Southern Utah drag group sues St. George for discrimination over denial of drag show permits

The American Civil Liberties Union of Utah represents the drag group.

(Mori Kessler | St. George News) Members and supporters of the LGBTQ community flock to the St. George City Council chambers to voice their concerns during a city council meeting. The Southern Utah Drag Stars group on Tuesday, May 23, 2023, sued St. George and city officials, alleging discrimination for failing to complete their permit application to host an all-ages drag show at a local park had refused.

The Southern Utah Drag Stars group on Tuesday sued St. George and city leaders, accusing them of discrimination for denying their application for a permit to host an all-ages drag show at a local park.

The lawsuit, filed in federal court, argues that city officials’ decision not to grant that permit violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments and is “part of a year-long effort to target drag performances and LGBTQ pride events.” , according to a press release from the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah. The organization’s lawyers represent the drag group.

“This campaign is motivated by unfounded fears, prejudice and moral disapproval of the LGBTQ+ community,” the complaint reads.

St. George officials are aware of the lawsuit but declined to comment Tuesday, David Cordero, the city’s director of communications and marketing, said in an email.

According to the ACLU press release, Mitski Avalōx, a plaintiff in the lawsuit, applied for a special event permit on March 3 to host the drag event called the Allies & Community Drag Show Festival at JC Snow Park. St. George City Council voted to deny the motion, citing an ordinance that prohibits organizations from promoting special events that have not yet been approved and permitted.

Avalōx appealed this decision, and on April 11, the council members voted 4-1 to uphold their decision.

The only member who voted to lift the denial, Danielle Larkin, told the council meeting that the advertising regulation “makes business nearly impossible”. She added, “If a group wants to rent our parks or facilities, we should apply the same standards everywhere.”

In a statement Tuesday, the ACLU argued that the city’s advertising ordinance “has not been routinely enforced, in part because it is not enforceable — permits are typically not granted until the day or day before events, making advertising an event virtually impossible.” “

The group also noted that while Avalōx’s bid was pending, the city had suspended consideration of new special events for six months, meaning it could not reapply.

“The city later exempted “city-sponsored” events from the six-month ban on new permit applications and created a system where city officials selectively grant permits for preferred events and deny all others,” the ACLU said in its statement. “St. George’s special events policy discriminates against drag performances and is so opaque that no one can know what is and isn’t allowed.”

Drag shows in St George’s have come under attack from politicians and others over the past year, including members of the Liberty Action Coalition.

In screenshots provided by Avalōx to the City Council as part of the appeal, less than two hours after the Southern Utah Drag Stars’ rejection letter was served, a member of the Liberty Action Coalition commented on a Southern Utah Drag Stars post on Facebook, saying, “I heard from St. George City that the event permit was denied.”

Last June, on the advice of city attorneys, city officials denied a rejection of a drag show hosted by HBO in Town Square Park. City Council Member Michelle Tanner criticized City Manager Adam Lenhard for not canceling the event. He later resigned and accepted a confidential settlement.

Anger at drag shows was a factor in the City Council’s recent decision to impose a moratorium on special events. The city council later amended the moratorium to exclude recurring and city-sponsored events from the exemption.

Tara Lipsyncki, a Salt Lake City drag queen, is listed as a co-defendant in the lawsuit and will provide a statement to the court.

Lipsyncki has seen some backlash in the Utah capital. In January, her all-ages drag show was met with an armed protest from the far-right Proud Boys. It resumed seven weeks later in a new location with armed security.

She was slated to be the special presenter for a drag event originally scheduled to take place in April in St. George, but was canceled twice.

“The goal is actually that it doesn’t go to court,” said Lipsyncki. “Honestly, all we’re saying is, ‘We’ll sue if you don’t allow us to hold it in June.'”

This is the first major lawsuit filed in the state of Utah since the drag show controversy began in earnest last year, Lipsyncki said. “This is the first time we’ve actually taken action against local governments and protected our right to the First and Fourteenth Amendments.”

When asked if Lipsyncki thought anything similar could ever happen in Salt Lake City, she replied absolutely. Filing the lawsuit is her only option, Lipsyncki said.

“I hope this gives cities an example that if you want to censor people, you have to censor everyone… You can’t discriminate because you don’t like what’s being said, just because it doesn’t agree with you.”

— This is an evolving story. Check back for updates.

Justin Scaccy

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