SALT LAKE CITY –
A Utah-based group that organizes drag performances is suing a city over the denial of permits for an all-ages show it intended to stage in a public park in April.
The group, Southern Utah Drag Stars, and its executive director, Mitski Avalōx, accuse the city of St. George of “continuing flagrant violations of their free speech, due process, and equal protection rights” and, in a complaint Filed in federal court Tuesday, they are asking for damages and for St. George to reverse its decision and authorize a drag show at the end of June.
“This is the latest offense in a broader pattern of attacks that discriminate against LGBTQ+ and gender diverse people and their rights in Utah and across the country,” said Emerson Sykes, an attorney for the ACLU, which represents the group.
The lawsuit marks the latest development in a fight over drag shows in St. George, Utah, a conservative city 111 miles (179 kilometers) northeast of Las Vegas, Nevada. Since HBO filmed a drag performance in a public park for an episode of its series “We’re Here” last year, the city has become a flashpoint in the national battle for drag performances that have won a new political scrutiny in Republican-controlled cities and states.
Public events such as drag queen story hours and the all-ages event that Avalōx intended to host have increasingly been the target of legislatures across the country. This week, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a ban on minors attending drag shows and Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte signed a ban on people dressed in drag reading books to children in schools. and public libraries.
In Utah, a proposal by a St. George Republican to require warning signs for events like drag shows or pride parades in public places stalled after moving through the state House of Representatives in March. The proposal arose from rejection that resulted from the June 2022 drag show produced by HBO in St. George. City officials issued permits for the event despite the objection of some council members and community activists. City Manager Adam Lenhard resigned months later over the incident after writing to council members that he could not legally deny permits for the show, according to emails obtained by the Salt Lake Tribune.
Anti-drag activists in Utah and across the United States have portrayed the art form, which often involves overdressing and acting like another genre for entertainment, as sexual deviancy and a subversive attempt to influence children.
Avalōx, who uses the pronouns she and they, founded Southern Utah Drag Stars after the fallout, hoping to showcase drag for members of the LGBTQ+ community in a rural location where such forms of entertainment are often lacking.
“I made a point of continuing to do these events and not just one month out of the year, but to do it so that people who were like me when I was growing up…can see that there are queer adults who get to live a long and fulfilling life.” Avalōx said in an interview. “My biggest ambition was to provide a public space where people could go to a park and enjoy a show meant for everyone.”
Avalōx said the Drag Stars intended to put on a show at a St. George city park in April and were told by a city event coordinator they could start advertising before getting a permit. The city council later denied the group’s permit, citing an ordinance that prohibits advertising prior to permit approval.
St. George declined to comment on the lawsuit, but the city attorney at the time defended the ordinance’s enforcement and the events coordinator denied approving a request by Avalōx to begin advertising.
In their complaint, Avalōx and ACLU attorneys frame St. George’s decision to deny them event permits as part of a broader national assault on drag performers and accuse the city of “gross and ongoing violations of their freedom.” of expression, due process and equal rights of protection”.
They argue that St. George invoked an ordinance that had never been applied in a selective and discriminatory manner towards the LGBTQ+ community.
“The City has used its unrestricted discretion under the ordinances to enforce them in a discriminatory manner,” they argue in the complaint.
The complaint also says that City Councilor Michelle Tanner has been “staging conflict” and broadly fomenting an anti-LGBTQ climate in St. George, including by accusing those who perform in drag in front of children of “predatory behavior.” “.