Proposed anti-drag bill is an assault on all transgender Ohioans

House Bill 245 would continue a long history of using anti-drag laws to criminalize transgender daily life in the state.
A sign outside of a Drag Queen Story Hour event
A sign outside of a Drag Queen Story Hour eventDavid Geitgey Sierralupe for OpenVerse

A proposed state law restricting drag performances is written so broadly that it could ban all transgender people from appearing on any stage within sight of any child. 

House Bill 245 expands the definition of adult cabaret performers – a category including strippers and topless dancers – to include “entertainers who exhibit a gender identity that is different from the performer’s or entertainer’s gender assigned at birth.” 

That definition encompasses all transgender people. 

If they are defined as adult cabaret performers, drag artists – along with any transgender person that a law enforcement official might choose to target – would be limited to performing in bars and other age-restricted venues. Anyone caught performing outside of those spaces would face charges ranging from a first-degree misdemeanor to a fifth-degree felony, depending on the age of any children present and whether the act is determined to be obscene. 

It’s no exaggeration to say that if HB 245 becomes law, transgender people could be arrested any time they engage in any kind of performance at any all-ages venue, or even for simply walking in a pride parade.

It’s hard to believe that a law written this broadly could withstand a legal challenge. Tennessee’s anti-drag law, which was arguably narrower in scope, has already been found unconstitutional.

Ohio, however, is no newcomer to anti-drag laws such as this one. 

The first local law to specifically restrict cross-gender expression was passed in the heart of our state. In 1848, Columbus passed a local law forbidding appearing in public “in a dress not belonging to his or her sex,” making it the first municipality in the United States to officially target cross-gender expression for punishment. 

Laws restricting cross-gender expression were used against both transgender people and drag performers but had a particularly chilling impact on trans daily life. Over the 100 years that followed, transgender Ohioans, especially Black transgender women, were harassed by police for simply walking down the street. 

As a result, transgender people had little choice but to hide. Many faded into the background of public life. Others – particularly those whose poverty afforded them little privacy – found themselves hyper-visible and vulnerable to all kinds of violence and injustice. 

When transgender women were arrested under anti-crossdressing laws or any other law in the web of anti-LGBT legal restrictions, newspapers typically understood them through the lens of drag. They were reported to be “female impersonators.” This history is one reason why transgender people are terrified of the potential impact of new anti-drag laws on their most basic civil rights. 

The effects of anti-crossdressing laws were cruel and often absurd. In 1906, for example, police in Washington, Ohio, arrested a person with the legal name Randolph Milburn for wearing feminine clothing. Officials dropped the charges when Milburn agreed to wear a silver breastplate reading, “Randolph Milburn. I am a man.”  

In 1975, the Ohio Supreme Court overturned Columbus’ anti-crossdressing law, arguing it was unconstitutionally vague due to shifting definitions of men’s and women’s clothing. Following this ruling, transgender people in cities across the country began making similar arguments and anti-crossdressing laws started to fall like dominos. 

We can only hope a similar fate befalls the new wave of anti-drag laws.

Conservatives today might not like this historical fact, but drag performances are a mainstream, all-American entertainment tradition with roots stretching back to the 1800s. In some of its earliest American forms, such as the vaudeville stage, drag was considered family friendly entertainment. For example, Bugs Bunny brought drag into homes across the United States, starting in 1939 in “Hare-Um Scare-Um.” To this day, his drag career has continued, with everyone’s favorite rabbit dressing as female characters ranging from Brunnhilde to Carmen Miranda. 

During World War II, drag performances were sanctioned by the U.S. Army and became an integral part of the war effort. The Army provided soldiers with instructions for putting on drag shows to raise the morale of their fellow troops. Before being elected president, Ronald Reagan starred in the film version of Irving Berlin’s musical This is the Army, acting alongside a cadre of patriotic drag queens. 

In all of this history, however, there is no evidence that drag has ever posed any harm to children. 

The allegation that drag performers groom children for sexual abuse is pure prejudice. It’s nothing more than a new spin on a long-debunked conservative claim that queer and trans people are pedophiles. 

From Shakespeare to Tyler Perry, drag is a part of our culture. So are transgender people. Neither are going anywhere.

HB 245 is one battlefront in a nationwide, coordinated assault on the most basic rights of transgender people. We can’t let senseless bigotry win in Ohio. HB 245 must be stopped.

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