Scott D. Pierce: HBO’s drag show does not make St. George look good

Residents should watch ‘We’re Here’ to see how their fellow citizens don’t feel safe.

(Greg Endries | HBO) Eureka poses in front of the St. George Temple.

The drag queens of HBO’s “We’re Here” showed up in St. George looking to stir things up a bit, and — wow — did they ever succeed. This was a bit surprising, because “We’re Here” has not created much in the way of controversy since it premiered in April 2020.

Essentially, it’s sort of “Queer Eye” with drag queens. Former “RuPaul’s Drag Race” contestants Bob the Drag Queen, Eureka O’Hara and Shangela go to a small town; they recruit local members of the LGBTQ+ community to perform in a drag show; the locals tell their stories; there’s a lot of love and support.

But then St. George city councilwoman Michelle Tanner spearheaded a move to revoke the show’s permit to produce the drag show in the town park. That ultimately failed, but — in Friday’s episode — it’s one of many ways St. George comes across looking bad.

Tanner doesn’t come up until about 18 minutes into the hourlong episodes, and her efforts make the drag queens “the stars of the local Facebook pages,” according to Bob. He says St. George is “not in your face,” but “behind your back.”

“We did everything right. We got the permits,” Bob says. “And then we find out that, apparently, city hall is entertaining the idea of pulling our permit.”

Viewers get a quick look at a letter and Facebook posts from Tanner expressing her concerns that “an HBO, rated TV-MA drag show” will be mounted in St. George.

(Mark Eddington | The Salt Lake Tribune) Michelle Tanner speaks at an event in Leeds, Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2022.

(It is rated TV-MA for the language — a few f-bombs. There’s no sexual content, nudity or violence. Kids see more risque stuff on TV every day.)

“Obviously, I feel like she’s never seen our show,” Bob says. “You might like it, Michelle.”

He’s probably right about Tanner never watching an episode of “We’re Here,” although it’s doubtful she would like it. She’s probably also not going to like that her email address is visible onscreen.

“They’re worried that we’re going to convert the Mormons to gays,” Eureka says. “You can’t convert anyone to gay. If that was the case, we’d be doing missions, too.”

(The episode does not follow up on the controversy it created, which led to the ouster of the St. George city manager.)

The episode is very much about how “Mormon” St. George is, and neither the city nor Latter-day Saints come off looking good. Although there is a funny scene when a missionary at the St. George temple visitors center invites Eureka — in full regalia — inside and tries to get her to watch a church film.

(Greg Endries | HBO) Micah and Bob on "We're Here."

“So everyone in town warned us the homophobes here are, like, behind-your-back sneaky,” Bob says. “Miss Tanner, on city council, is essentially spearheading pulling our permit. … Even though I was told it was going to happen, it was still shocking when it did.”

There is video of the city council meeting when pulling the permit was discussed, and it’s not edited to make all the locals look bad. Just a couple of them. One guy suggests having a MAGA month. Another says “grooming kids isn’t right” — repeating the false talking point that drag shows are designed to turn kids gay.

When a trans man speaks, the video cuts to Tanner with a sour look on her face. “You are the reason I am scared for my future,” the man says. Several supporters of the drag show say it’s about making people feel safe and supported.

“So many queer people and their allies showed up to the city council meeting and spoke up for us,” White says. “And now, we’re putting on a show.”

(Greg Endries | HBO) Toni and Shangela on "We're Here."

And they give a backhanded compliment to Tanner and her followers for the thousands who turned out for the show. “Thank you so much for the city council meeting, because y’all just promoted us in the best way,” Eureka says.

It’s overshadowed by the political drama, but it would do St. George citizens and their leaders good to watch “We’re Here” and pay attention to all the members of their LGBTQ+ community who don’t feel safe living there.

“If you’re not CIS, heterosexual and predominantly white, it’s not safe here for you,” says Micah, the executive director of Pride of Southern Utah. But he doesn’t want to feel “forced out” of the place where he grew up.

Micah also shares a terrifying story of when, feeling more comfortable using a women’s restroom in a local restaurant last year, he was “almost dragged out” by a “whole bunch of men” who came after him and pounded on the stall door. And, he says, protesters and the police show up at every Pride of Southern Utah event.

Toni, a young transgender man, expresses fears for his physical safety.

Gaby, a young bisexual woman, recalls when the local school board nixed a performance of “Rent” because it was “too gay. It’s the same thing that the city council is doing, trying to cancel our drag show. Just continues to instill fear into anything that’s different than what they believe.”

According to “We’re Here” executive producer Stephen Warren, the “Rent” cancellation “was the genesis of the show and why we came to St. George, because we heard about this story and we wanted to be able to tell it.”

“We’re Here” shows Micah, Gaby and Toni awkwardly and hesitantly preparing for the show, but then they get excited about the clothes, makeup, hair — and they feel empowered. It’s not something everyone can identify with, but that doesn’t make it any less true for them.

(Greg Endries | HBO) Despite some opposition, the drag show went on in St. George.

The drag show itself is pretty fabulous — the costumes and makeup are amazing. And there’s nothing sexual about it. If there was anything in there designed to “recruit” anyone to be gay, I couldn’t find it. The intent is to empower people who are LGBTQ+ to feel support and enable them to share who they really are — not who they are recruited to be.

I’m not a drag show fan, and I did not expect to be affected by any of this. And yet, much to my surprise, watching the locals in the drag show brought tears to my eyes.

“Oh, baby,” Shangela says. “I want this to be something that St. George will be talking about over at the LDS church next Sunday.”

It’s a safe bet that this will remain a topic of conversation in St. George for some time to come.

Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.