Mass. town’s decision to revoke permit due to drag show draws rebuke

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“Banning a family friendly drag show is not only discriminatory, but also sets a dangerous precedent, in redefining adult entertainment to include clothed and costume performances.”

A board’s decision in the Massachusetts town of North Brookfield to revoke a permit due to a drag show has drawn criticism from local advocates. Photo by Allison Dinner/AFP via Getty Images

The Board of Selectmen in North Brookfield, a town in central Massachusetts, voted April 11 to permit a pride event on the town common. The catch: The event was only permitted so long as organizers removed a drag show performance from the celebration.

The Rural Justice Network, who is sponsoring the June pride celebration, titled “Small Town Pride,” said the drag show would have included a family-friendly, Disney-themed drag performance and then a set of pride anthems performed by people in drag.

“We are using this event to bring representation to our queer community, and use it as a platform for networking,” Tashena Marie, chair of Rural Justice Network told “It’s just a fun, feel-good … family-friendly, very community-driven event, which is why we try to do it at the common, because it’s really about bringing the community together and bringing light on LGBTQ, queer, community issues.”

Now, advocates are pushing back on the decision, hoping the board will revert their vote, and calling the removal of the drag performance a violation of civil rights and an unconstitutional overreach of the board’s powers.

“Banning a family friendly drag show is not only discriminatory, but also sets a dangerous precedent, in redefining adult entertainment to include clothed and costume performances,” Executive Director of MassEquality Tanya Neslusan said in a statement. “We are very concerned, about not only the legality of the vote to rescind, but the potential impact of the action on the LGBTQ+ community as a whole.”

The decision to permit the pride event, but only without the drag performance came in a 2-1 vote at a North Brookfield Board of Selectmen meeting April 11. Board Chairman Jason M. Petraitis and Vice Chair John Tripp both raised concerns about the performance and voted that a drag show is considered adult entertainment and required RJN to obtain a special permit.

Clerk Elizabeth Brooke Canada pushed back on the characterization, but was outvoted after a lengthy public discussion.

“I don’t think it’s adult entertainment,” she said at the meeting. “It’s freedom of expression. I’ve been to these events. I’ve never seen anything that’s been unsavory to anybody and I trust that our police force would enforce anything that’s unlawful or adult in nature.”

“Whatever they are doing is wrong in my mind.”

Initially, the board had agreed to permit the event in a 2-1 vote March 28, where it was explicitly stated that a drag show would be part of the event, but made their final decision after further research into drag performances.

“At the time there wasn’t enough information to deny the drag part of the show, but after doing extensive research, we’ve got some information that would prohibit the drag portion of that show,” Petraitis said.

The board voted to remove the drag show from the event and then to permit the event without the performance. But before the vote, a testy altercation between Brooke and Tripp succinctly summarized the views of both sides.

“I just don’t understand how it can be family friendly, because I believe it is adult entertainment,” Vice Chair Tripp said to crowd laughter. “And if you want to see me in a Speedo, walking down to the playground, that’s adult entertainment. I’m not gonna do it, I’m just saying.”

“I’ve never seen anybody in a speedo in public,” Brooke responded.

“Whatever they are doing is wrong in my mind,” Tripp said, before being cut off by Brooke and Petraitis.

“That’s an opinion though, and people do have the freedom of expression,” she said. “So I think it does set a precedent when you say, ‘No, you can’t express yourself in a certain way.’ So now, do we put regulations on other events that are happening in town that other people are offended by?”

And Brooke’s argument, that the board lacks the authority to remove the drag performance has been echoed by the ACLU of Massachusetts. In a letter to the board, the foundation pointed out that the removal limits freedom of expression and goes beyond the legal board’s power.

“This is censorship based on the content of the proposed speech and
the viewpoint it expresses, including that gender identity may be fluid and
individuals should be treated equally and accepted regardless of how they
choose to express their identity,” the ACLU of Massachusetts wrote, before outlining several judicial precedents in which this type of decision has been deemed a violation of freedom of expression.

The ACLU of Massachusetts has asked the board to restore their initial decision by April 26. And though Marie is hopeful that the board and Rural Justice Network can come to a compromise, there is no indication that the board will reverse their decision.

“I’m sure that we can work something out where we don’t have to leave out a part of our community,” Marie said. “We really stand together as a community. We don’t want to start dividing the LGBTQIA community. We are one community, and we are going to stand together, so we are going to figure out a way that we can do that.”

Rural Justice Network is continuing to fundraise, organize other events, and post on social media to advertise the event.

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