Proposed Ohio bill banning drag shows may have wide-ranging impact on theater performances

By: - July 20, 2023 4:40 am
A performance of the musical, "Hairspray." (Photo by Ronny Hartmann/Getty Images)

A performance of the musical, “Hairspray.” (Photo by Ronny Hartmann/Getty Images)

A proposed bill meant to limit drag performances has wide-ranging impacts on the entire theater community, possibly banning famous and celebrated musicals from being put on, according to performers in Northeast Ohio.

The theater season is wrapping up at the Beck Center for the Performing Arts.

“Drag just means dressing in the opposite gender; it doesn’t mean anything sexual, doesn’t mean anything salacious,” Artistic Director Scott Spence said.

But a new bill introduced to the Ohio House makes Spence fear he may need to shut down future productions.

“If you’re trying to expose our children to obscenity in the state of Ohio, expect to be placed in prison,” state Rep. Josh Williams (R-Oregon) said.

Williams introduced House Bill 245, which prohibits “adult cabaret performances in locations other than adult cabarets,” which includes nightclubs, sex shops or dirty movie theaters.

Ohio has a statute regarding performances that are “harmful to juveniles or obscene” — this used to just apply to strippers and topless dancers. Now, the lawmakers added a provision for people “who exhibit a gender identity that is different from the performer’s or entertainer’s gender assigned at birth using clothing, makeup.”

“The theater has a great background in open-gender casting, cross-gender casting,” Spence said. “Are you telling us that in a legitimate theater, we’re not going to be allowed to present that?”

Shows like Hairspray, Matilda and Mrs. Doubtfire all have men who play women — but they aren’t the only ones with gender-bending. Theater for children and teens is female-dominated, with Spence saying oftentimes, their girls play male roles because not enough boys auditioned.

“A male dressing in a female costume to perform with a female in a play would not automatically classify as obscene and harmful to juveniles,” the lawmaker said.

The obscenity law is vague, ranging from something that shows lust — like a kiss or a character having a crush — to intercourse.

OCJ/WEWS asked Williams who decides what kind of performance is obscene.

“Just like every other statute in the state of Ohio, the Legislature drafts the legislation and defines the terms, and it’s up to the prosecutors and the law enforcement agencies to determine individual case by case basis whether or not the actions of an individual rise to the level of a criminal offense,” he responded.

Under the bill, performers can be charged with up to 18 months imprisonment and thousands of dollars in fines.

“‘Oh no, what could a prosecutor find offensive in this?’ And suddenly that leads to self-censorship,” Spence said. “I really do fear that the broad reach and tentacles of a bill like this are going to hurt everybody all the way down to these innocent kids who are just trying to express themselves in the arts.”

A very similar law in Tennessee was struck down by a federal court, deeming it unconstitutional for infringing on free speech. OCJ/WEWS asked the representative if he is prepared for lawsuits, and he said yes. But he also advised theaters to get their own attorneys too.

This article was originally published on and is published in the Ohio Capital Journal under a content-sharing agreement. Unlike other OCJ articles, it is not available for free republication by other news outlets as it is owned by WEWS in Cleveland.



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Morgan Trau
Morgan Trau

Morgan Trau is a political reporter and multimedia journalist based out of the WEWS Columbus Bureau. A graduate of Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, Trau has previously worked as an investigative, political and fact-checking reporter in Grand Rapids, Mich. at WZZM-TV; a reporter and MMJ in Spokane, Wash. at KREM-TV and has interned at 60 Minutes and worked for CBS Interactive and PBS NewsHour.