COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — A drag queen at the center of Ohio’s drag show debate said a Statehouse bill to ban performances in public is changing the industry even before it’s signed into law.

Blonde Vanity, a Columbus-based drag queen, said performers in Ohio are altering their acts to be viewed as less perverse in the wake of House Bill 245, legislation to prohibit “adult cabaret performances.” The bill defines these shows as “harmful to juveniles” which feature “entertainers who exhibit a gender identity that is different from the performers’ or entertainers’ gender assigned at birth.”

“I know a lot of queens who are scared to do certain things now because we are being put under such a microscope,” said Vanity, the queen who sparked Bellefontaine’s proposed city ordinance to ban drag shows that was blocked by Ohio’s Supreme Court.

Reps. Josh Williams (R-Sylvania) and Angela King (R-Celina) introduced the bill in July with the support of more than 40 Ohio House Republican representatives. Williams said the legislation’s intention is to modernize the state’s revised code regarding obscenity viewed by minors, not to effectively ban drag.

“We’re saying, look, we want equality for all, we want everyone to be treated equally in the state of Ohio, that includes our entertainers,” he said. “You’re going to be held to the same standard, which is don’t engage in obscene conduct in the presence of a minor.”

The bill would ban these performances in all locations other than “adult cabarets,” meaning “a nightclub, bar, juice bar, restaurant, bottle club or similar establishment.” The legislators outline the following penalties if entertainers are found violating the proposed law:

  • A misdemeanor of the first degree if a performance occurs in the presence of a juvenile under the age of 18.
  • A felony of the fifth degree if the performance is “obscene.”
  • A felony of the fourth degree if the performance is “obscene” and occurs in the presence of a juvenile under the age of 13.

Vanity noted the proposal is modeled after a Tennessee law ruled “unconstitutionally vague and substantially overbroad” by a federal judge and said the measure is senseless given most drag shows already occur in private venues. Still, the performer worries the proposal will be abused to target the transgender community.

“This law was so vaguely worded, where does it stop?” Vanity said. “Who is the judge who’s gonna get to decide what is and what isn’t drag?”

A full-time drag performer, Vanity was targeted after she was featured riding a jet ski in Bellefontaine’s 2022 Christmas parade. Residents Danielle Stefaniszyn and Devin Palmer attended a Jan. 10 city council meeting “to express concerns over a metropolitan city type float” in the parade and claimed Vanity was “dressed in provocative women’s clothing.”

Stefaniszyn and Palmer partnered with four other residents in the following months to collect nearly 800 support signatures to file a petition with the Logan County Board of Election to place a proposed city ordinance prohibiting “adult cabaret performance” on the Nov. 7 ballot.

“I know that community loves drag and appreciates it,” Vanity said. “I thought it was going to be impossible for there to ever be a scenario where that could even get brought to ballot.”

The initiative was challenged to the Ohio Supreme Court by five separate Bellefontaine residents who argued the proposal filed with the city auditor in April did not contain the title language submitted in August to the board of elections that would have enshrined the ban as part of the city’s zoning code regulating adult entertainment. 

The court unanimously agreed and blocked the measure from appearing on Bellefontaine’s ballot. The initiative was submitted fraudulently, the court said, and the Logan County Board of Elections and Secretary of State Frank LaRose did not comply with Ohio’s Revised Code when allowing the measure to be voted on.

“Secretary LaRose and the board of elections abused their discretion and disregarded the law in overruling relators’ protest,” the ruling said.

Now, Vanity said the drag community is focused on combatting HB 245 by testifying against the bill during hearings in the Ohio House Criminal Justice Committee. The bill is not the first introduced at the Statehouse garnering backlash from members of the LGBTQ+ community. In June, the Ohio House passed a bill banning trans athletes from participating in girls’ sports and prohibiting trans youth from receiving certain medical care.

“It’s definitely a weird experience to just be like visibly queer and have your reputation slandered just because you are gay in public,” Vanity said. “It was a relief now, but I don’t really think the fighting is over at all because this is clearly going to be a big-ticket issue.”