Jerri Lee has barely slept in months.
Her restless nights began in January, when conservative groups on Facebook began circulating a video of her 9-year-old son, Jacob, performing drag at a bar in Lancaster, Ohio. Getting to the club is a more than two-hour drive from their home, but Jerri—who asked that her last name be withheld from this story—says those are the sacrifices you make when you love your child.
“There aren’t a lot of spaces for youth who want to do drag where it’s acceptable,” she tells NewNowNext. “There’s not even a lot of spaces for LGBTQ youth period, but even fewer for kids to experiment with drag.”
According to Jerri, her son took an interest in drag when he was “around 3 or 4.” As an early Christmas present, she would buy up all the discount costumes after Halloween, and every year Jacob would “inevitably come out in his sister’s Snow White dress and some vampire fangs.” After watching RuPaul’s Drag Race for the first time, he asked his mother for “$3,000 in custom wigs,” which was the prize in that week’s mini-challenge. Lacking an extra three grand, she met him halfway—throwing him a Drag Race-themed party for his eighth birthday.
“One of our good friends painted him up,” she claims. “Then I slapped a hand-me-down dance costume on him and bought him a short pair of training-wheel heels, a wig, and away it went.”
Jerri viewed Jacob’s love of drag as no different from her older son’s desire to play football. It was harmless, and it didn’t hurt anyone. Although Jacob performed as “Miss Mae Hem” at local Pride events, no one ever made an issue of it until a Facebook page titled “City of Lancaster”—which has no connection to the town’s municipal authority— picked up a video of him performing at J.D. Lancaster’s back in December.
Jerri says the situation immediately began to be twisted into something it wasn’t. Critics claimed Jacob was “stripping” and giving audience members “lap dances.” A Facebook user printed off screenshots of the video and made a poster saying the event was part of “Lancaster’s Pedophilia Night.” Others went even further. After Jerri attempted to engage with internet trolls, they found where she lived and published the family’s address online. They called several local police departments, children’s services, the sheriff’s office, and even the FBI.
For Jerri, the hardest part of this ordeal was that it forced her to sit down with Jacob and tell him what was going on. She had done everything she could, she says, to shield him from the blowback. When she attempted to explain why he would be meeting with a woman from children’s services, Jacob didn’t understand why anyone would think it was “wrong for boys to dress up as girls.” He was just being himself.
After children’s services found no probable cause to investigate, Jerri hoped that meant the worst was over and the family could finally move on. That wish has yet to be answered.
In early April, Republican lawmaker Tim Schaffer—who represents Lancaster in the Ohio House—introduced a bill critics say is intended to ban kids like Jacob from doing what they love. HB 180, which has attracted eight other co-sponsors, would ban adults from putting on any performance “in which a child simulates sexual activity” or “appeals to prurient interest.” Offenders would be charged with misdemeanor child endangerment and may spend up to six months in jail as a result.
While proponents of the bill claim it’s intended to curb sex trafficking, Schaffer has not been shy about advertising the animus behind the legislation. In an April 3 statement announcing the legislation, the lawmaker claimed “that this situation is a very bad example of parenting.”
“I knew I had to take action to make sure this activity does not occur again,” he added. “We can do better to protect innocent children and we must do better.”
Since it was introduced three weeks ago, the legislation has certainly found passionate boosters in the Buckeye State. Melissa Ackison, a conservative who is running for the 26th District in the Ohio Senate, told the Toledo Blade that HB 180 is necessary “to make sure children aren’t performing in an establishment that serves alcohol no matter what costume they are wearing.” She has given several radio interviews in recent weeks denouncing Jerri’s parenting skills.
The LGBTQ community in Ohio, however, has stood by her family. Analese Alvarez, executive director of Equality Toledo, claimed HB 180 is a “desperate” attack on LGBTQ youth. Grant Stancliff, communications director at Equality Ohio, added that the language of Schaffer’s bill in no way accomplishes its stated goal.
“This is a young boy in competitive dance classes who likes to dress up, sing, and dance,” he tells NewNowNext. “That is not human trafficking.”
NewNowNext reached out to Schaffer’s office for clarification on how a bill aimed at youth who perform drag will “serve to end sex trafficking in Ohio.”
“[W]hat connection does drag performance have with sex trafficking?” NewNowNext wrote. “One is female impersonation as entertainment, the other is sex slavery.”
While NewNowNext pledged to report Schaffer’s “thoughts on the subject with clarity,” he has yet to respond.
According to Jerri, the media attention that HB 180 has received only made a bad situation even worse. The day she spoke to NewNowNext, she claimed that continuing to support her son’s interests has “caused distress” for members of her extended family who have yet to understand. When she sent Jacob to school on Monday, they ran through a list of adults he could go to if he was bullied or harassed by other students. As of the conversation, that has yet to occur, but it will remain one of many fears hanging over her head in the days and months to come.
“It’s always in the back of your mind,” she says of the current situation. “Your phone’s ringing, and it’s a reporter or it’s somebody who hates you. And then you still have to come home, be mom, make dinner, and pretend like everything is okay because you can’t not pretend like everything is okay. You cannot let a single one of your three babies know something is wrong.”
Jerri is particularly concerned that the backlash could put her job at risk. She recently began working at a new company and doesn’t “know them well enough to know if they’re supportive.”
But even as HB 180 threatens to move forward in the Ohio Legislative, Jerri claims she will do what she has always done: Take care of her family. When Jacob first announced his desire to start doing drag last year, she called club owners and show directors in the area to ensure her son would be safe. They mapped out safety protocols, and even made changes to Jacob’s performances following conservative backlash.
While Jerri recognizes that her choice to affirm the person her son wants to be isn’t the decision that every parent would make, she wishes the family’s critics could meet Jacob and see how happy he is.
“He is a normal 9-year-old child in every single way,” Jerri says. “He gets really good grades. He is a competitive dancer. He loves to draw. He’s starting to get into digital arts, and he wants to play the euphonium, which is like a mini-tuba, next year in his school band. He doesn’t deserve this, and we don’t deserve it.”