It’s like a scene out of the movie Footloose: The tiny town of Portland, Tennesseehas moved forward with an ordinance that would effectively ban drag shows as soon as next week.
The City Board of Aldermen voted unanimously on Sept. 5 to update its zoning ordinances to prohibit “adult content” from being housed in commercial districts. These businesses include any establishments featuring “exotic dancers, table dancers, private dancers, strippers, male or female impersonators, or similar entertainers.”
A second and final reading of the legislation is scheduled for Monday, after which the aldermen will hand down their decision.
The ordinance was proposed in response to a drag show held at Envy Bar & Grill on Aug. 12, the first such event in Portland’s history. After the sold-out show, the organizers received numerous death threats on Facebook from the residents of the conservative city, which is nestled along the Kentucky border.
Kyle Guillermo, co-owner of Elite Productions, tells INTO that community members told him to “jump off a bridge” and “throw [himself] into traffic.” People also threatened his husband and four children. They even called his parents.
“Some of the messages came from people I knew and considered to be my friends,” says Guillermo, whose company helped put on the event.
In response to the backlash, Mayor Kenneth Wilber came out in support of a ban on drag performances in Portland’s commercial district. Wilber claimed during an interview with the Nashville news station WSMV that drag shows are against the city’s “values.”
“We do not want those types of things in our normal business district, so I support it 100 percent,” Wilber says.
Portland’s City Planner Andrew Pieri claimed that the show will be allowed to go on, so long as future events are held in “industrial zones.” But Guillermo points out that regulation is just as good as a ban: If drag performances aren’t allowed in the vicinity of churches, schools, or residential areas, there is nowhere left for organizers to go. Portland, a town of 11,000 people, has more than 30 houses of worship.
Chris Sanders, executive director of Tennessee Equality Project, believes that this constitutes a violation of the Portland LGBTQ community’s constitutional rights. He cites the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th 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.
Sanders says that the ordinance is “headed toward passage” on Monday, and Elite is already planning to challenge the decision in court. But Sanders claims that even if the law is struck down, it will have a “chilling effect” on queer folks in Portland.
“It means your local government is saying to you: ‘If we could rollback your rights, we would,’” he argues. “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.”
A rally to fight the ordinance will be held on Monday at Portland City Hall. Guillermo believes that preserving the right to free assembly is critical for the local LGBTQ community.
“Doing these drag shows allows LGBTQ people in Portland to do something they’ve never had the chance to before,” says Guillermo, who claims that the closest drag bar is over an hour’s drive. “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 adds.