BELLEFONTAINE, Ohio (WCMH) — A rural Ohio city may be voting in this November’s election on whether to ban drag queen performances in public or where children are present. 

Six Bellefontaine residents are seeking to place a proposed city ordinance prohibiting “adult cabaret performance” on the Nov. 7 ballot after collecting 796 support signatures and filing the petition with the Logan County Board of Elections. If passed, the measure would be enshrined as part of the city’s zoning code regulating adult entertainment. 

“Adult oriented exhibitions featuring male or female impersonators who provide displays and entertainment appealing to sexual interest, shall not permit the attendance of a minor,” the proposal states. “Adult cabaret performances shall not be held on public property, or any location viewable by a minor.” 

However, five separate Bellefontaine residents allege the “anti-drag” group submitted the ballot initiative fraudulently. On Aug. 25, the five residents filed an electoral protest with the Logan County Board of Elections charging the anti-drag group with submitting a different proposed ordinance than the measure supporters signed. 

Tim Steinhelfer, an attorney representing the five protestors, said the ballot initiative filed with the city auditor in April and then signed by nearly 800 supporters did not contain the title language submitted in August to the board of elections that enshrines the drag queen ban as a zoning ordinance. 

“You can’t just swap out the petition after the voters signed them with one you think stand a better chance in court,” Steinhelfer said. “[The residents] were caught red-handed and my clients are trying to protect the integrity of the election.” 

Ohio law prohibits altering, correcting, or adding to a petition after it has been filed with the city auditor. The anti-drag group made this change because zoning measures often face less First Amendment scrutiny by the judicial system, Steinhelfer said. 

Josh Brown, attorney representing the anti-drag group, claims the six residents added the header language that enshrines the measure as a zoning ordinance after they were told to do so by election officials.

“It is the board of elections’ responsibility to place the title on the ballot, which is an amendment to the language that’s on the petition,” said Brown. “In this case, petitioners placed the title on the ballot specifically at the direction of the board of elections.”

The Logan County election board voted 2-2 in a hearing held Sept. 7 on whether to allow the proposed measure to appear on the Nov. 7 ballot. Secretary of State Frank LaRose will now cast the tie-breaking vote and is given two weeks to respond. If LaRose chooses to allow the measure on the ballot, Steinhelfer said he will be filing a writ of mandamus on behalf of the five protestors in the Ohio Supreme Court. 

‘Scramble to feel safe from a drag queen on a jet ski’

The idea to start a petition began circulating in Bellefontaine after a drag queen named Blond Vanity was featured riding a jet ski in the city’s 2022 Christmas parade. Danielle Stefaniszyn and Devin Palmer, two of the six anti-drag residents, then attended a Bellefontaine City Council meeting on Jan. 10 “to express concerns over a metropolitan city type float” in the parade and claimed Vanity was “dressed in provocative women’s clothing.” 

Blond Vanity, a Columbus-based drag queen, performing in Bellefontaine’s 2022 Christmas parade. (Courtesy Photo/Amomda Avink)

Stefaniszyn and Palmer asked council members to adopt a resolution to develop a standard of conduct “as it relates to community events with young audiences in attendance,” according to council meeting minutes. The pair called for the council to regulate costumes, outfits, behavior, attitudes, language, music and dance moves. 

The possible development of a code of conduct for events quickly garnered community response. Several dozen residents attended the following council meeting on Jan. 24 to “stand in solidarity with the LGBTQ+ community” and urged members not to implement new community regulations. 

Samson Bates, a Bellefontaine transgender man, expressed concern about misinformation spreading in the community and Kelitha Hogue, another resident, attended to address “concerns of all the gay people who have left Bellefontaine because of the hatred and bigotry,” council meeting minutes show. 

Sarah Lewis, one of the five protestors, also spoke at the Jan. 24 meeting and urged the city “to adopt a culture and a lifestyle of love.” Now, Lewis claims the six anti-drag residents “were willing to commit literal fraud in an effort to evict diversity from Bellefontaine.”

“In a scramble to feel safe from a drag queen on a jet ski, authors of this proposed ordinance pulled a little ‘bait and switch’ they thought would go unnoticed,” said Lewis. “Their fervent efforts were messy.” 

Drag queen ban introduced in Ohio Statehouse 

The proposed Bellefontaine ordinance contains similar language to a bill proposed in the Ohio House of Representatives that also seeks to prohibit drag queen performances in public or where children are present. 

House Bill 245 was introduced at the Statehouse on July 18 to ban “adult cabaret performances,” defined as a show “harmful to juveniles” that features “entertainers who exhibit a gender identity that is different from the performers’ or entertainers’ gender assigned at birth.” The bill would prohibit these shows in all locations other than “adult cabarets,” meaning “a nightclub, bar, juice bar, restaurant, bottle club or similar establishment.”

Reps. Josh Williams (R-Sylvania) and Angela King (R-Celina) are proposing the bill with the support of 41 out of 67 Ohio House Republican representatives. The 43 lawmakers 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.

Williams said the bill’s intention is to modernize Ohio’s revised code regarding obscenity viewed by minors, not to effectively ban drag in Ohio. The lawmaker stressed that the proposed measure only means to prohibit shows “harmful to juveniles,” with events like drag story time readings and plays like “Mrs. Doubtfire” covered under the First Amendment. 

“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 is modeled after a Tennessee law that also banned “adult cabaret performances” in all locations other than an “adult cabaret.” U.S. District Judge Thomas Parker, an appointee of former President Donald Trump, ruled in June that the law was “unconstitutionally vague and substantially overbroad.” 

“Simply put, no majority of the Supreme Court has held that sexually explicit — but not obscene — speech receives less protection than political, artistic, or scientific speech,” Parker’s ruling states.

HB 245 follows several pieces of legislation introduced at the Ohio 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. A second bill altering how teachers can discuss the LGBTQ+ community in classrooms also passed. 

Ohio’s bills are among a trend of more than 725 anti-LGBTQ+ bills moving through legislatures nationwide, breaking the record for the most bills introduced in a single year impacting the minority community. The proposals continue an unprecedented wave of legislation targeting LGBTQ+ people after 268 bills were introduced in 2021 and 315 in 2022.

View the electoral protest submitted to the Logan County BOE by Steinhelfer on behalf of the five protestors below.