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Soldotna doubles down on right to expression after drag performance draws pushback

Sabine Poux
Wednesday's meeting drew a large crowd, with testimony split almost evenly between those who said they thought the performance was inappropriate and those who said limiting that performance would be a violation of the performer's First Amendment rights.

A June drag performance at Soldotna Creek Park spurred an outpouring of pushback at a Soldotna City Council meeting last night — both from those who decried what they said was lewd dancing in the city park and from those who said limitations on the event would've been a breach of First Amendment rights.

“We want to be part of this community. But I personally cannot stand to observe this type of action in front of our children," said Tom Bearup, former Soldotna mayor. He was the first in a string of two and a half hours of testimony at Wednesday’s meeting that filled the council chambers and hallway and brought out over three dozen more on Zoom.

In response, the city said the event and the performances were legal. But members of the council also said they would take another look at the city’s public use policies for the park.

The pushback arose in response to a march and celebration from Soldotna Pride in the Park this June. The event including performances from several Anchorage-based drag queens on the stage at Soldotna Creek Park.

There was little opposition to the performances at the event, besides a small group of protesters who stood outside the park holding signs.

But an eight-second clip of a drag queen twerking and doing backflips onstage drew a maelstrom of pushback online when conservative blog Must Read Alaska posted the video to Facebook over a week after the event, garnering over 14,000 views. In a blog post, Suzanne Downing raised her own concerns about the show being in close proximity to kids. The stage backs up to a playground and set of public restrooms in the park.

Shortly after, Soldotna Republican Rep. Ron Gillham said on the Must Read Alaska podcast that Soldotna City Manager Stephanie Queen should be fired over the incident.

“Our country is at a turning point," Gillham said on the podcast. "And we are either going to have to take it back, or we’re going to lose it.”

Many parents who testified at Wednesday's meeting said the drag queen's outfit and dancing were inappropriate and overly sexual, and said they were concerns about kids in the park seeing the performance. And they demanded the city revise its park permitting policy.

Jessie Koleszar said if the city’s not willing to change its policies, then the city shouldn’t be allowed to rent the park out to anyone.

“Maybe the entire thing needs to go bye-bye, if you guys can’t speak to this and fix it," she said. "This warrants maybe seeking out our own attorney to investigate the entirety of a situation and not just one single video clip.”

Others said those who didn’t want to see the performance didn’t have to go.

Audre Hickey helped organize the Pride event. She said the video of the performer was taken out of context.

“If you look at the whole event of Pride, twerking was .02 percent of our three-and-a-half hour event," she said. "No one that night was there without their consent.”

In response to the pushback, Soldotna City Attorney Brooks Chandler wrote a memo that said the city cannot in advance ban any constitutionally protected activity from a public space like the park. And he said dance — including the drag queen’s performance — is protected under the First Amendment.

"The reason this permit couldn’t be denied is because courts over the years have decided that dance is encompassed by the First Amendment, that is people expressing themselves," he said.

That freedom of expression was a popular point. Several commenters said it’s important look at the event in the light of the marginalization that the LGBTQ+ community already faces.

Joe Spady, of Soldotna, said seeing an event like Pride would have made him feel safer in his identity growing up.

“Simply driving past Pride flags in the park would’ve made all the difference for me," he said. "Just seeing that there was hope out there. Knowing that there was love and acceptance within reach.

There was no vote at the end of the testimony and the city council did not come to any conclusions.

But multiple council members agreed to take another look at the city’s policies down the road.

“I would certainly like to direct our administration and the council to perform a comprehensive review and update our current policies about booking and the process for that," said member Justin Ruffridge. "And I think we should have time to return to this meeting, review said policy and move forward with some discussion on that. And I think that’s what I’m hearing from the council as well.”

Chandler, the city attorney, said the city could revise its policy to place restrictions on performances on the stage in the park — though he cautioned against creating any restrictions that would react to one particular kind of event or censor one type of speech.

"The government is allowed to make what are called reasonable time, place and manner restrictions on the exercise of the right of free speech," he said. "And so I imagine this community would have a debate on what those would look like — A, if you want them, and B, if you want them, what form they might take.”

Soldotna Mayor Paul Whitney said he appreciated the massive turnout at the meeting. But he said he was worried that there were some who wrote in and said they did not feel safe going to the meeting in person.

“I wish they had, because I think this was a very good meeting," he said. "Everyone was proper, had good remarks and it went well. But that’s a concern, when we have people in our community that say they’re afraid to go someplace because of their views. Whatever it be.”

Drag queens drew ire in another Alaska city during Pride Month.

Some members of Ketchikan’s city council tried to cancel a drag queen storytime at the Ketchikan Public Library last month. The event ultimately went on as planned and the library added two more storytimes to its schedule to account for an outpouring of interest.

Sabine Poux is a producer and reporter for the Brave Little State podcast of Vermont Public. She was formerly news director and evening news host at KDLL in Kenai.

Originally from New York, Sabine has lived and reported in Argentina and Vermont and Kenai.
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