Last week, on the same day the British island territory of Bermuda revoked same-sex marriage rights for its citizens, a dozen people went to Pittsburgh City Council to speak in support of legalizing drag performances.
Among the attendees was Max Busch, an 11-year-old drag artist from Mount Lebanon who performs under the name Honey Chuckles.
“I just want to say that drag is for everyone,” said Busch. “Drag is art. Art is what you choose to show about yourself and reveal truth.”
Under Pittsburgh’s current zoning code, drag performances are included in the category of adult cabaret which is relegated to specific areas of the city. Those in the drag community say placing drag in this category is limiting. The city ordinance currently being proposed would eliminate the words “male or female impersonators” from the code. And as a result, drag artists would be given more latitude to perform throughout the city.
“When you change this law, you will help end bias against this community,” Busch said. “You will allow space for me to perform and to see other artists. You will help end dangerous, untrue ideas about gender. Drag is part of the culture, history, politics and art of the LGBTQIA+ community. Drag is important.”
Amending the law is largely a symbolic gesture; the code hasn’t been enforced in recent years. But for members of the drag community, city council’s action signals greater acceptance of drag performers and the LGBTQ community as a whole.
“As other members of council have said, this was a very easy thing for us,” Council President Bruce Kraus said at the Feb. 8 public hearing, before praising Busch for his testimony. “I was impressed by your courage. … It took a lot of courage for you to come out today and speak for who you are, what you believe in and what you are passionate about.”
The change is part of ongoing efforts to expand drag beyond the bar scene and into the mainstream. Members of the drag community want to make drag more accessible for children and teens like Busch who are often barred from nightlife venues. They say it’s important for younger drag performers and those exploring gender expression to see people whom they can relate to.
“Not being able to do this in places outside of bars makes it really hard for trans kids and kids exploring their gender to have a place to do that and to see people who are like them — other drag queens and drag kings,” says Kitt Kavanaugh, a local drag king. “A lot of the drag community is in bars. We’re trying to pull drag out of bars, so it’s more welcoming and more accessible, so other folks can see it, like kids and teens.”
Under Pittsburgh’s zoning code, drafted in 1958, adult cabaret is only allowed to take place in “urban industrial” areas. This includes areas like the Strip District, home to venues that host drag performances regularly.
Under the current code, adult cabaret is defined as “a cabaret which features topless dancers, go-go dancers, exotic dancers, strippers, male or female impersonators, or similar entertainers which characterize an emphasis on matter depicting, describing or relating to specified sexual activities or specified anatomical areas as defined herein.” But advocates say drag differs from some of the other performance genres included in the definition.
“We applaud city council and the mayor for updating language in our zoning code that hasn’t been changed since the 1950s, a time when the American public began to really crack down on the LGBT community,” said Gary Van Horn, president of the Delta Foundation of Pittsburgh, an LGBTQ advocacy organization, at last week’s public hearing.