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ACLU of Iowa sends letters to Iowa communities about anti-drag ordinances

More than a thousand Iowans gathered at the Capitol to protest multiple bills introduced in the state legislature that target LGBTQ people.
Madeleine Charis King
IPR file
More than a thousand Iowans gathered at the Capitol to protest multiple bills introduced in the state legislature that target LGBTQ people.

The ACLU of Iowa has sent letters to three city councils across Iowa, saying ordinances in their communities that classify female and male impersonators as prohibited adult entertainment are unconstitutional.

The ACLU says these kinds of ordinances in Dyersville, Pella and Waukee are used to target drag performers, ACLU staff attorney Shefali Aurora said.

"First, they do violate free speech as an unjustifiable content restriction. Second they are overbroad because they include all drag shows regardless of whether or not they feature erotic or sexually explicit content under the umbrella of adult entertainment. And third, they violate equal protection in targeting the LGBTQ community," she said.

These ordinances came to their attention after a bar in Eagle Grove was not allowed to host a drag show. Eagle Grove has already amended its ordinance after the ACLU brought it to the city's attention.

Des Moines drag performer Loretta Stone had been set to go on the night of that canceled Eagle Grove event. Stone said the art form is often misunderstood by people who don't know a lot about it.

"There are so many different types of drag. There's drag like I do, which is comedy, it can be political storytelling. Then you have queens who will dance and do tricks and the depth drops and the splits that you see everywhere. Some queens just like to look pretty, you know, they like to turn a look, as we say," Stone said.

Aurora said these ordinances have been on the books and aren't new. But there has been a lot of attention nationally on laws like this, like one in Tennessee that was recently struck down by a federal judge.

In a press conference, Aurora said the ordinances can have far-ranging implications.

"For example, a school play where they're doing a production of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, which includes a woman disguised as a man, would technically violate the ordinance. Some popular movies could be considered in violation," she said.

Aurora said it also add hurdles for business owners in regards to licensing and zoning.

The ACLU of Iowa also alerted city councils in Knoxville, Newton and Grinnell that they had similar ordinances. and those local governments are in the process of changing the language.

In the letter, the ACLU of Iowa asks the communities to respond within 14 days to say if they will be amending the ordinances. Aurora says this is a priority and they will be looking at possible options if the cities do not make changes.

Catherine Wheeler was Iowa Public Radio's All Things Considered host and a reporter from 2021 to 2023.