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A Missouri city considers obscenity law aimed at banning drag performances in public

 More than 400 people attended Rolla's Pride celebration on June 10th
Jossalyn Gale
More than 400 people attended Rolla's Pride celebration on June 10th

The move is in response to a drag show held at a public park last month during the Rolla Pride Celebration. Council members said the performance was sexually explicit and targeted minors.

Rolla’s Pride Celebration on a Saturday in June brought more than 400 people downtown to take in food trucks, crafts and information booths, all while supporting the LGBTQ community.

But it was the four performers in a musical drag show in the Downtown Band Shell who have the Rolla City Council considering action to limit what can be included in public performances.

The council is weighing options for an obscenity ordinance, an issue that has divided the city with strong positions on both sides.

The crowd at Monday’s City Council meeting filled council chambers, the overflow room and the lobby. The fire chief enforced fire codes, pushing some attendees, both supporters and opponents, outside.

Dozens of people addressed the council in a meeting that lasted more than five hours.

The issue council members said they have is that the performance was outdoors in a public place.

“I don’t think minors should be exposed to anything that smacks of sexuality. It doesn’t matter if it’s LGBTQ or otherwise. And I don’t think that is something that should be sanctioned and allowed,” said 4th Ward Alderman Robert Kessinger.

The performers sang, danced and told jokes. But it was some audience members, including at least one child, putting dollar bills into the performers' costumes that crossed a line in the minds of council members and local pastors who led the complaints.

“Would you say a minor child taking money and putting it between someone’s breasts, is that legal? Is that appropriate?” asked 2nd Ward Alderwoman Megan Johnson.

Members of Rolla LGBTQ+ and their allies don’t see the proposed ordinance as a regulation on obscenity but as an attack on their community.

“It was important to have drag queens at our Pride event because their presence serves as a reminder that everyone deserves to be seen, heard and celebrated,” said Shasta Johnson, president of Rolla LGBTQ+.

“Every time we are visible, it makes it safer for other people like us. It says here is a place where you will be accepted the way you are,” Johnson said. “What took place during our drag show was neither obscene nor pornographic. The response is a clear message that we are not welcomed, not valued and not safe.”

The council is considering approving an ordinance similar to the one Chesterfield adopted in 2006. It uses the state definitions of obscenity, in specific terms, and applies it to public events.

Such an ordinance would prohibit nudity, sexual acts and certain other displays, none of which was part of the drag show in Rolla.

“That ordinance would not have precluded what took place June 10 downtown. It would have been allowed. It didn’t cross the line into obscenity,” said city administrator John Butz.

The City Council directed staff to research options for an obscenity ordinance as well as what restrictions it could put on community groups using publicly owned property.

It will not be a fast process.

“We’ll still be talking about this six months from now,” said Mayor Lou Magdits.

Copyright 2023 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.

Jonathan Ahl is a reporter for Harvest Public Media based at St. Louis Public Radio.
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