Branson places ‘adult performance’ restrictions on drag shows

Ordinance limiting locations may mean no place qualifies for drag performances in the city of ‘faith, family and flag’

By: - July 26, 2023 10:00 am

Branson's mayor and aldermen on Tuesday night approved an ordinance restricting drag shows to the downtown district. (Screenshot via Branson YouTube channel)

Municipalities in Missouri are attempting to restrict drag performances as obscenity or a planning-and-development concern, with Branson among the first after advancing an ordinance Tuesday night limiting drag to a small area of town.

Rolla recently tried to limit drag, but an ordinance defining it as obscene, failed during a city council meeting last week.

These local actions are reminiscent of policies proposed by GOP state lawmakers during the legislative session. Bills from Rep. Ben Baker, R-Neosho, and Rep. Mazzie Boyd, R-Hamilton, sought to label drag performances as adult cabaret shows and never made it out of the House.

Boyd’s legislation would’ve made drag venues akin to strip clubs in Missouri, where facilities are bound to strict hours and location requirements.

Rep. Brad Hudson, R-Cape Fair, presents a bill that seeks to ban gender-affirming care for minors on the Missouri House floor in April (Annelise Hanshaw/Missouri Independent).

Two state representatives, Branson’s Brian Seitz and Brad Hudson of Cape Fair, spoke during Branson’s Board of Aldermen meeting Tuesday evening. During the legislative session, Seitz and Hudson joined Boyd in filing bills that limited the rights of LGBTQ+ Missourians.

Hudson was the House sponsor for a bill, recently signed by Gov. Mike Parson, that bans gender-affirming care for transgender minors. Tuesday, the ACLU of Missouri and Lambda Legal filed a lawsuit in hopes to stop the implementation of the law.

Hudson compared the drag restrictions in Branson to the gender-affirming-care ban, asking the aldermen to consider if allowing children in drag shows will “negatively impact the child for the rest of its [sic] life.”

“Anytime you have a situation where children could be in harm’s way, it is absolutely the government’s responsibility to step in and protect those innocent kids,” he said.

Branson’s aldermen removed a clause that would’ve allowed those under 18 to attend drag performances alongside a parent or guardian.

The resulting ordinance, passed in a 3-2 vote Tuesday night, mirrors the city’s rules for other “adult performances.” The board will take a vote in August to finalize the ordinance.

It restricts new or expanded drag performances to Branson’s downtown district with a special-use permit. The venue also can’t be located near a public park, school, church, other drag club or a facility serving liquor.

“The series of proposed changes within the ordinance are intended to preserve the city’s values by restricting adult-oriented activities to a location of the city that currently allows such activities and where citizens and tourists can expect to encounter and attend such activities if desired,” the city’s fact sheet says.

The area zoned as “downtown” is different from the “entertainment” region. Downtown has the least amount of commercial land, with under 150 parcels, according to the city’s map.

“The downtown district was created to ensure that the peace and safety of residential and neighborhood-adjacent districts are not negatively impacted by live entertainment uses, which typically include bright signs, loud noises, and heavy pedestrian and car traffic that may continue late into the night. Therefore, drag shows would be zoned to the downtown district,” an ordinance brief says.

Centered around Commercial Street, it looks like a town square one could find in many Missouri towns. It is largely small storefronts where pedestrians can wander through to pick up a homemade pie, buy old-fashioned candy or stop by the bank.

It is far from a sin city in a world of cowboy boots and family values.

Steve Hartley, who owns Dick’s 5 & 10 downtown, told the mayor and aldermen he sees families walking through the area all day.

“I would certainly hate to see anything, whether real or perceived, tarnish the wholesome image we in downtown Branson are working so hard to promote,” he said.

City spokeswoman Lisa Rau told The Independent that adult-centric events have been held in the area with a special-event permit previously. She said the city is trying to please community members while balancing “the need to be respectful to our families.”

But the downtown area doesn’t fit the provisions prescribed in the ordinance, which requires setbacks of 10 feet alongside the back and sides and a 20-foot setback in front of the property and its parking. A setback is the distance between the property line and the structure.

According to the city’s SiteSketch tool, none of the parcels in the downtown area have setbacks on all sides of the property.

Kevin Vaughan, a promoter for a Branson drag show, said during the board meeting that downtown wouldn’t work for the performances.

“There is no venue that can hold a drag show in the downtown district,” he said. “This feels like some sort of attack on the LGBTQ community.”

Some supporters of drag  said the shows have operated in Branson for at least 20 years, but more public attention has stirred the community after HBO’s show “We’re Here” featured Branson in its third episode.

During the public-comment period during the board meeting, most residents opposed the ordinance. Some thought drag should be banned throughout the city and spoke of the ordinance as permission for the performances.

“There are some people that think that what we’re discussing tonight is opening up an opportunity,” Mayor Larry Milton said. “The reality is today, drag shows are allowed anywhere in the city limits of Branson.”

Richie Zates, asking for an outright ban of drag in Branson, said, “We have to maintain purity in this town.”

Others quoted from The Bible, although Milton warned at the top of the meeting that he wouldn’t use scripture as a justification for disobeying the U.S. Constitution.

Joe Lauber, a Lee’s-Summit-based attorney hired by the city, said it is tricky to craft the ordinance while maintaining freedom of speech and expression and not committing gender discrimination.

“​​It is constitutionally challenging to create legislation as that which has been requested,” he said, beginning his presentation of the ordinance.

“For the most part, regulation of the activities that form the subject of this proposed ordinance is better left to individuals, the free market or private or nonprofit organizations including religious institutions,” he said.

Justice Horn, chair of Kansas City’s LGBTQ+ Commission, asked in a statement on Twitter for the ACLU of Missouri to “step in and protect the rights of LGBTQ+ individuals who live in rural communities.”

This story has been updated to correct the ordinance’s status.


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Annelise Hanshaw
Annelise Hanshaw

Annelise Hanshaw writes about education — a beat she has covered on both the West and East Coast while working for daily newspapers in Santa Barbara, California, and Greenwich, Connecticut. A born-and-raised Missourian, she is proud to be back in her home state.