the harmlessness of it, saw the joy of it.” A social media post from the hairy rocker dudes, proudly showing off their thrift store couture, captioned “F*** a Drag Bill,” went viral soon after, and the band later auctioned off their clothes for LGBTQ+ charities in Tennessee.

“The [auction] It was $2,277.69 in total I think. It definitely was 69 cents, sure,” laughs Fleming.

Since that Vandoliers performance, other straight male cis rock bands have staged their own drag protests. On March 13, veteran indie rock trio Yo La Tengo’s two male members, Ira Kaplan and James McNew, performed their encore in Drag at Basement East in Nashville. While no one in Yo La Tengo openly addressed the anti-drag law during their set, the band later released the following statement via their Matador Records label: “What we did last night could not have been clearer and needs no further comment. “

Then this week, pop-rock band Guster also donned dresses for their encore at the Ponte Vedra Concert Hall in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. in response to similar news Florida bill arguing that drag shows pose a “serious public health and safety threat” to children.

“I’ve never played an encore in drag, but that’s exactly what we did tonight in Ponte Vedra FL. Hadn’t thought of it, but all the attention from Florida politicians convinced us to give it a try. Somehow liked it. Thanks for the idea Ron DeSantis!” Guster drummer Brian Rosenworcel tweeted this evening, March 26, with a photo of Guster singer Ryan Miller rocking a floral dress, winged Winehouse eyeliner and a platinum wig. “We’re not usually very political on stage, but if you try to stifle creative expression, you’ll only evoke more of it. Keep fighting, Florida.”

“After a week of playing shows in Florida, we wanted to show our solidarity with our many friends across the state who are fighting for equality,” Miller later told Yahoo Entertainment in an email.

As Graves points out, “In the rock world, men have been wearing dresses for a long time. Nirvana did it on TV, for example.” However, Vandoliers — who have one booted (or heeled) foot in the rock world and one in the country world, having toured with everyone from Celtic party band Flogging Molly to the bluegrass From legend Marty Stuart to Fleming’s good friend, transpunk singer Laura Jane Grace — acknowledges that subversive cross-dressing is much less common in country music. That’s why it’s especially important to them “to only stand up for queer people, but to stand up for queer country musicians because that’s a genre that doesn’t accept them the way it should,” Graves explains.

It’s likely that other bands across music genres will be hosting drag protests in the near future, as Florida and Tennessee aren’t the only US states with anti-LGBTQ+ bills making their way through the legislature. Indeed, just this week in Vandoliers’ home state of Texas, State Assemblyman Steve Toth submitted a bill which defines “drag” as a performance by someone who is “of a gender different from the performer’s sex recorded at birth … and singing, lip-synching, dancing, or otherwise performing in a lascivious manner in front of an audience.” Toth’s bill even allows minors present to sue the allegedly abusive performer. (Opponents have dubbed it the “drag bounty hunter bill.”)

“I think there’s a lot of legislation coming out in a lot of states, and this is just the tip of the iceberg, and they’re just going to go down the slippery slope — see what they can get away with, and then go bigger and bigger strides, around that class of people.” harm,” Graves sighs. “The [Tennessee] especially the law that we passed that night [played the Shed], was so vaguely put. They say: ‘We will protect the children!’ But when it says you can’t stand on stage in front of kids wearing clothing that doesn’t match your “birth sex” or whatever, it means a regular transgender country musician is in trouble if a child is in his audience? And who says someone isn’t wearing the “right” clothes? What makes it a “men’s dress” or a “women’s dress”? I never understood that, because for 20 years I’ve mainly been wearing clothes that I bought in the women’s department. And I think once I buy it, it’s not “women’s clothing” anymore. It is My Clothing.”

“I don’t like bloody bullies. It bothers me. And everything about these laws just seems like a bullying tactic,” adds Fleming, getting angry at letting what he calls “the angry American in me” speak out. “It’s troubling to me, especially that it’s being pushed into other states. I really see this as a slap in the face of gay rights and there is no other way to look at it. … I don’t want that to happen My Condition; I’m very afraid of it. I have a daughter and I don’t even know if she’s still gay – you know she’s 2. But she has a whole life ahead of her and it’s going to affect her in some way.

Fleming emphasizes that Vandoliers — like members of Guster and Yo La Tengo — “didn’t do that to be a voice for the trans community, but if we’re in it and our voices are heard, great.” But even though they are have already sold their shed dresses for charity, vandoliers say their protest was not an isolated one. “I think at some point we’ll probably do something, be it some kind of event or whatever,” says Graves, adding that he’d love to see more rock bands make their own pro-drag and pro-queer statements Vandoliers “want to have real drag queens next time, not just straight white dudes pretending.” Let’s get real help from people who are experts in the art form.”

“We really don’t want it to be a gimmick. That’s not our place,” says Fleming. “But I’ve also said this before: if my job is to wear a dress to help, then I’ll wear a dress all day.”

“And I just want to say it is very I realize it’s not the drag queens out there that are hurting people. It’s not drag queens that do school shootings or these pastor rapes or whatever,” Graves notes. Less seriously, he adds: “And it was never clearer to me than when I was loading a keyboard down the stairs in a dress and I realized how difficult it was: you couldn’t hurt anyone in a dress.”

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