St. George drag show goes on as performers refuse to wilt amid the heat and protests

“We’re from southern Utah,” says group’s CEO, “so we are resilient.”

(Mark Eddington | The Salt Lake Tribune Drag performer Miz Kiki wows the crowd at the Allies & Community Drag Festival in St. George on Friday, June 30, 2023.

St. George • After weathering criticism and rejection by some city officials and residents, the only two things left for Southern Utah Drag Stars to withstand in staging a delayed drag show Friday evening in St. George were the withering heat and about 50 protesters.

With temperatures hovering near the century mark, the professional drag performers shimmied and shook to the music while an audience of several hundred baked in a rodeo arena. The heat caused some drag performers’ face makeup to melt a bit and sent some shade-seeking onlookers to shelter in vendors’ tents or under the eaves of buildings rimming the north and south sides of the venue.

Even so, the atmosphere — punctuated as it was by a few complaints about the heat — was one of celebration.

“The timing of the show couldn’t be better,” said LGBTQ advocate Katheryne Knight. “Southern Utah Drag Stars, the performers, and all of the organizations and people who have been showing love and support [for the LGBTQ community] have not only helped us come together to celebrate Pride in the best way possible, but have built a foundation for change that is much needed in our community.”

And the drag stars and audience at the Allies & Community Drag Show Festival had cause for celebration. For starters, they were basking in the legal afterglow of U.S. District Judge David Nuffer’s ruling two weeks ago that St. George’s actions to thwart the show from taking place in April, as originally scheduled, were unconstitutional, and that city officials must stand aside and let the show go on.

The legal battle continues

(Mark Eddington | The Salt Lake Tribune Drag performer Mitski Avalōx entertains the crowd at drag show in St. George on Friday, June 30, 2023.

Another source of jubilation for the drag performers, their supporters and members of the St. George area’s LGBTQ community was the city’s decision to abide by the federal judge’s ruling.

“The city has decided not to appeal Judge Nuffer’s decision and will continue to move forward with the [still-pending] litigation in this matter,” the city said in a statement. “In the meantime, we have been working with the event organizers and the event will move forward. … We expect the event will be peaceful and comply with all laws.”

Still unresolved, however, is the lawsuit the Southern Utah Drag Stars and CEO Mitski Avalōx filed against the city in May after city officials denied a permit for Avalōx’s company to stage the Allies & Community Drag Show Festival at J.C. Snow Park in April due to an ordinance that bans applicants from advertising special events until receiving final approval and a permit from the city.

Knight, the LGBTQ advocate who is running for a seat on the St. George City Council, lauded officials for not appealing the judge’s decision to grant a preliminary injunction to the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

“Right now, we need to be doing all we can to address the polarizing views in our community that led to this most recent lawsuit,” she said. “I think the city’s decision is a great first step.”

(Mark Eddington | The Salt Lake Tribune Drag performer Miz Kiki wows the crowd at the Allies and Community Drag Festival in St. George on Friday, June 30, 2023.

For Rory Thorpe, who drove down from West Valley City as a show of support for Southern Utah Drag Stars, four words summed up the festival taking place.

“Better late than never,” he said while perched on a railing, watching the performers and waving a pride flag.

To cope with the heat, festival organizers had water bottles and misters on hand. At times, there were as many people watching the action on stage, which included bands and drag stars, from the vendors’ tents as there were seated on sun-exposed folding chairs.

No gripes came, though, from Avalōx, who not only performed but also alternated hosting duties with Salt Lake City drag star Tara Lipsyncki.

“We’re from southern Utah, so we are resilient,” Avalōx said. “Our spirit is pretty strong, and we are just grateful to be here tonight.”

Range of protests

(Mark Eddington | The Salt Lake Tribune) Protesters hold up signs and chant “shame on you” at a drag performers in St. George on Friday, June 30, 2023.

The few complaints voiced in the arena contrasted with the discontent of demonstrators. Outside the main entrance, members of a religious group sang hymns, prayed for the drag stars, and waved signs inscribed with slogans like “Leave our children alone” and “You are who God says you are.”

A woman organizing the singalongs refused to identify herself. “My name is an American patriot who loves everyone,” she said, adding the group was made up of people “who love Christ and want to share that love.”

Another group member, who packed a pistol and also declined to give his name, said he carries the sidearm everywhere he goes except to the temple.

“I pack it to get there,” he said, “but I don’t pack inside the temple.”

Fellow protester Eric Moutsos echoed the “love theme,” saying the group members loved everyone from all walks of life but were there to stand as a witness and voice their disapproval of children being exposed to indecency.

“There are certain lines that are starting to get crossed,” the Washington City resident said.

A former Salt Lake City police officer, Moutsos has been actively involved in protests against masks and other COVID-19 pandemic-related measures. Two years ago, in May 2021, he was part of a crowd that burned an effigy of a giant vaccine syringe in central Utah’s Moroni. He also was involved in a 2021 anti-mask protest organized by the Liberty Action Coalition, a far-right group in the Washington County area that also opposes drag shows.

In contrast with Moutsos’ group, which was quiet and respectful, other protesters outside the arena listened to heavy metal music and occasionally yelled at the drag performers. One man wearing a “Y’all Need Jesus” T-shirt got in a vociferous exchange with a drag supporter.

“How many of those people are registered sex offenders?” he asked a woman, gesturing toward the performers. “You should find out before you take your kids there.”

(Mark Eddington | The Salt Lake Tribune Tara Lipsyncki emcee of drag show in St. George addresses the audience Friday, June 30, 2023.

About dozen police officers were on hand to keep the peace. Waiting to take the stage, drag performer Marqueza was unfazed by the sun or the protesters.

“I’m not thinking about them,” Marqueza said. “I’m thinking about how much fun and how joyful and how cute this event is.”

Avalōx and six representatives of the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah, which is representing Southern Utah Drag Stars in its lawsuit against the city, were equally undaunted.

“Our existence is such a bothersome thing to people who detest our visibility,” she said. “And visibility is one of the strongest tools we have, especially in a rural community.”

Southern Utah Drag Stars plan to organize even more drag events in St. George, according to Avalōx, but have yet to determine where.