Southern Utah drag group sues St. George, alleges discrimination for denying drag show permit

The American Civil Liberties Union of Utah is representing the drag group.

(Mori Kessler | St. George News) Members and supporters of the LGBTQ community pile into the St. George City Council chambers to voice their concerns during a City Council meeting. The Southern Utah Drag Stars group sued St. George and city leaders on Tuesday, May 23, 2023, accusing them of discrimination for denying their permit application to host an all-ages drag show at a local park.

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

The lawsuit, filed in federal court, argues city officials’ decision to not issue that permit violated the First and Fourteenth amendments and is “part of a years-long effort to target drag performances and LGBTQ pride events,” according to a news release from the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah. The organization’s attorneys are representing the drag group.

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

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

Mitski Avalōx, a plaintiff in the lawsuit, applied March 3 for a special events permit to host the drag event, called the Allies & Community Drag Show Festival, at J.C. Snow Park, according to the ACLU news release. The St. George City Council voted to deny the application, citing an ordinance that bars organizations from advertising special events that haven’t yet been approved and permitted.

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

The sole member who voted to overturn the permit denial, Danielle Larkin, said at the council meeting that the advertising ordinance “makes doing business nearly impossible.” She added, “If a group wants to rent our parks or facilities, we should apply the same standards across the board.”

In a statement, the ACLU argued Tuesday that the city’s advertising ordinance “was not routinely enforced, in part because it is unworkable — permits are typically not issued until the day of or the day before events, making advertising an event practically impossible.”

The group also noted that while Avalōx’s application was pending, the city put a six-month stay on considering new special events, meaning she could not reapply.

“The city later exempted ‘city sponsored’ events from the six month ban on new permit applications, creating a scheme whereby city officials selectively grant permits to favored events while denying all others,” the ACLU said in its statement. “St. George’s special events policies discriminate against drag performances and are so opaque that no one can know what is allowed and what is not.”

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

In screenshots Avalōx provided to the city council in the appeal, a member of Liberty Action Coalition commented on a Southern Utah Drag Stars post on Facebook less than two hours after the group was delivered the denial letter saying, “I have heard from St. George city that the event permit was denied.”

Last June, city administrators declined to turn away a drag show staged by HBO at the city’s Town Square Park on the advice of city attorneys. City Council member Michelle Tanner was critical of City Manager Adam Lenhard for not shutting down the event. He later resigned and accepted a confidential settlement.

Anger over drag shows was a factor in the council’s recent decision to place a moratorium on special events. The city council later amended the moratorium to exempt recurring and city-sponsored events.

Tara Lipsyncki, a Salt Lake City-based drag queen, is mentioned in the lawsuit and will provide a declaration to the court.

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

She was set to be the special host of a drag event initially scheduled to happen in April in St. George, which got canceled twice.

”The goal is actually to not have it go to court,” Lipsyncki said. “Frankly, we’re just saying, ‘We’ll sue if you don’t let us hold it in June.’”

This is the first major lawsuit filed in the state of Utah since the controversy over drag shows began in earnest last year, Lipsyncki said. “This is the first time that we actually are going after municipalities, protecting our right to the First and Fourteenth amendment.”

When asked if Lipsyncki thought something similar could ever happen up in Salt Lake City, she said absolutely. Filing the lawsuit, Lipsyncki said, was the only option left for them.

”What I’m hoping this does is set a precedence to cities that if you’re going to try to censor people, you have to censor everyone ... You can’t discriminate because you don’t like what’s being said, just because it goes against your opinion.”

Correction • May 24, 12:30 p.m. This article was updated to reflect Tara Lipsyncki’s relationship to the case.