HBO showrunners say St. George drag show controversy should be seen as a warning

Stephen Warren and Johnnie Ingram, co-creators of the ‘We’re Here’ reality show, say St. George was the first time in three seasons they saw pushback from elected officials.

(Chris Caldwell | The Spectrum & Daily News) Film crews from HBO shoot an episode of "We're Here" in St. George Friday, June 3, 2022.

The showrunners for the HBO Max show “We’re Here” say they were mostly unaware of the controversy roiling St. George over permits for a drag show on public property. The fallout resulted in St. George paying former city manager Adam Lenhard a $625,000 settlement after he was ousted for refusing the City Council’s demand to cancel those permits.

“I’m shocked that there was so much going on right beneath our noses without us really knowing what was going on,” said Stephen Warren, who, along with co-creator and co-executive producer Johnnie Ingram, spoke to The Tribune about the fallout from the episode, set to air Friday on HBO Max.

The reality show, now in its third season, follows three drag performers who travel to conservative areas of the country. Each episode concludes with local residents performing in a public drag show after being coached by the stars. The drag finale in St. George took place downtown on public property and attracted more than two thousand audience members.

“It wasn’t until the day before the show that we were told there was going to be a City Council meeting and they were potentially going to shut us down. We were very concerned that we were 24 hours away from the show and our permit was going to be revoked,” Warren said.

The episode highlights the public opposition to the show through social media posts and the efforts of St. George City Council member Michelle Tanner. Text messages obtained through an open records request showed Tanner pushing to block the performance from taking place on public property. In a May 26 Facebook post, which appears in the episode, Tanner blasted Lenhard for approving permits for the show, saying the show’s TV-MA rating made it inappropriate for a public space.

Ingram says they have grown accustomed to some measure of pushback from the community, but St. George was a first for them.

“We’ve never seen it come from an elected official. We’ve never received any pushback like that,” Ingram said.

On the day of the show, Warren reached out to Tanner via text message and suggested a meeting. Tanner replied she would be amenable to a discussion, but her schedule that day was not cooperative.

“I was busy with patients that day, or else I would have been happy to meet and have further discussion,” Tanner said in a text message to The Tribune.

Despite the controversy, Warren and Ingram describe the episode as a “love letter” to St. George that also serves as a warning, which has become even more urgent following the November mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Colorado Springs that left five dead and 17 injured.

“This is happening not just in St. George but in lots of places,” Ingram said. “What we’re showing this season is there are real implications to this hate speech and fearmongering of the LGBTQ community and trans people, and drag performers. It’s happening all across the country, and it has to stop.”

“Of all the places we’ve gone, it’s probably our favorite spot. It’s also a warning that places as wonderful and beautiful as St. George can be overridden by a small minority who use words as weapons and use fear to garner power,” Warren said. “I do not believe for a second that the majority of the people in St. George are like that. But St. George is a stark warning to other places throughout the country.”

The moral panic over drag performers does not seem to be fading. A recent drag queen story time event in Ohio was canceled when armed protesters from far-right Proud Boys and Patriot Front organizations demonstrated outside the venue. That specter of violence has made an impact on the show this season. For instance, an episode set in Granbury, Texas, resulted in violent threats from the community.

“There’s an urgency to what is happening to us on the ground while we’re filming, and it’s reflective of what’s going on in the country,” Warren said.

“This show is about combating all this opposition. We realize that a large number of people, even in St. George, really want change within the community. All we want is to live our lives. No one wants to be murdered or yelled at for being different,” Ingram added. “The most important message from our show is, can’t we all just live together in harmony and happiness? Isn’t that what America is supposed to be?”

The team behind “We’re Here” are heading back to St. George for a pair of screenings on Wednesday night ahead of the Dec. 9 premiere. The event is a fundraiser for Pride of Southern Utah.