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'It's just clothing': How a Texas band went viral for wearing dresses onstage to protest anti-drag legislation

One Vandoliers member's idea to protest Tennessee's anti-drag law quickly turned into a viral sensation — and a $2K donation for LGBTQ+ organizations in the area.
Credit: Instagram - @vandoliers

MARYVILLE, Tenn — A Dallas-based band has been earning national attention for its response to the country's first on-the-books law restricting drag shows.

Last Thursday, the governor of Tennessee signed into law a bill that says "male or female impersonators" now fall under the "adult cabaret" designation along with topless dancers, go-go dancers, exotic dancers and strippers. 

The law also prohibits adult cabaret performances from taking place on public property or in any place where minors might be present, and it threatens performers with misdemeanor charges for breaking the rules — or even felony charges for repeat offenses.

While that legislation was still being discussed as a bill, the Texas country-punk band Vandoliers — who found themselves in Tennessee while they were touring in support of their 2022-released, self-titled album — already made the call to show solidarity to drag performers and the area LGBTQ+ community by wearing dresses during their concert at The Shed in Maryville, Tennessee.

It just so happened that the governor signed the bill into law hours before the Vandoliers' concert was set to begin.

Vandoliers multi-instrumentalist Cory Graves tells WFAA that it was originally his idea to wear a dress during the show as his own act of solidarity. But once the rest of the band caught wind of Graves' planned personal protest, they quickly decided to join in on the effort with him. 

"Whenever I told our bass player, 'I'm gonna do this,' he was like, 'That's a good idea,'" Graves said. "And then I told our guitar player, and he was like, 'I'm doing it too.' And then our fiddle player's like, 'I'm doing it too!'"

It wasn't long before all six Vandoliers were on board.

Lead Vandoliers vocalist Joshua Fleming said standing up for the marginalized isn't anything out of the ordinary for the band. Still, none of the Vandoliers expected their show of solidarity to attract much extra attention outside of the venue, let alone find them featured in Rolling Stone.

"I'm really involved with [the] LGBTQIA+ community," Fleming said. "We have a lot of friends [in that community]; I've played with a lot of bands from that community. And, to me, it seemed very important and something that we wanted to stand by."

Before their Thursday show, the group spent some time off from the road to shop for dresses in three vintage shops around Asheville, North Carolina. They turned to their tour manager and the store owners to figure out the best dresses for their body types, and they needed all the help they could get. As Fleming put it, six guys from a country-punk band trying to figure out their sizes in the middle of a dress store was a something to see — "like a bull in a China shop," he said.

"The [last] shop owner was really, really kind," Fleming continued. "All the patrons in there were giggling 'cause we're all trying on dresses. Everyone was laughing, giggling and having a great time."

The giggles kept going through to the Thursday night showcase itself, when the six men of the band walked out on stage, wearing dresses at a Harley-Davidson-sponsored venue in rural Tennessee as the chorus of Shania Twain's "Man! Feel Like A Woman!" played overhead on the public-address system.

From the security guards to the other bands backstage to the crowds out in front of them, the Vandoliers said everyone in the venue looked to be having a great time. More than just mere fun, though, Fleming also noted that the band rearranged its set list at the show to emphasize their stances against gender norms — changes their fans caught onto instantly.

"The point we were trying to make was that it’s just clothing," Fleming said. "It’s not a sexual act. It shouldn’t even be a law -- because there’s no victim."

Out of the 80 people or so people in the audience, Fleming said he learned after the set that about four people left during the show. 

But the venue didn't seem to mind; rather, the club's owner shook the band's hands afterwards and invited them back for future shows.

Support along those lines continued even after the show, too, as the band received private thankful messages from close friends and public shows of support on social media. 

In the face of that overwhelming support, Graves said the band has only received about five negative emails for their actions in Tennessee.

"It’s been affecting people in ways we didn’t think it would," Graves said. "We thought we were doing something for 80 people in a room, and it blew up where we’re getting thousands of messaging saying 'You touched my life' in some way."

Their effort is also leading to change beyond the symbolic. 

Since that Thursday show, the band has been using its Vandoliers social media accounts to auction off the dresses they wore on stage with the goal of donating the proceeds to the Tennessee-area LGBTQ+ community organizations Knox Pride Center and the Tennessee Equality Project.

That auction closed early Monday afternoon, with the proceeds from the sales totaling $2,277.69 in donations. 

The final bids for each dressed ranged from $275 to $512. 

"I guess we did the right thing by putting on a dress," Fleming said. "It's just a small thing that impacted so many people, and it just proves that you can do a little thing every day, and it’s going to have a positive impact on the world."

Editor's Note: The following video was uploaded in June 2022

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