This year, homosexuality was banned for five months in a college town in Tennessee.
In June, the Murfreesboro City Council passed an ordinance banning “indecent exposure, public indecency, lewd conduct, nudity or sexual conduct.” The rule did not explicitly mention homosexuality, but LGBTQ+ people in the city quickly realized that the ordinance references 21-72 of the city code, which categorizes homosexuality as an act of indecent sexual conduct.
The ordinance was essentially a covert ban on LGBTQ+ existence.
Erin Reed, one of the first and only national journalists to report on the ordinance earlier this year, noted that Murfreesboro is not “the only community that has these old, archaic pieces of code that target homosexuality.”
Earlier this month, following a legal challenge from the ACLU of Tennessee, the Murfreesboro government removed “homosexuality” from the list of acts defined as “public indecency” by the city code. The small victory came after officials repeatedly refused to issue permits for the BoroPride Festival, citing the new regulation.
Despite the ACLU’s recent victory, advocates warn that Murfreesboro’s story represents a new frontier in anti-LGBTQ+ legislation. Republican state and local leaders in the US South are reviving vague, sometimes decades-old rules on “indecency” and “obscenity” as a bludgeon against gay life.
Kasey Meehan, program director of the Freedom to Read program at PEN America, said the organization has seen “several threats to free speech, all under the guise of obscenity prevention” in “Tennessee and especially Florida.”
Tennessee is one of three states that passed laws in 2023 that specifically ban drag performers from performing in certain public spaces.
Last year, the Florida government threatened to revoke the liquor license of R House, a Miami restaurant that hosts drag performances. In the legal complaint against the site, Governor Ron DeSantis cited a 1947 Florida Supreme Court ruling that said “men pretending to be women” could create a public nuisance.
Judges in both Florida and Tennessee, including one appointed by former President Donald Trump, have blocked the statutes after lawsuits from drag queens and civil rights groups.
In his ruling declaring Tennessee’s drag ban unconstitutional, U.S. District Judge Thomas Parker wrote that the First Amendment does not protect against obscenity: “But there is a difference between material that is ‘obscene’ in the vernacular, and material that is ‘obscene ‘ is in the vernacular. ‘ according to the law. Simply put: not a majority of the [US] The Supreme Court has ruled that sexually explicit – but not obscene – speech receives less protection than political, artistic or scientific speech.”
While drag bans have largely failed to withstand legal challenges this year, Republicans have once again focused on a second enemy in their war on “obscenity”: public school libraries.
In April, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee, a Republican, signed a bill that would impose criminal penalties on booksellers or distributors who provide “obscene” books to the state’s public schools. The state does not provide clear guidelines on what types of books and written materials are considered “obscene.”
“Schools continue to reiterate that the books removed from these libraries do not meet any legal or informal definition of obscenity,” Meehan said.
Fearing prosecution for violating the notoriously vague and confusing state law, schools in Tennessee have removed a range of “books with LGBTQ characters, books with characters of color, books that talk about race and racism,” Meehan said.
While Republican pushes for book bans typically target public school students, Murfreesboro’s indecency ordinance led to the censorship of books available to adult users of the public library.
“We’re not talking about a children’s library, this is a public library, these are books that adults can no longer view,” Reed said.
In August, Reed watched as Rutherford County officials voted to remove four books from the public library system, citing the Murfreesboro ordinance. Earlier this month, those same district officials — undeterred by the ACLU’s lawsuit — considered removing any books that might violate Murfreesboro’s rules on indecency.
“It’s important to understand that, from the perspective of the far right, the guardrails are gone,” said Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, executive director of the Campaign for Southern Equality.
She and other LGBTQ+ advocates in the South worry that Murfreesboro is the canary in the coal mine. A ban on homosexuality and censorship of library books available for adults, Beach-Ferrara says, indicates that the Republican Party is increasingly willing to erode rights that “we as advocates previously thought, oh, they can never come again.” .
The driving force behind this increasingly brazen attack on LGBTQ+ rights, according to Beach-Ferrara, is a right-wing Christian hate group called the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF).
The ADF, which according to its website was founded in 1994 by a group of “leaders in the Christian community,” has funded efforts to restrict abortion and ban books dealing with LGBTQ+ topics, two of the group’s main goals.
A Guardian investigation found that the ADF saw a huge increase in its funding between 2020 and 2021. The group funneled some of that money to a slew of smaller anti-LGBTQ+ and anti-abortion groups in the US.
ADF lawyers proved the power of anti-obscenity laws earlier this year when the group filed suit to block the use of mifepristone, a widely used and safe abortion drug. The ADF cited an 1873 obscenity law called the Comstock Act, which banned the sending of abortion drugs by mail.
A Trump-appointed federal judge in Texas, Matthew Kacsmaryk, sided with the plaintiffs and issued a preliminary injunction on April 7 suspending the FDA’s 23-year-old approval of mifepristone.
In late April, the U.S. Supreme Court blocked court-ordered restrictions on mifepristone, but the lawsuit filed by anti-abortion groups against the pill continues. Despite the temporary nature of the order, the ADF’s reliance on a 150-year-old, previously dormant law showed how “obscenity” could be used to advance the modern far-right movement.
Beach-Ferrara said extremist groups like the ADF are “willing to use every mechanism and lever available” to argue against protections for both LGBTQ+ people and women.
Despite the ADF’s influence over right-wing state legislatures and courts, strict anti-obscenity laws, especially those targeting the fundamental rights of women and LGBTQ+ people, have led to widespread backlash at the local level. While reporting from Murfreesboro, Reed met a local man who founded borobannedbooks.com after the county removed four “obscene” books from the public library system. Murfreesboro residents can select any of these banned books and have them delivered for free.
“There are a lot of strange people in Murfreesboro. There are people who fought hard for their Pride parade,” Reed said. “Everywhere you look, people are fighting back against these laws because it’s not something people are clamoring for.”