Hurricane law restricts minors from attending ‘adult live performances’

Opponents say bill may have chilling effect on free speech

By: - September 5, 2023 10:45 pm

The Hurricane Municipal Building in Putnam County, W.Va. (Lori Kersey | West Virginia Watch)

HURRICANE, W.Va. — With a unanimous vote Tuesday evening, Hurricane City Council became the third local government in West Virginia to pass laws restricting minors from attending “adult live performances,” legislation opponents say is meant to target drag shows. 

Hurricane’s ordinance comes weeks after the county’s first LGBTQ+ pride organization, Putnam Pride, hosted what an organizer called a “family friendly” drag show at Valley Park in Hurricane during its Pride month celebration. 

The Putnam County Commission passed a similar ordinance in June. That legislation applies only to unincorporated parts of the county. Jefferson County also passed a similar ordinance in June. 

While Hurricane’s law does not specifically refer to drag shows, Councilwoman Gerry Spears told a reporter the ordinance was written in response to Putnam Pride’s event, after some people had complained about it. Spears pushed back against the idea the ordinance discriminates against LGBTQ+ people by targeting a staple at Pride events. 

Update to 517.09 - Barring minors from attending adult live performances August 2023

 

“We’re not discriminating against anyone, and it isn’t a matter of them versus us or anything like that,” Spears said. “It’s purely for the sake of the children. The society we live in today is putting so much culturally on children that do not have the age, the wisdom, the knowledge to work with the decisions that are being asked to make.  

“As adults we make decisions and we suffer the consequences,” she said. “Children don’t have that ability to look forward to that and accept that responsibility. So by not allowing minors to be subjected to this publicly, we feel that it is a plus for children growing up in this community, we’re all for children.”

In all, 14 people spoke about the ordinance — seven in support of the law, and seven, including local pastors — spoke against it.

The legislation is modeled after similar laws passed by Republican-led legislatures in Florida and elsewhere. A federal judge recently issued a preliminary injunction blocking that state’s law. 

Jack Jarvis, spokesman for Fairness West Virginia, said the way the LGBTQ+ rights organization interprets the legislation, it would not apply to drag shows because of the bill’s definition of an adult live performance. The bill defines the performances in part as depicting or discussing nudity, sexual conduct or excitement, containing the lewd exposure of real or imitation genitals or other body parts and lacking serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value. 

Jarvis said the organization’s view is that drag does have serious artistic and political value. But while the law does not actually restrict the drag shows, these types of laws do introduce a new “strain of hate” in the community and may have a chilling effect on free speech.

“We are afraid that folks will be afraid to even consider hosting an event like this, be afraid to even consider having a drag performer at your event, because you may get in trouble,” he said. “Even though the letter of the law, it shouldn’t have any impact. We don’t know how it can be enforced. And I don’t think it’s a good idea for small local police departments to be in the business of enforcing what’s obscene… I think that’s very terrifying.”

In a tweet, the American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia said Hurricane is the latest to join the fad of passing ordinances that targets but doesn’t actually ban drag performances.

“If the city tries to use this sham bill to stop drag shows or pride celebrations, then we will see Hurricane in court,” the organization tweeted. 

Rob Vanater, board chairman for Putnam Pride, also said the ordinance would not affect his group’s event, which he said was free of nudity, vulgarity and lewd behavior. 

Vanater said he views the city council’s action more as a “scare tactic” and a way of appeasing the people who complained about the event. 

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include a statement from the ACLU.

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Lori Kersey
Lori Kersey

Lori Kersey is a reporter with a decade of experience reporting in West Virginia. She covers state government for West Virginia Watch.

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