Proposed Ohio legislation would restrict drag performances

By Grace Clarke/Kent State NewsLab

A large crowd of twenty-somethings filled Zephyr Pub in Kent on a Friday night in August, cheering and throwing dollar bills at local drag queen Rosie Quartz as she stomped and gyrated in her heels to a remix of “I’m Not A Vampire” by Falling in Reverse.

Kent State University senior Griffin Hess, who is known as Rosie Quartz on stage, lives for drag. 

“I love art and fashion, but it feels limiting with Griffin. But with Rosie, it feels like no one’s going to question it,” Hess said. 

He lives for the theatricality of Rosie’s performances and the creativity that comes with it. He can’t seem to live without it. 

He may have to learn how to, though, with proposed legislation that puts performances like Quartz’s at risk.

House Bill 245 aims to restrict drag performers as well as other adult entertainers from performing outside designated adult entertainment facilities. 

The bill, introduced in July, had its first hearing in the Ohio House Criminal Justice Committee on Nov.14. 

The bill aims to restrict drag performers, as well as adult entertainers such as topless dancers, go-go dancers, strippers and exotic dancers from performing outside adult cabaret locations. It also broadens the definition of adult cabaret performances to encompass individuals specifically expressing a gender identity different from their assigned gender at birth through various means like clothing, makeup or prosthetic or imitation genitals or breasts. 

Rep. Angie King, R-Celina, emphasized in her sponsor testimony that the primary goal of the bill is to protect Ohio children.

“H.B. 245 simply puts in place important measures to protect children from being exposed to cabaret performances that are marketed to adults with adult themes, imagery, and performances,” King said, according to Ohio Capital Journal.

Co-sponsor Josh Williams, R-Sylvania, said they’re not trying to abolish these adult performances, but rather focus on protecting children. 

“If you want to engage in adult activities, make sure kids are not around,” he said, according to Ohio Capital Journal. 

The bill quickly faced criticism from the LGBTQ+ community because they believe it targets transgender Ohioans, although Williams and King stated it was not related. 

Hess was angered by the proposed legislation from the moment he heard about it.

“These people are obviously trying to limit the exposure of trans individuals,” Hess said. “That’s what it’s about. It’s not actually about protecting children.” 

Hess, who does not identify as transgender, said the legislation will not only impact drag performers but will also lead to heightened marginalization of and discrimination against transgender individuals. 

“Being trans isn’t a costume you can take off at the end of the day,” Hess said. “To be clear, these people want to get rid of trans people who aren’t straight-passing to the eye… If they see what they think looks like a man in a dress, they want to avoid that.” 

Malcolm Neitenbach, a senior psychology major at Kent State University and member of the Kent State College Republicans, opposed the idea of the bill being transphobic.

“I don’t hate drag shows, they’re quite fun actually, but I feel like to just deny they are not adult cabarets is crazy, there’s no reason why any kid should be around it,” he said. “It’s not transphobic, it’s simply for the protection of the children.” 

Penalties for violating the proposed legislation vary. Obscene performances in the presence of minors under 13 will result in a fourth-degree felony, obscene performances will be a fifth-degree felony and performances in the presence of minors under 18 will be a first-degree misdemeanor. 

Quartz and other drag performers make adjustments to their acts when they are aware there is a young audience, Hess said.

“Nobody who does my kind of drag never has the intention to perform in front of children,” Hess said. “If we know children are involved, we will adjust to be family-friendly. I think there is drag that can be appropriate for children. ” 

Specifically, Hess is talking about drag queen Monica Mod, a ‘60s diva who decks herself out in bold and fun colors. 

Monica Mod performing on stage. (Photo: Bridget Caswell. Used with permission.)

“Obviously not all drag is for children, but what’s the difference between me dressing up in a big dress and a princess dressing up for the story time?” Mod said. “Just because something has a queer undertone makes it inappropriate for kids? That’s what it’s really about.” 

Mod, who is an assigned female at birth (AFAB) drag queen, keeps her performances fun and colorful, with a nod to musical theater. She was asked to take part in the drag storytime event at Chesterland Community Church in March. A man later pleaded guilty to attempting to burn down the church to stop that event.

“I hadn’t experienced anything like that before,” Mod said. “When you talk about drag performances with children, it’s up to the performers and their parents to decide what’s appropriate for the children… I was wearing a pink frilly dress and bows in my hair, I was singing and dancing with the kids.” 

Mod said she has faced criticism many times for performing in front of children, and been told that being a man under all the makeup is predatory towards children. “I was like, first of all, I’m a 20-year-old girl,” Mod said with a laugh. “They don’t know me, they don’t know us.” 

Ohio is not the only state with proposed legislation to restrict drag shows. In Iowa, for instance, a proposed law would criminalize adults who take minors to a drag show, while also banning anyone under the age of 18 from attending any sort of drag performance. 

“I don’t know why this has gotten to be such a big deal,” said Neitenbach, the member of Kent State College Republicans. “What really bothers me is that drag shows were originally cabarets and it’s an adult performance, a sexually explicit performance. That’s why kids shouldn’t be around it.”

For drag queens like Quartz and Mod, they fear for what’s next.                                                                                    

“I feel like drag is important for children and young teens to see so they know they have that community, and to learn and understand people from other backgrounds,” Mod said. “Drag is for people to have fun and to celebrate people’s differences. That’s what it’s all about.”

This story was originally published by the Kent State NewsLab, a collaborative newsroom staffed by Kent State students.

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