Drag By First Amendment: Trans icon Geena Rocero is a free speech hero
Filipino American Geena Rocero burst on the scene with a Ted Talk in 2014. Her “Why I Must Come Out,” has now had close to 4 million views.
If she looks familiar to you, maybe you saw her when she moved to San Francisco when she was 17 and worked the makeup counters at Macy’s. “Almost every single counter has a trans Filipino working there,” Rocero told the New York Times in a recent article dubbed, “She Rewrote the Trans Narrative.”
I remember meeting Geena when she came to speak at a Filipino American National Historical Society event a few years after her TED splash. I got the sense she had her TED down, but she was still raw and gathering steam. Now at 39, she’s a polished public speaker, an entrepreneur, and has a new memoir out, “Horse Barbie,” which tells of her early life, first as a transgender beauty queen in the Philippines –where she lived openly.
But not in America where she was recognized officially as a woman and worked as a model, but was always in fear that she would be outed as trans.
Good thing no one in the fashion world knew much about the trans beauty queen scene in the RP.
But it shows how the “rewriting of the trans narrative” is just acknowledging the unique journey of trans Filipinos. Out in the Philippines, but closed in America , the land of the free.
And now the story can be told, proudly, right? It’s 2023, after all, a full decade after her TED Talk.
But this PRIDE Month of June, we enter a unique moment in American political life where hard earned rights of the past 50 years have been challenged yet again in what appears to be the makings of the Great American Rollback.
Anti-LGBTQ Republicans in particular have taken added glee in targeting innocuous drag shows as if they were soft porn sleaze rather than cabaret entertainment. To date there are at least 16 states that have passed or are considering bans of drag shows.
That is why we must cheer the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee for giving us all hope.
If you are a male within that great state of Tennessee and wish to wear a dress in public and crack jokes, go right ahead. Red dress, blue dress or fuschia. Even if it doesn’t match your mascara.
Make no mistake: that’s all protected speech. And it’s not just because it’s Pride Month. You can do it anytime.
For that matter, if you are a born a female and are a “drag king,” you’re covered too.
No one will come running waving Tennessee’s Adult Entertainment Act (AEA) and arrest you as a criminal threatening minors.
That’s all thanks to Judge Thomas Parker, a Trump appointee who thankfully still believes in the Constitution.
No matter how much we dread the high court in DC these days, Judge Parker has stayed true.
On Friday, Parker opined, “[T[he Tennessee General Assembly can certainly use its mandate to pass laws that their communities demand. But that mandate as to speech is limited by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, which commands that laws infringing on the Freedom of Speech must be narrow and well-defined. The AEA is neither.”
And with that, the first law of more than 16 attempts nationwide to restrict drag performances has been shut down.
Judge Parker wrote that putting “female impersonators” in the same category with “topless dancers, go-go dancers, exotic dancers, strippers,” did not pass strict scrutiny in 2023, and viewed such comparisons “with skepticism.”
And then he took issue with drag being “harmful to minors,” taking issue with the specific phrase. Parker wrote that “this phrase discriminates against the viewpoint of gender identity—particularly, those who wish to impersonate a gender that is different from the one which they are born.”
“Freedom of speech is not just about speech,” Parker wrote on the very first page of his opinion. “It is also about the right to debate with fellow citizens on self-government, to discover the truth in the marketplace of ideas, to express one’s identity and to realize self-fulfillment in a free society. That freedom is of first importance to many Americans such that the United States Supreme Court has relaxed procedural requirements for citizens to vindicate their right to freedom of speech, while making it harder for the government to regulate it.”
As the judge viewed it, the Tennessee General Assembly had simply gone too far.
It’s good to see there are reasonable conservatives like Parker, the aforementioned Trump appointee, who haven’t lost their sense of the Constitution. That’s worth noting, because the fight is only beginning. We need everyone on the same page.
Tennessee is just one of more than a dozen states that have been caught up in the wave of anti-drag, anti-trans and anti-LGBTQ sentiment fostered by Republican politics around the country.
It’s the GOP’s great rollback of freedoms driven by hate. In a divided America, it’s become a fight for every inch.
As a kid growing up a few blocks from the Castro Theater in San Francisco, I know the changes that have taken place in the last 50 years. As a reporter, I remember covering the first Gay Pride parades in the city.
It would be hard to imagine society going backwards. But some in our society want us to go in reverse.
Judge Parker’s ruling comes at just the right time. It’s the reminder that the tool that protects our freedoms and our progress is exactly what makes America great–our Constitution.
Take pride in that this month too.
And then take another look at Geena Rocero. As the judge affirmed, her choice of wig, be it a side bang with a flip, her eyeliner, her clothes, her being. As a viewpoint of gender, it is all protected speech, drag by First Amendment.
NOTE: I will talk about this column and other matters on “Emil Amok’s Takeout,” my AAPI micro-talk show. Live @2p Pacific. Livestream on Facebook; my YouTube channel; and Twitter. Catch the recordings on www.amok.com.
Emil Guillermo, a journalist and commentator, writes a column for the North American Bureau.