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Drag performers, supporters urge Harford liquor board to sanction inspector, stop discrimination

Before a filled meeting room, drag performer Cody Odachowski tells member of the Harford County Liquor Control Board that he performs to help people have fun, not to push an agenda.
Before a filled meeting room, drag performer Cody Odachowski tells member of the Harford County Liquor Control Board that he performs to help people have fun, not to push an agenda. (Erika Butler/The Aegis)

Cody Odachowski is a drag performer — he puts on makeup, a very big wig, fake breasts and a costume to sing other people’s songs.

“I want people to have fun. The events we have are not to push an agenda, to sway people to do things the way we want them to, it’s to forget about the crap in this world and have a good time,” Odachowski told the Harford County liquor board. “I am here today to advocate for all drag performers being told no, and that we can’t have fun and enjoy ourselves in this very hateful, bigoted world.”

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Odachowski was one of more than two dozen people attended the two-hour meeting of the liquor board, officially the Harford County Liquor Control Board, in Bel Air on Wednesday, many calling for an end to “discrimination” and “homophobia” they said led to the cancellation of several drag shows over the last few months.

A number of Harford County bars and restaurants say they have had to cancel scheduled drag shows or risk losing their liquor licenses.

Many waiting outside the small meeting room in the lobby and on the sidewalk for their chance to protest what they say has been discriminatory and threatening behavior by the liquor board inspector, William A. Colburn.

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“Mr. Colburn’s statement to me, his exact words were, ‘I cannot tell you to cancel this event, but if you go forward with it, I will show up with a video recorder and as soon as something happens, I will pull your license,’ ” Larry Dougherty Jr. said. “I felt threatened. That’s kind of a bullying tactic.”

Dougherty is a liquor licensee in Harford County of a nonprofit organization, but declined to say which one.

His group had planned to host two events — a male revue and a drag show — as fundraisers for their organization. The former was canceled, Dougherty said, after his organization was made aware of the section of the liquor board rules on nudity and sexual displays. The latter was scheduled to continue until Colburn’s threat, he said.

Board Rule 4:23 outlines attire, conduct and entertainment that is prohibited in an establishment that serves alcohol. It prohibits wearing clothing or costumes that expose specific body parts, caressing or fondling certain body parts or simulating any number of sex acts.

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Joseph Tan, an employee at Alchemy Elements in Bel Air, where a scheduled drag show also was canceled, said he met with Colburn, who didn’t answer his questions to his satisfaction.

“I’m here representing myself, both the gay community and entertainers,” Tan said Wednesday. “I’d like to get more information or try to understand why we are not being allowed to have these public events.”

Taking part in the group conversations during Harford County’s inaugural “The Longest Table” community gathering meant Alison Kennedy had to step out of her comfort zone, but it was worth it as she reported having an eye-opening experience.

While board chair Sheryl David Kohl read a statement before the public comment portion of the meeting, she said none of the five members of the liquor board would responded to any of the comments made.

During the comment period in response to a question, administrator Pilar Gracia said the board would listen to all comments and then “decide what, if any, comments remain in response to the public comment.”

In her statement, Kohl said the inspector and administrator have met and/or spoken with owners and licensees about entertainment scheduled to be held at their licensed venues.

“Based on marketing and advertising materials,” some of the activities performed at the events could violate liquor board rules, Kohl said.

The inspector and administrator met with some licensees and owners “to keep open lines of communications” to “remind” them of the rules about nudity and sexual displays. They were not told they could not host the events — that decision was left up to the business owners, Kohl said.

Once the comments were finished and the board finished the rest of its business, administrator Pilar Gracia said that during the conversations about the board rule, at no time “was the inspector threatening, was he at any time intimidating, was he anything other than advisory.”

“I think it’s a shame that 90 percent of the people coming in here and making public comment chose the opportunity to malign our inspector,” Gracia said. “Our inspector has done nothing out of what was expected of him in the course of his employment, and I think it’s a shame.”

Many people called for Colburn’s firing, resignation or sanction.

