Area pride performance cited in Ohio GOP’s attempt to ban ‘obscene’ public drag shows

Credit: Nick Graham

Credit: Nick Graham

A drag performance at last year’s Middletown Pride festival was cited Tuesday in support of an Ohio GOP proposal to outlaw obscene public performances.

House Bill 245 would create a new criminal offense of “unlawful adult cabaret performances” for performances that took place outside a designated adult cabaret that are found to be obscene or harmful to children. If convicted, the new offense would carry a penalty ranging from a first degree misdemeanor to a fourth degree felony, depending on the offense.

While Republican proponents urged quick passage of the bill, opponents argued the bill could subject even modest drag shows to increased scrutiny and create a chilling effect on the freedom of expression.

The bill does not target drag queens, nor does it put a blanket ban over public drag shows. It relies on definitions of terms like “obscene” and “harmful to children” that could be subjective and their application would likely have to be determined by the courts.

“‘A performer has to be engaged in a performance that’s harmful to juveniles or obscene,’” said H.B. 245 primary co-sponsor Rep. Josh Williams, R-Sylvania, citing his bill and pushing back on concerns that it tries to ban all public drag shows like other states did. “That clearly concedes a point that many people won’t want to recognize is that there are adult performances that are not obscene or harmful to juveniles.”

The bill is molded by two drag shows in Ohio, including last year’s performance at Middletown Pride, which elicited disgust and frustration from many Ohio Republicans. Republican Butler County Auditor Nancy Nix said the local event “robbed children of their innocence.”

In written testimony submitted on Tuesday, Nix honed in on the parts of the Middletown performance that featured performers gyrating, bent over or otherwise being “intentionally provocative in indescribable ways,” including a period where minors ostensibly handed the performers cash “as if in a night club.”

“Live, obscene performances by men dressing as prostitutes should be limited to adult-only establishments,” Nix concluded.

Sean McCann, policy strategist for ACLU of Ohio, said such a law could not be applied fairly.

“You just have a potentially uneven application of current law and of this bill depending on where you are and whose court you’re in front of or who happens to stop you in an attempt to charge you with a violation of that statute,” McCann said.

Judah Clayton, a Black transgender woman who spoke with reporters after Tuesday’s committee hearing, is worried that the traditional “obscenity” definition may become looser, specifically when it’s applied to transgender people, drag queens, or Black and brown women.

“I’m hugely concerned that women who are performing and are performing in a way that is not how I would consider obscene and not how people in my community would consider obscene, would be considered obscene by these prevailing standards,” Clayton said.

Clayton and McCann felt their worries were boosted by the insistence of several of Tuesday’s proponents that any drag show at all could be considered harmful to juveniles — a stance that, if shared by a judge, could theoretically lead to criminal charges.

But Williams believes his proposal is being misinterpreted as further reaching than it is.

“If you’re going to be engaged in obscenity, do it behind closed doors in a regulated establishment. That’s all we’re asking for here,” he said.

Further hearings on H.B. 245, including a hearing set aside for the bill’s opponents, are expected to follow Tuesday’s hearing, though none have been scheduled at the time of reporting.

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Avery Kreemer can be reached at 614-981-1422, on X, via email, or you can drop him a comment/tip with the survey below.

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