The town of Portland, Tennessee (population: 11,000) is one vote away from instituting a new zoning ordinance which would prohibit "adult content" that includes "male or female impersonators" from being exhibited in commercial areas, effectively banning drag.
According to INTO, The City Board of Aldermen voted unanimously on September 5 to update its laws on the matter, with a final reading of the legislation scheduled for Monday, after which a final decision on the new rules will be made.
The proposal for the restrictions, which would also include a ban on “exotic dancers, table dancers, private dancers, strippers ... [and] similar entertainers," was created in response to the town's first-ever drag show held at Envy Bar & Grill on August 12.
The show had totally sold out, but also garnered a series of death threats on social media.
“Some of the messages came from people I knew and considered to be my friends,” said Kyle Guillermo, co-owner of Elite Productions, whose husband and four children were threatened over the show.
"We received several phone calls from concerned citizens about wanting this in our community or not wanting this in our community," Mayor Kenneth Wilber said. “We do not want those types of things in our normal business district, so I support it 100 percent,” he added. He said he does not think these kinds of performances reflect the city's "values."
Portland’s City Planner Andrew Pieri said the shows could potentially continue if the performances were moved to the city's "industrial zones," but Guillermo was unconvinced by this proposition. If drag is not allowed near places of worship (the small town has over 30 churches), residencies, or schools, it will be essentially impossible to exhibit this art anywhere within Portland.
A legal challenge to the ban is an avenue some are exploring. Chris Sanders, executive director of Tennessee Equality Project, says that the new law would be a violation of the town's LGBTQ members' constitutional rights, specifically that of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth amendment, which states that individuals cannot be denied “the equal protection of the laws."
“They have the ability to zone in their community, but they can’t zone in a way that is effectively a ban,” Sanders says, who worries about the "chilling effect" the law would potentially have on queer people in the city, even if it is struck down. “It means your local government is saying to you: ‘If we could rollback your rights, we would. What kind of message is that sending to LGBTQ people in a small town? Those are the people your neighbors elected. They are your neighbors. In a small town, the board of aldermen is made up of people you run into on the street.”
Demonstrations against the ordinance are currently being planned for Monday at the town's city hall.
“Doing these drag shows allows LGBTQ people in Portland to do something they’ve never had the chance to before,” says Guillermo, who notes that the closest drag shows are over an hour drive away. “All of my performers and everyone involved with this company, we all have regular jobs. The show is a place where we can escape and be ourselves, if just for a moment, before we go back to the real world.”
“It feels like they’re ripping this dream away from us,” he added.
[Photo: Screenshot from YouTube]