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Lawmaker complaint forces Tennessee pride festival indoors

The LGBTQ festival’s drag show will also be restricted to those 18 and older.
Image: A pride flag.
A pride flag.Ivan Romano / Getty Images file

The drag show at a Tennessee pride festival will go on Saturday — but not in the way organizers had planned it. 

After weeks of criticism, online threats from far-right groups and a legal complaint, the Jackson Pride Committee and the city of Jackson, which sits about 70 miles northeast of Memphis in Madison County, reached a compromise with state Republican representatives and community members who had complained about the pride festival’s drag show.

The annual pride festival was supposed to be held in the city’s public Conger Park, as it was in 2019 and 2021, but now it will be held indoors at the nearby Civic Center.

The drag performance was going to be an event open to all, but at 7 p.m. on Saturday, Jackson Pride organizers will have to clear out the Civic Center and then check IDs of those who want to re-enter to ensure drag show attendees are 18 or older. 

Darin Hollingsworth, a Jackson Pride Committee member, said organizers were “horribly disappointed,” because they know local LGBTQ youths would have felt supported at the drag performance.

“We’re devastated, because we know that young people in their teens who are queer or questioning or supportive would love to see this, and parents could have brought them,” Hollingsworth said. “But we will be in contempt if we even allow parents to bring in their child, so we won’t.”

Hollingsworth said the pride event had been in the works for a year, and Jackson Pride had advertised it repeatedly. The event began to face backlash after a Sept. 17 Facebook post from Republican state Rep. Chris Todd.

“I continue to hear from Madison Countians APPALLED at the possibility of a drag queen show in Conger Park,” Todd said. “I share your shock and sentiment. If Mayor Conger or City officials have approved (allowed) this event, then they are clearly ignoring the law. I intend to see that the law is upheld!”

Todd also quoted a state law that bars “adult cabarets” from being within 1,000 feet of public parks, residences or places of worship. 

Jackson Mayor Scott Conger held a meeting at City Hall on Sept. 26 that included Todd, Republican state Rep. Ed Jackson, attorneys for the state, members of the Jackson Pride Committee, officials from local churches, among other interested parties.

During the meeting, Todd said he had heard from concerned community members who didn’t want to see “this trash” in the community, according to a recording of the meeting shared with NBC News by the Jackson Pride Committee. 

But Darren Lykes, chair of the committee, said that he spoke with all of the drag performers and told them it would be a family-friendly event. He added that there had been drag performers in the park at the past two festivals. “Where was your outrage then?” he asked Todd.

“Well, I didn’t know about it,” Todd responded.

A member of Englewood Baptist Church also compared hosting the drag show in the park to people wearing blackface in a public place.

After the meeting, Hollingsworth said he became aware of threats in the form of online comments that mentioned both the anti-LGBTQ Westboro Baptist Church and the Proud Boys, a white nationalist group.

As a result, the Jackson Pride Committee decided to move the festival, including the drag show, into the Civic Center and to increase security measures by, among other things, having a metal detector. But changing the location didn’t satisfy Todd and some community members.

On Tuesday, state Reps. Todd and Jackson, along with 12 members of First United Methodist Church, filed a legal complaint against the city of Jackson in the Chancery Court for Madison County, claiming that holding the drag show in the Civic Center would violate state law.

“Plaintiffs who worship at First United Methodist Church will suffer imminent and irreparable injury if this injunction is not granted as an adult cabaret will be featured within 1,000 feet of their house of worship,” the complaint states. “Plaintiffs have a high probability of success on the merits, injury to the Plaintiffs will be substantial, while the injury to the Defendant is minimal as this Complaint does not seek to cancel the Jackson Pride event, but rather prevent the drag show from occurring, and the public interest will be best served by granting this injunction.” 

The court scheduled a hearing on the complaint for Friday morning, but the Jackson Pride Committee decided to pursue a compromise under the legal counsel of the ACLU of Tennessee and city attorney Lewis Cobb. Under the agreement, Jackson Pride will have attendees exit the Civic Center at 7 p.m. and will check the IDs of everyone who goes back in for the drag show to ensure they are at least 18. Todd and the other complainants will also drop their lawsuit.

Some members of First United Methodist Church disagreed with the legal complaint. Adam Pulliam, a member of the church who didn't join the complaint, said most members weren't even made aware of it until it was filed and made public.

"I have been part of online discussion for four days with members, and there is general outrage," he said in an email to NBC News. "This act is not a good representation of the feelings of many members of the church.”

Stella Yarbrough, the legal director for the ACLU of Tennessee, said the agreement will still allow Jackson Pride “to create a welcoming event that celebrates the diversity and expression of all community members.”

Cobb said that Jackson Pride would likely have won its case to hold the drag show outdoors without the age restriction had it decided to pursue litigation on First Amendment grounds, but it may have forced it to cancel or delay the event. He said he and Conger “were sort of caught between two competing interests and tried to see if we couldn’t get a resolution without having to have litigation.”

But while the ACLU of Tennessee framed the outcome as a compromise, Todd, in a statement posted to Facebook on Friday, claimed victory, saying the event is now being “properly restricted.”

“By taking the issue to court, we have succeeded in having the city and the group agree to several restrictions after challenging city leaders to answer questions about why they would allow our children to be exposed to this kind of outrageous adult performance,” he said. “By agreeing to the restrictions, they have effectively acknowledged that what they were promoting was way out of line.”

CORRECTION (Oct. 8, 2022, 3:44 p.m.): A previous version of this article misstated the name of the church whose member compared hosting the drag festival in the park to wearing blackface in public. It was a member of Englewood Baptist Church, not First United Methodist Church.

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