It’s not often that zoning code attracts this kind of public interest.
But in Pittsburgh on Thursday, the movement to erase a decades-old zoning code provision, one that effectively outlaws drag performances in much of the city, drew hundreds of petition signatures in support.
In what amounted to the culmination or near culmination of a months-long effort by advocates, those signatures were presented as part of a public hearing Thursday that dozens of members of the LGBT community and their supporters attended.
Those present — and the 331 petitioners — urged city officials to remove zoning code language barring performances involving “male and female impersonators” in areas outside of Pittsburgh’s “Urban Industrial” zones. As it’s currently written, the law treats those performances as adult cabaret and subjects them to the same limitations facing strip clubs here.
Gary Van Horn, president of the Delta Foundation, an LGBT advocacy group which has led the push for the revision, is hopeful that council will support the change when it votes on it, possibly as early as next week.
If council approves the bill to erase the zoning code language in question, the bill will then go to Mayor Bill Peduto for final approval. Dan Gilman, chief of staff to Mayor Bill Peduto and a former council member who championed the removal of the code’s drag show restrictions while in office, said the mayor has signaled his support.
“Yes, the mayor has indicated he would sign the bill if it passes council,” Gilman explained.
As for the chances of the measure making it that far, Van Horn said of the four council members present for Thursday’s public hearing — Darlene Harris, Corey O’Connor, Council President Bruce Kraus and Theresa Kail-Smith — all indicated their support. (Attempts to reach all 8 current members of city council were unsuccessful as of early Thursday evening.)
As Van Horn explained in a phone call with The Incline on Thursday afternoon, the issue was first brought to the Delta Foundation’s attention last year. The response was mounted as LGBT advocates nationwide looked to retain hard-fought legislative gains in the face of pushback from the Trump administration and local level attempts to rollback LGBT rights even further in some places.
“As it relates to LGBT equality, we’ve been winning, and hearts and minds have changed, but while we’ve been winning our detractors and folks that hate and don’t like the LGBT community have tried to find ways to win again,” Van Horn said.
He pointed to an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to ban drag shows in Portland, Tenn., in 2017, and to Thursday’s repeal of a law legalizing same-sex marriage in Bermuda as proof.
In Pittsburgh, the ban on drag shows outside of designated areas had largely been forgotten. Gilman said Thursday that there have been “no reports of any violation or citations” or enforcements related to the rule.
But critics of the ban, including Gilman, say that’s beside the point. The larger issue, they argue, is that the legislation as it exists is incongruous with Pittsburgh mores.
“It was brought to my attention [by Gary Van Horn] that in the city’s code, or rather in the city’s zoning code, that male and female impersonators are still listed as a version of adult cabaret along with exotic dancers and strippers, and to me those are not equal performances, and I thought it was a discriminatory piece of code. I wanted to delete it,” said Gilman, who as a council member introduced the revision bill currently being considered by his former colleagues.
“There’s no record of enforcement, but why have the old language in there that does not represent the values we have,” he added. “It’s a simple deletion of four words in the zoning code just to get it off the books.”
Gilman said that while he hasn’t seen the petition signatures submitted on Thursday, the 331 reported by Van Horn would be “a substantial number for a single issue before council.” Van Horn said those signatures were collected in less than a month.
Queer Pittsburgh, in an article about the push to remove the drag show statute and about the origins of the law, said it came into existence in 1958 and instead of criminalizing drag itself actually regulated “how people use their properties, not how they dress their bodies.”
The piece adds, “If you saw [a drag show] 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.”
Some 60 years after the rule was written, that continues to be the case.
But even if the law doesn’t criminalize drag, per se, critics say it serves no purpose, represents outmoded thinking or misrepresents a city that has banned conversion therapy for minors — making it the first in Pennsylvania to do so — and which hosted one of the first human relations commissions in the Commonwealth.
“It’s about having the city open and welcoming to all and having people able to express themselves and how they feel,” Van Horn said. “And at the end of the day, people wearing a dress or whatever — who cares?”