Drag Show Performers File Lawsuit Against St. George City

On Tuesday, A Southern Utah drag group and The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Utah filed suit against the city of St. George after the city selectively applied a local ordinance to deny an event permit to a family-friendly drag show. 

Mitski Avalōx with The Southern Utah Drag Stars applied for the special events permit, back on March 3, 2023, to host the event Allies & Community Drag Show Festival at J.C. Snow Park. A few weeks later, the city denied the application under the pretenses that Avalōx had violated a St. George City ordinance that prohibits advertising for special events until the city grants a permit. 

How did we get here?

The drag show event poster reading "POSTPONED" across the front, following the permit's denial on the Southern Utah Drag Stars' website.
The “Allies & Community Drag Show Festival” event poster reads “POSTPONED,” following the event’s permit denial, on the Southern Utah Drag Stars’ website.

In the St. George City Council meetings that followed, members of the city council pointed out that they apply this advertising rule selectively, providing exceptions for events like Redstone Highland Games, Brooks’ Block Party and the Spring Tour of St. George. However, at Avalōx’s appeal hearing on April 11, all present City Council members still voted to deny the permit to the drag show except for Councilperson Danielle Larkin. 

At the same hearing, the council also voted down the appeal for another event permit for Indigo Klabanoff’s Taste of Southern Utah Food Festival. Avalōx referred to the food festival’s denial as collateral damage—likely alluding to Councilperson Michele Tanner’s vocal disapproval for a drag show and screening of the HBO series We’re Here during last year’s Pride celebration in St. George. 

The advertising ordinance has not been routinely enforced until recently, in part because it is unrealistic. Permits are typically not issued until the day of or the day before events, making advertising an event practically impossible.

And, after the big blowout between city leaders’ over the drag event last year, some have suggested the sudden enforcement of the ordinance is a way to allow the city to discriminate against drag shows and LGBTQ-centered events. 

The lawsuit against St. George

The lawsuit filed by the ACLU and Southern Utah Drag Stars alleges that the St. George City Council created a scheme allowing officials to selectively grant permits to favored events while denying all others. The ACLU calls St. George’s special events policies discriminatory against drag performances.

“Requiring drag performers to meet unreasonable standards to receive a permit, or denying them these permits without legitimate justification, is censorship,” says Valentina De Fex, Senior Staff Attorney with the ACLU of Utah. “Our lawsuit challenges the attempt by elected officials, who must uphold the rights guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution and Utah State Constitution, to push subjective viewpoints of what they deem appropriate.” 

“Drag is dance, fashion, and music—it is also deeply rooted in political speech—all protected by the First Amendment,” says Emerson Sykes, Senior Staff Attorney with the ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project. “This is the latest offense in a larger pattern of attacks discriminating against gender-diverse and LGBTQ+ people and their rights in Utah and throughout the country.” As an example, ACLU points a to a recent slew of bills in six states that ban drag under the guide of protecting children from the obscene. 

“The city of St. George is violating the First Amendment rights of Drag Stars and discriminating against them through a façade of permits and ordinances that have never been applied in this manner with any other group or organization,” said Jeremy Creelan, Partner at Jenner & Block. “LGBTQ+ performers are entitled to protections under the First and Fourteenth Amendments, and we are asking the court to protect these fundamental rights and put a stop to this deeply troubling attack on free expression.”

Moratorium on St. George special events and… other changes

In light of the selective enforcement of the advertising ordinance, the City Council put a six-month moratorium on approving special events permits, starting in March, until they could figure out what to do with the ordinance. Since then, they decided to allow for exemptions from the moratorium for recurring and city-sponsored events, so it only applies to new events.

Another bit of funny business has to do with the public comments allowed at St. George City Council Meetings. In early May, St. George City Mayor Michele Randall banned in-person public comments at city council meetings. Some St. George citizens responded with protests, calling the Mayor’s new policy a violation of their First Amendment rights. On the day Southern Utah Drag Stars and the ACLU filed suit against the city, the Mayor announced she’s walking back the public comment ban. 

The Mayor explained her actions in a statement, saying, “the public input has devolved into statements unrelated to City business and at times, has disrupted the regular conduct of the City’s meetings and business. As a result, as Mayor, I put a “pause” on public input at City Council meetings in order to create more efficiency in accomplishing the City’s business.”

And now, the “pause” is over… with some new conditions: 

  1. To comment in-person at City Council meetings, the person must live in St. George and provide their name and address to the city recorder. 
  2. The public can only comment on “City business” but not “any agenda item or pending land use application.”
  3. Only up-to 10 people can speak at any meeting, each with a two-minute time limit.
  4. Commenters must refrain from using “obscene of profane language” and not attack others.
  5. Officials will choose 10 people at random, if more than 10 people want to speak. 
  6. After giving comment, a person will not be able to offer comment at future meetings for three months
  7. People who disrupt meetings with “undue applause, jeering, uninvited comments, or other protests” will be told to leave.

There is another way to offer public comment on city business. Comments can be written and hand-delivered or mailed to the city recorder at 175 E. 200 North, St. George, UT 84770, or emailed at public-comment@sgcity.org. Residents may also submit comments on the city website at sgcity.org/contact/submitpubliccomment.


Christie Porter
Christie Porterhttps://christieporter.com/
Christie Porter is the managing editor of Salt Lake Magazine. She has worked as a journalist for nearly a decade, writing about everything under the sun, but she really loves writing about nerdy things and the weird stuff. She recently published her first comic book short this year.

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