As the owner of Maryland’s largest LGBT-friendly tavern and entertainment venue, The Baltimore Eagle, I can understand why gay-friendly business owners felt threatened by the warning they received from Harford County’s Liquor Board regarding the revocation of their liquor licenses should their scheduled drag performances cross certain lines. Once upon a time, Harford County government was known in the business community as a “good-ol’-boy network,” a place where your rights were decided by whether or not you played for the same team — and in this case, that team probably wasn’t gay. It’s no wonder the liquor board’s warning may have been interpreted by businesses owners as an attack on their livelihood, a menace to their families, and an affront to their beliefs.
It’s also understandable why certain members of the Harford County Liquor Board seemed to make confounding and erroneous assumptions about what a drag performance actually is; Harford County certainly isn’t known for its gay-friendly nightlife, let alone its understanding of the various gay cultures. However, to be fair to the Harford County Liquor Board commissioners, lack of understanding is not the same as prejudice.
Whatever the assumptions may have been on both sides, speaking as a grandson of the late Baltimore Burlesque performer Bunny Holiday and as the owner of an LGBT-friendly business, I’d like to point out the tremendous difference between the art of Burlesque and adult entertainment, which by contrast is less about artistic expression and more about sexual gratification. At stake is our constitutionally reserved 1st Amendment right of freedom of expression. (And frankly, a lot of fun!)
Anybody can search Wikipedia to learn that drag performances herald from the world of theater dating back literally hundreds of years and occurring throughout cultures around the globe. Drag, Burlesque, Bear-lesque, Boy-lesque, and other variations of the art that are now appearing in Harford County are not only part of this longstanding history, they bring to our community appreciation of various life experiences specific to the LGBT+ community that also help us understand more about our own American culture and even ourselves. Can drag performances be tacky, gauche, silly, sexy, plaintive, provocative or jejune? Absolutely, just like any art in any eye of any beholder. But whether a given performance moves us or not, there can be no dispute of tremendous time, preparation and dedication that most drag performers invest into the fashion, dance, set design, vocals, music, comedy and drama involved in their art form (often for very little pay); and they should never be arbitrarily discriminated from any other historic or contemporary dance, ballet or theatrical performers.
In fact, drag performers and performances cannot be arbitrary discriminated, they’re protected under federal law. The constitutional 1st Amendment case Miller v. California (1973) held that a work is only obscene if (1) “‘The average person, applying contemporary community standards’ would find that the work, ‘taken as a whole,’ appeals to ‘prurient interest’ (2) “The work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by the applicable state law” or (3) if the “work, ‘taken as a whole,’ lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.”
So what if a drag performer goes “too far” on stage? Obviously, business owners are responsible for what happens in their businesses, but only to a reasonable standard. It would be a hasty and draconian measure for the Harford County Liquor Board to revoke a restaurant owner’s liquor license for a misstep by a contracted performer that was beyond the owner’s control or in violation of contract or instructions. To revoke a liquor license from a local restaurant owner is to effectively close that person’s business that they’ve worked hard to build for themselves, their families and our community. Such a drastic remedy must be measured with the greatest benefit of the doubt, for the good of our neighbors, our community, our economy, and our faith in government.
Administrative laws, rules, regulations, red tape, bureaucratic landmines and threats to our freedoms aside, one thing that conservative Harford County might appreciate (if not drag shows themselves) is that anyone too stiff to enjoy a drag performance is always welcome to leave or to choose not to attend in the first place. Not everything in the land of the free is a choice that we might make for ourselves, but in the land of the free we will find the best in ourselves if we have the wisdom to look for the best in others.
Ian Charles Parrish is a real estate developer and Maryland beekeeper; he serves as president of Investors United, America’s first brick-and-mortar school dedicated to teaching the techniques of proper real estate investment. He can be reached at iancharlesparrish.com.