Queer community finds connection and safety at HBO drag show screening in St. George

“We can bring in the police, but I can’t emotionally heal a lot of that trauma and fear that people have,” one performer said.

(Mark Eddington | The Salt Lake Tribune) Toni Graham, left, was a drag performer and featured in “We’re Here” talks with friends and well-wishers at the screening.

St. George • Despite threats of protests and vocal opposition to its filming in town, the queer community in southern Utah turned out en masse Wednesday night for two special screenings of HBO Max’s “We’re Here” drag show.

The show caused a political firestorm when it was filmed at St. George’s Town Square Park last June. But none of that was evident at the screenings at the Sunset Megaplex Theatre, which sold out and raised $4,300 for Pride of Southern Utah.

[Related: Scott D. Pierce: HBO’s drag show does not make St. George look good | HBO showrunners say St. George drag show controversy should be seen as a warning]

Micah Barrick, executive director of the nonprofit aimed at promoting a sense of belonging in the queer community, told the crowd it’s been hard to make everyone feel safe at pride events.

“We can bring in the police, but I can’t emotionally heal a lot of that trauma and fear that people have,” said Barrick, who performed under the moniker Pauper Cherry in the HBO episode on St. George. “So I appreciate everybody who did show up because there were people who were afraid to come despite the fact that we have the police here.”

Drag shows in the St. George area have faced considerable backlash. When St. George City Manager Adam Lenhard balked at the City Council’s demand that he cancel the permits for the “We’re Here” show last summer, he was forced to resign and handed a confidential $625,000 settlement to avoid legal action for wrongful termination. In emotionally charged City Council meetings, some residents accused HBO and drag performers of trying to groom children and contributing to St. George’s moral decay.

In September, protesters disrupted the city’s annual pride festival. Heated rhetoric from Patricia Kent, founder of the Liberty Action Coalition and national chair of the Independent American Party, further inflamed tensions a month later when she accused drag performers of “grooming our children for immoral satanic worship.”

Imara Jones, CEO of TransLash media and creator of the podcast “The Anti-Trans Hate Machine,” says the popularity of “We’re Here” and other drag shows has prompted harsh rhetoric from the Christian nationalist movement and similar groups, which tend to view drag and the LGBTQ community as a threat to traditional gender roles.

“That’s a massive problem because we know from history that when you isolate and then demonize a community, violence follows,” Jones said. “There’s a growing focus from groups like the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers on trans issues and using that as an excuse for violence.”

Despite past protests at LGBTQ events, there were none at the HBO screening, which was attended by Lenhard and St. George Councilwoman Dannielle Larkin. St. George police officers, which provided security for the show, said they were unaware of any threats.

(Mark Eddington | The Salt Lake Tribune) St. George residents gathered to watch an episode of "We're Here," an HBO show that was filmed in St. George last summer and kicked of a political firestorm.

While opponents steered clear of the theater, one St. George resident shopping at the opposite end of the parking lot made it clear where he stood.

“I thought when I moved here from Southern California that I left this s*** behind,” said Kaden Hall, gesturing toward the theater. “If America ever falls, drag [shows], same-sex marriage and woke socialists will be responsible. Evil is evil, no matter how many people excuse or embrace it.”

Linda Stay, a board member for Pride of Southern Utah and Micah Barrick’s mother-in-law, calls such language and ignorance horrifying.

“They don’t realize that harm to the LGBTQ community starts with their language and fear tactics,” Stay said. “This nonsense of grooming children for Satan’s work is hurtful, and it is harmful. I keep telling myself and others in our community that people who say such things are a very small minority. But they are loud, and the only way to combat that is to love louder. We have to show up, stand up and speak up.”

Added St. George resident Skyler Monteer, who was at the screening with his husband Keenan:

“It is spreading a message about our community that is not true — that we are grooming children when we really just want the same thing everybody else does.”

St. George Councilwoman Michelle Tanner, who spearheaded Lenhard’s dismissal and opposition to the “We’re Here” show, was not at the screening but was nonetheless conspicuous despite her absence. As opposed to local residents who appeared in the documentary, every reference to Tanner was greeted with jeers and boos.

In a good-natured dig in the documentary at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and drag critics like Tanner, HBO host Eureka O’Hara addressed the furor over drag shows.

“Social media is a huge force and getting people riled up by instilling fear,” said O’Hara, one of the show’s three drag stars. “They’re worried that we’re going to convert the Mormons to gay … When can we convert anyone to gay? If that was the case, we’d be doing missions too … Michelle.”

O’Hara’s stopover at the predominant faith’s St. George Temple visitors’ center in the film drew guffaws. While there was no video from inside the center, audience members were treated to audio of an “Elder Tingey” trying to shepherd the reluctant drag star into viewing the church film “Our Heavenly Father’s Plan,” prompting her fellow drag hosts, Shangela and Bob the Drag Queen, waiting outside to wonder if she might convert.

“What if she comes out in a white shirt and a black tie,” Shangela quipped.

Now in its third season, the HBO show features the three drag hosts as they stage shows in conservative cities like St. George and coach local residents to perform in the events and to become more comfortable with their authentic selves.

Stacey Lee, a Cedar City dance instructor and longtime LGBTQ advocate known as the “Gay God Mommy,” said she has accompanied a lot of people when they came out as gay to their families. She said pride events like the HBO show help build a sense of safety and community among LGBTQ members.

“The majority of the people in St. George do not have a problem with gay people, with drag queens, with queer people,” Lee said. “The bigoted voices are a very small minority.”

Stephen Warren and Johnnie Ingram, co-creators and executive producers of the series, said St. George will always hold a special place in their hearts due to all the wonderful people they met. They added the city has something to teach other cities and towns across America.

Namely, Warren said, that when people stand together, show love and support one another, they drown out the “ridiculously stupid voices” of some of the drag critics shown in the documentary.

“They do not represent what St. George is about and they don’t represent what this country is,” Warren said in a panel discussion that followed the screening.

O’Hara’s parting wish to the queer community in southern Utah is that they will continue to “find community and connection” in St. George and “stand up for their rights so they can maintain visibility and happiness.”

Asked about her future plans, the drag performer did not demure.

“A movie date with Elder Tingey,” she joked.

The St. George episode of “We’re Here” premieres on HBO Max on Dec. 9.