Friends of George’s had a show to put on. It’s more or less that simple.

The Memphis theater group, which does drag-centric comedy productions for local charities, had already set April 14 as the opening for its latest event Drag Rocks at the Evergreen Theatre. That was on the books before legislators in Tennessee voted in March to restrict drag performance in a way that kind of made it sound like the troupe wouldn’t be allowed to put on their show. Friends of George’s had their hand forced.

“We were hoping that somebody else would do this, if I’m being honest with you,” Micah Winter-Cole, who performs as Goldie Dee, tells Rolling Stone. “I don’t think most of Friends of George’s really wished to disrupt their normal scheduled programming. This was out of necessity.”

They brought their case to civil rights attorneys and fought the law, dubbed the “Adult Entertainment Act,” in court. After being granted a temporary injunction in early April so that Friends of George’s could stage their show, District Judge Thomas Parker ultimately declared the law unconstitutional on grounds that it violated freedom of speech. It’s a ruling that, in addition to being a bright spot this Pride month, could serve as a guide for legal action in other states where drag has been under threat.

“It was sublime and surreal,” Winter says. “We’re not thinking this is the end; it was nice to get past the first hurdle.”

Friends of George’s has deep history in Memphis. It’s named in honor of George’s Disco, a 1970s-80s gay club on Madison Avenue that was a community hub for the area (it was also known as George’s Truck Stop and Drag Bar at one point). “On the Sunday afternoon shows, it was just like a family get-together,” Sandy Kozik, known to the Friends of George’s community as Bela d’Ball, recalls.

The bar closed in the late Eighties, but in 2010, a volunteer group calling themselves Friends of George’s reconvened some of the performers and fans for charity, and it turned out to be a hit. Since then, it’s been a popular part of the Memphis theater community, with productions including Murder at Hotel Le’George, The Dragnificent 70s, and The Drag Boat, all with humorous sketches and performances. They donate the proceeds to a chosen LGBTQ+ nonprofit.

The Drag Boat was the first one I saw,” Kozik says. “I’m a theater snob, but I was pleasantly surprised because they talked back to the audience. It’s like Carol Burnett meets SNL with a little drag thrown in and Beverly Hillbillies humor. It’s something everybody can relate to.”

With that something-for-everyone approach in mind, Friends of George’s turned to civil rights attorneys including Memphis-based Brice Timmons, feeling like they had a compelling First Amendment argument.

“All civil rights battles are uphill battles, but it was a lawsuit that had validity and certainly fell into that category of things that needed to happen,” Timmons says. “[I am] very pleased that the judge took the matter as seriously as he did and saw it as the free speech case that it is.”

In the judge’s 70-page decision, he criticized the law for its vague, outdated language around obscenity. “The AEA’s ‘harmful to minors’ standard applies to minors of all ages, so it fails to provide fair notice of what is prohibited, and it encourages discriminatory enforcement,” Parker wrote. “The AEA is substantially over-broad because it applies to public property or ‘anywhere’ a minor could be present.”

Still, Tennessee Republican lawmakers reacted to the ruling with outrage, as if they had presented something airtight that couldn’t be challenged. “I did not think they would be quite as clueless that this was coming,” Timmons says. “I sort of expect that their gambit, as it often has been over the last couple decades, is go ahead and make the unconstitutional law and then just blame the liberal legal establishment when you don’t get your way.”

In the wake of the ruling, Tennessee Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti pushed back and said that the law only applied in Shelby County, due to a technicality in the way the lawsuit had to be filed. He also said he was considering an appeal to the ruling. Timmons points back at the unconstitutional ruling as evidence enough that it’ll stand anywhere else in Tennessee. “That means there are no constitutional applications to this law,” he says, “unless what Attorney General Skrmetti is suggesting is that the other 30 district attorneys in Tennessee go ahead and ignore that declaration that the law is unconstitutional and enforce an unconstitutional law and open themselves up to civil rights cases for damages.” Timmons is also helping out with a similar lawsuit in Florida.

For Friends of George’s, they’re well aware that there may be more battles ahead as the legislature regroups and tries to come up with some new way to write a law around drag. They’re ready for the fight, but they’d really like if they could just get back to having fun on the stage.

“We’re doing this because it’s the right thing to do, but we’re not trying to run for office and we’re not trying to stay every day in court and every day in the national media, at least not for this,” Winter-Cole says. “We’d love it if our shows got national attention such as this, but we’re really in the business of creating and producing comical stage work, and we’d like to get back to that.”

“We shall proceed. We’re talking about which non-profit we want to give money to for the next show,” Kozik adds.

In a not-coincidental bit of timing, Judge Parker’s ruling was handed down late in the day on June 2, the eve of Mid-South Pride in Memphis.


“I’ve learned that judges are just as dramatic as the rest of us and they like to play that card,” Winter-Cole says, laughing.

This year’s Mid-South Pride turned out to be even more celebratory than usual — Winter-Cole says it was “raucous and wonderful.” Friends of George’s appropriately landed on a patriotic theme for their parade float, with their drag queens dressed in red, white, and blue and waving as John Philip Sousa’s “The Stars and Stripes Forever” emanated from the speakers.