Albemarle City Council hears more on ‘drag show’ definitions

Published 8:53 am Tuesday, October 17, 2023

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With an overflow crowd in attendance on Monday night, Albemarle City Council conducted a public hearing on adopting a text amendment defining “drag shows,” which would reclassify such exhibitions as sexually oriented business/activity.

Thirteen citizens delivered statements on the issue, with comments limited to three minutes per person. Six spoke in favor of adopting the amendment, with seven registering opposition.

Prior to the public comment session, introductory comments were delivered by Kevin Robinson, director of planning and development services for the city, and by Jason Phibbs, representing applicant Dr. Brian Johnson and a group of 16 area clergy.

Robinson summarized the proposed amendment, which would add a definition of “drag show” to the list of activities included in “adult cabaret” within the city’s ordinance on sexually oriented businesses.
Adoption of the amendment would also affect zoning regulations defining where such performances could be presented.

Interpretation of the ordinance, if adopted, could be problematic, Robinson said.

“This would be a gray area, and highly subjective,” he said. “As worded, the proposed text amendment is too broad to be fairly enforceable.”

Phibbs countered that the proposed amendment was being delivered in the interest of protecting the first amendment rights of performers, while still protecting the city’s children.

“Drag shows are a form of adult entertainment,” Phibbs said. “We are not proposing a ban on drag shows, but we are proposing that children be prohibited from attending them.”

Regarding fair enforcement of the ordinance, Phibbs noted that “reasonable judgment” would need to be exercised, noting examples such as powder puff football games, the Tour de Elvis event and movies such as “Tootsie” as examples that should not fall under the definition of drag shows.

“Could it go to that extreme? Anything is possible, but most likely it won’t,” he said, citing other ordinances requiring subjective interpretations, such as grass height, profanity, loud noises and loitering.

“What kind of community do we want to be?” asked Phibbs. “These laws are in place to determine what is reasonable … the proposed text amendment is equally reasonable. I believe in the people of this community, and that our people understand the difference between drag shows and other such events.”

Regarding the effect of drag events on children, Phibbs presented adoption of the ordinance as a means by which the City Council could set a standard for the city’s future.

“We have an opportunity to determine what kind of community we want to be,” he said, adding, “drag shows harm children and warp their knowledge of what men and women are, which can lead them to life-altering decisions which cannot be undone. We must regulate drag shows … do we have the will to do it?”

Councilman Benton Dry thanked Phibbs for his comments, and added, “The most important resources we have are our children … that’s why we are here.”

Speaking in favor of the proposed ordinance, Kent Little quoted from a website that those who cross-dress often do so “to create arousal.”

“Do we want our children exposed to this?” he asked. “I don’t want my children or grandchildren in a room where some dude is dressed as a woman.”

Jenny Hovanec, who has worked with sexually-abused children, stated that youngsters should not be exposed to the content of drag shows.

“Children are a blessing from God,” she said, “and we need to let them be children.”

Robert Nelson, a psychology instructor and member of Prospect Baptist Church, stated, “The issue here is our children … it’s not about LGBTQ rights … drag shows are not fit for children.”

Nelson also quoted lyrics from the song “A Message from the Gay Community” by the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus, which can be viewed on YouTube.

“The words are, ‘We’ll convert your children,’ ” he recounted.
Adam Hatley, pastor of West Albemarle Baptist Church, reminded council members of their commitment to serve the community.

“The most vulnerable among us are our children,” he said, describing the upcoming vote as “an opportunity to deliver moral clarity.”

Likewise, Prospect Baptist Church Pastor Stoney Benfield reminded council members that they had pledged to serve the public, and as such should “keep that promise.”

“The people have placed their trust in you,” he said.

In opposition to the text amendment, Mary Stokes said the proposal “misrepresents drag shows and marginalizes talented performers by classifying them as deviants,” adding that parents should make the determination as to whether children attend.

“If you disagree with them (drag shows), don’t go,” she said.

Devonna Morgan, who described herself as “a mother of a gay son and sister of a gay man,” said that drag has been “a part of culture for centuries,” and noted that the well-known Christmas play, “The Nutcracker,” which is presented annually to Stanly County public school students, features a drag character.

“It (drag) is an artistic form that embodies freedom of expression,” she said.

Angela Beane expressed concern that adoption of the proposed amendment fosters division, noting that her daughter, Gracie, who is in a wheelchair, connected emotionally with a drag character in a recent performance, citing that both had experienced rejection and exclusion from others.

“If we truly want to put children first, we need to vote for inclusion,” Beane said.

Tiffany Dahle stated that the amendment would be an intrusion on her family’s rights.

“You have no idea what my family needs,” she said. “Let parents make these decisions.”

Renee Van Horn, representing the Stanly County Arts Council, reminded the Council that the Planning Board had voted unanimously (9-0) in September against adopting the amendment.

“All of us are for our children,” she said, “and it’s the parents’ responsibility to guide them. This (the proposed amendment) would stifle creativity and expression.”

Derek James, a drag performer whose stage name is “Onya Nerves,” produced two drag shows in Albemarle last fall, and refuted the implication that such shows target children.

“We protect children more than most pastors do,” said James, adding that “if kids are present, we instruct performers to ‘keep it PG-13’ and to use appropriate music.”

“We deserve to be out in the public as much as others,” he said.

K.J. Johansen, of KBJB Entertainment and also an Albemarle resident, stated that performers in her shows are required to pass background checks before being allowed to perform.

“It’s strictly entertainment,” she said.

Councilman Chris Bramlett asked for clarification of the issue.

“Am I correct in that the issue is whether to allow children to attend these shows?” he asked.

“As written it would limit where they could be held,” replied Robinson. “It’s not a ban, but it would make it difficult to have them.”

With Council voting unanimously to close the public hearing, Mayor Ronnie Michael addressed those in attendance.

“As you can see, we have one council member absent tonight,” said Michael, in reference to Councilman Bill Aldridge. “He has asked if fellow council members would consider continuing this to the first November meeting so that he can be heard on the issue.”

Councilman David Hunt moved, with a second by Bramlett, to delay the vote until Nov. 6. The motion passed 5-1, with Mayor Pro-Tem Martha Sue Hall dissenting.

Toby Thorpe is a freelance writer for The Stanly News & Press.