“My goal is to see Mr. Colburn no longer with the Harford County Liquor Board,” Donald Young, a performer in the LGBTQ community, said. “I personally feel Mr. Colburn is manipulating the law due to his homophopia. He is being discriminating against the LBGTQ community, threatening liquor licenses.”

Whatever the outcome of Wednesday’s meeting, Young said he and others will continue their fight to see Colburn removed and to see that the law regarding nudity and sexual displays is changed.

Colburn began working for the board Oct. 4 last year, Gracia said.

Irena Brusilovsky of Simply Sinful events said she helps coordinate drag events with the venues, and were told by one of them where a show was planned about the policies. She and her business partner met with the inspector to let him know they were aware of the rules and that they’ve “taken efforts to make sure all our events are in compliance with the laws.”

They believed Colburn would inform the other venues, where events similar to hers are held, about the policy.

“That is not what actually happened, according to our venues,” Brusilovsky said. “Our venues felt very intimidated and threatened.”

The owners said Colburn told them he would find any reason to take away their license, either during a drag event or something else.

“They felt they did not want to upset the liquor board, particularly the inspector, and to cause trouble for themselves,” she said.

The law is written vaguely and open to much interpretation, and adjusting a costume by touching it in certain places could be a violation, Brusilovsky said.

Robyn Ya'men performs in a drag show earlier this year at Silver Spring Mining Company in Bel Air.
Robyn Ya'men performs in a drag show earlier this year at Silver Spring Mining Company in Bel Air. (Courtesy Emily Huss)

Harford shows

Silver Spring Mining Company in Bel Air hosted two sold-out shows — 190 people each — last fall and earlier this year and Route 24 Ale House sold out to 116 people at the beginning of this year, Brusilovsky said earlier this week, before the protest at the liquor board meeting.

A canceled show May 4 at the Jarrettsville VFW had sold 138 tickets, she said.

Brusilovsky and her business partner organize the shows to build clientele for their Pure Romance business, which is about promoting female sexual health and wellness, she said.

“It’s about empowering women’s sexual relationships, with themselves or someone else,” she said.

Their products, which Brusilovsky has been selling for 10 years, are not part of the drag show, but they are given away as prizes away during bingo games in Harford County or games and raffles in Baltimore County. The hope is they will become regular customers or host a product party in their home, she said.

They have done one show in Baltimore City and five in Baltimore County in the last six weeks and have never received any pushback from the liquor boards there, she said.

“Businesses call us regularly to do events,” Brusilovsky said.

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The bars and restaurants don’t pay for the drag queens to do their show. They bring them in to generate revenue from food and drink sales, Brusilovsky said. Her company makes money through ticket sales.

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Some of their profits go to charity — Brusilovsky said she just wrote a check for $750 to Wildlife Rescue of Baltimore County.

Brusilovsky said she invited the Harford County liquor board staff to see one of the shows, but none have come.

“They said they don’t do that, and they don’t,’ she said.

The shows Brusilovsky hosts don’t violate Harford’s liquor board rules, she said — since she was made aware of them she has made it clear to her her queens they may not engage in any of those activities.

In January, her partner had scheduled an event separate from their drag shows at the Jarrettsville VFW. The liquor board told the VFW licensees of its rules and because the event involved stripping and could have violated them, the event was rescheduled for May 4 as a drag show, Brusilovsky said.

“We looked at the guidelines and policies and we said ‘Whoa, we didn’t know that.’ We knew there couldn’t be stripping, but we didn’t realize the extent of the policy,” she said. “When we looked at it, we wanted to err on the side of caution, so we told our queens to err on the side of caution. That’s what they did.”

If before patrons put tips in the queens’ breasts, they now have to hand tips to them or “make it rain” on the floor. Patrons can’t touch the queens and the queens can’t simulate sexual activity.

“You can be sexy, crass and crude, but you can’t do those [other] things because they’re against the policies,” Brusilovsky said. “We still want the essence and quality of drag — this is not drag for children, this is drag for adults — but to stay within compliance of the law.”

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