My father was the city manager of a couple of little towns on the prairie for, altogether, more than 30 years. One of the stories he sometimes told was about the time he stayed late at the office on a Friday afternoon to finalize the paperwork for a parade permit requested for that weekend.
It was for the local chapter of the NAACP, a pretty small group in that mostly white town. The group’s leaders were worried that, because they hadn’t realized until the last minute that they even needed a permit, and because they were not among the community’s elect, they might be out of luck.
But my father saw no purpose in grinding these good folks in the wheels of the municipal bureaucracy. They had followed the rules, which were fairly loose to begin with, and were clearly entitled to the permit.
What made this a story worth telling was the fact that the NAACP members were more than a little bit surprised that an old white guy would go the least bit out of his way to help them. That he didn’t invoke some officious technicality as an excuse for denying their request.
In appreciation for that simple act, and for some other things that were really no more than doing his job, my father was given the title of Honorary Black Man by the woman who ran the local group, an act that probably exceeded her authority.
It was a title he took some pride in. Though he was also just a little bit offended that a group of people who didn’t know him saw his white skin and official title and just assumed that he was going to discriminate against them and deny them their rights.
Drag shows weren’t a thing in the 1970s, at least not in small towns away from the coasts, so my father was never faced with the question that was posed to the now-former city manager of St. George over the summer.
When City Manager Adam Lenhard was asked to issue a permit for the HBO TV series “We’re Here” to stage and film a drag show on public property in St. George, he correctly saw that he had no legal grounds to deny it. But that snagged the wool of some local activists, including members of the city council who, collectively, are the city manager’s boss.
Council members told Lenhard to revoke the permit, arguing that the show and the cinema verité stuff surrounding it were not sufficiently “family friendly” to be allowed in the public square. He told them he couldn’t do that, at least not without exposing the city to an expensive discrimination lawsuit. And avoiding expensive lawsuits is a key part of any city manager’s job.
So, of course, Lenhard’s last act as St. George city manager was to tell the council that if they wanted to fire him over the permit issue, they would be vulnerable to an expensive lawsuit. From him. For dismissing him without cause.
When an outside expert advised that such a lawsuit was likely to be successful, the council agreed to a buy-out of Lenhard’s contract. For $625,000, Lenhard agreed to walk away and not sue the city for wrongful termination. That’s a bit more than two years’ pay for the city manager but, counting the legal fees that would have been involved, probably a damn site cheaper than a lawsuit -- or two lawsuits, counting the one from HBO -- would have been.
So, even as he was being forced out of his job, Lenhard did his job by saving the city a considerable amount of money.
Of course, everyone involved could have saved themselves time and money if it weren’t for the expressions of bigotry that motivated some council members, and others in the community, to get all twisted up about a just-passing-through drag show that threatened no one but elicited just the kind of performative display of outrage that the HBO series makes its hay from.
Men dressing up as flamboyant women is silly at worst. City council members taking on the mantle of official bigotry is ugly.
The horror elicited by drag shows or any other kind of gender-bending behavior, as well as the existence of immigrants and others not of the preferred sort, is really all the MAGA Republicans have going for them.
It goes a long way to obscure the fact that the American right has nothing else to offer. Nothing to really deal with inflation or other economic issues. Actively going the wrong direction on climate and the environment, tax fairness, public safety, the very survival of democracy.
The core of today’s right wing, in America and around the world, is division and distrust. Us vs. Them.
The fact that I’m referring to so many of my fellow Americans as “Them” shows just how perniciously effective that tactic is.
George Pyle, opinion editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, apologizes for filtering all news events through his personal experiences.