Pittsburgh’s Legalizing Drag (Yes, You Read It Right)

Author’s note: I appreciate a community member who pointed out potential ambiguity here. The article has been edited to emphasize that we are talking about “legal” and “illegal” use in the zoning code, and that does not mean drag is on the books as a crime. This particular 1950s code regulates how you use your property, not how you dress your body. If you never thought you’d get to read an article about zoning code and gender performance, today is your day. 

Where did you see your first drag show?  If you saw it in Pittsburgh, there’s a chance that show was in a part of town like the Strip District. The Strip is classified as an “Urban Industrial” zone, and technically, these zones are the only places drag is legal in Pittsburgh.

Wait, what?

Let’s head back to 1958, when the Pittsburgh Zoning Code was first written. The zoning code currently states that “Adult Cabaret” can only take place in “Urban Industrial” areas, and defines “Adult Cabaret” as:

“10.    Adult Cabaret means 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.”

That covers a lot of ground, and it includes drag, listed here as the cis-normative “male or female impersonators.”

So… seriously? Drag is technically illegal in most places in Pittsburgh? There’s drag all over the place!

This was the first question I asked of Gary Van Horn, President of the Delta Foundation. In response to concern from community members, Delta worked with the office of former Councilman Dan Gilman to get the city council to amend the zoning code. The short answer is: Yes, really.

“There’s definitely a lot of places that could be vulnerable,” according to Mr. Van Horn, speaking of the many queer venues that fall outside of the designated “urban industrial” zone. So while the Delta Foundation isn’t aware of any cases of the law being enforced in Pittsburgh, that doesn’t mean it’s not a possibility. “If there was a report or complaint about a business holding such shows, the City would be required to follow the Zoning Code and go through enforcement actions. If the City were to not follow the code, the City could open itself to a federal lawsuit due to the fact they were not enforcing the law equitably.” 

Now, let’s clarify: illegal use in the zoning world is not the same as a crime. Zoning code dictates how you can use land and real estate, not how you can walk down the street. A club could be fined, or even shut down, but no one would be jailed—and this doesn’t apply to whether an individual can wear a glitter beard on their way to work. This is more about protecting our spaces.

Back to interviewing: Mr. Van Horn pointed to similar efforts to ban drag in other locations, such as in Portland, TN. The effort to push drag performance out of the northern Tennessee town was only quashed after significant backlash from the community and the ACLU of Tennessee.

In response to the Pittsburgh zoning code, the change first has to be introduced to the council, which Mr. Van Horn says was done this past fall. After that, “it gets referred to zoning. At the same time, council has to schedule a public hearing. And that’s where we are right now. By March, zoning has to make a recommendation, and the council will make a final vote.” That hearing is February 8, 2018, from 2:00-3:00.

Thankfully, no anti-LGBTQIA+ plans for protest have been announced. But as Mr. Van Horn puts it, opponents of LGBTQIA+ rights “are throwing anything at the wall, hoping it will stick . . . somebody will show up.”

So how can Pittsburgh’s Queer community show up?

One way is to sign this petition, and another is to sign up to speak at the hearing. Sign-ups close 24 hours prior to the hearing. According to Delta’s Facebook event, community members who sign up to speak 24 hours before the hearing will receive three minutes of time. Those who miss this deadline can still speak, but for one minute rather than three.   

Now let’s take a quick step back.

The council is expected to approve the change, and remove “male and female impersonation from the list of “Adult Cabaret” entertainment. That’s good news. But who does that leave still on this midcentury list of no-no’s? What about burlesque, exotic dancing, pole dancing, and go-go dancing? What about sex workers? What about performance artists exploring sexuality, whose work is “depicting . . . sexual activities and anatomical areas as defined herein”? Can I still go to my sexy figure drawing class? (Just kidding, I wish I had a sexy figure drawing class. But the point stands.)

Mx. Lyndsey Sickler, local community worker and co-founder of Hot Metal Hardware, a Pittsburgh-based gender performance troupe, had this to say about burlesque in particular: “It’s important that once we get this language amended to protect our drag performance family, that we continue to push for additional changes to the language of the cabaret laws so that our burlesque performing family doesn’t have to labor under the stress of potentially being discriminated against because of their form of artistic expression.”

The questions keep rising: Whose sexual activities and anatomical areas are deemed scandalous, and whose are the mainstays of your average Hollywood film? Whose way of making a living is “smut,” and whose is high art? Whose body is legislated as impersonation, and whose nipples are R-rated? As with so many issues, this isn’t in a vacuum, and it’s not enough to want drag to be legal. We have to go further than that. 

So as we go to this hearing to stand up for one form of queer expression, let’s consider ways to continue the progress. Let’s thank the trans and genderqueer artists who have pushed us beyond “male and female impersonation” as the only allowable form of drag. Let’s conspire together about new amendments to empower other types of disenfranchised art. While we celebrate, let’s think about how to do better, and put it on the books.

See you there.

Show up: 414 Grant Street, Pittsburgh, PA, 15219, 2:00PM on February 8, 2018

Speak up: goo.gl/YJENYg

Sign up: www.pittsburghpride.org/drag/

This article originally appeared on QueerPgh.com. This article is preserved as a part of the Q Archives project. Please consider donating to help preserve Pittsburgh’s Queer history.