Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

One Ohio rural community’s debate around drag queens

 A drag queen in a colorful unitard and tights puts her hands in the air during a performance on the Olive Tree stage.
Kendall Crawford
The Ohio Newsroom
Drag performance, like this one on the Olive Tree's stage in Bellefontaine, is the subject of a city ballot initiative. If it's adopted, it could limit drag shows at the gay bar.

A small crowd cheers on a bejeweled drag queen, as she struts onto a stage at the Olive Tree in Bellefontaine.

Despite being a 45-minute commute from Ronald Woodland-Wright’s home in Westerville, Woodland-Wright performs here often as Beariana Grande. Tonight, her pink makeup glimmers in the light of the disco ball as she lip-synchs to Taylor Swift.

She said this small town venue is her favorite gay bar in Ohio.

“The minute you walk in the door, it's nothing but love,” she said.

When she performs, she said the audience's support is tangible. She thinks of that love as a “force field” against local controversy. There’s a growing movement in Bellefontaine to restrict drag performances. It comes after Republican lawmakers in more than 16 states have introduced legislation to ban or criminalize drag.

 A small crowd of people sit at a table in the Olive Tree. They watch a drag queen perform onstage.
Kendall Crawford
The Ohio Newsroom
A crowd of regulars sits to watch a performance at the Olive Tree. The gay bar would be impacted by a proposed city ordinance to restrict drag performance.

Residents in Bellefontaine are petitioning for a city ordinance that would classify drag performances as ‘adult entertainment.' The city – 50 miles northwest of Columbus – would be one of the first municipalities in Ohio to do so.

The debate started with the city’s Christmas parade.

The Olive Tree had a float with a drag queen. Bellefontaine resident Devin Palmer and her kids attended the event. She said the performer’s outfit and dance moves were inappropriate for children. Her 10-year-old son was given a coupon to a future show.

“It’s kind of what sparked a bit of concern,” she said.

Palmer, alongside other residents, are advocating to limit drag performances, in hopes of shielding younger audiences from being exposed to them. They have been canvassing door to door in order to collect the 357 signatures needed to get their ordinance on the local ballot in November.

“We don't see why drag performance should be treated any differently from other sexually charged entertainment,” Palmer said. “You shouldn't have kids in attendance and you shouldn't be marketing these to kids either. It's just that simple.”

Tyler Berry, the owner of the bar, said drag performance is not inherently sexually charged.

 Two men sit at a bar counter together, chatting. Across the bar, a neon sign of a rainbow glows over the words 'GAY BAR'.
Kendall Crawford
The Ohio Newsroom
Tyler Berry sits with a patron at The Olive Tree. He says his gay bar has received lots of backlash since it began drag performances.

Since it’s a bar, most of the drag shows at The Olive Tree are already off-limits to minors. The coupon Palmer’s son got said 18 and older. But the ordinance would ban family events like drag brunches – which is how the bar got started.

It used to be a coffee shop – until Berry invited one of his drag queen friends to perform one morning. Nearly 250 people bought tickets to the drag brunch.

“We started the event and you could just feel the trauma relief in the room, you could feel the families, you could feel the patrons just feel noticed for once,” he said. “It was a very emotional experience: a lot of tears, a lot of hugs, a lot of ‘thank you’s.”

Berry grew up in Logan County. As a gay man, he said he never felt like he had a safe space to be himself. After the brunch, Berry decided he wanted to create one.

In 2021, he came out to his larger community, and, in a way, his business followed. Last October, The Olive Tree became the first gay bar in the county.

“If my mom would have brought me to a show when I was younger, it would have completely changed my life in a positive manner,” Berry said.

 Three drag queens stand together on a stage. One wears cheetah print with pigtails, another wears a colorful leotard, the other wears a tropical patterned outfit with a short pixie cut. Behind them, a screen reads 'The Olive Tree.'
Kendall Crawford
The Ohio Newsroom
Beariana Grande stands with two other drag performers on The Olive Tree stage.

The future of those shows in Bellefontaine is uncertain. If the ordinance gets on the ballot in November and is passed, zoning laws could prohibit the venue from having any drag performances at all.

But, tonight, Grande is still dancing. At the end of her performance, she steps up to the microphone and asks the audience to support the Olive Tree.

“Those guys out there don’t want what we have in here to continue,” she says. “But, no, we don't do hate. We do love.”

Because, for her, it’s more than just a stage to perform on. It’s a community of people who accept her as she is.

Kendall Crawford is a reporter for The Ohio Newsroom. She most recently worked as a reporter at Iowa Public Radio.