Nicole Girten

(Daily Montanan) A Montana LGBTQ+ organization claims the City of Helena withheld the application for its annual pride event citing the recently passed bill banning drag performances on public property.

Montana Pride, which has hosted an annual pride celebration in the state’s capital city for eight years, joined a lawsuit earlier this week questioning the constitutionality of House Bill 359, which banned any drag performances in public spaces, and was signed into law this session. It also bans drag performances in schools and libraries and features consequences for private businesses.

The organization claims the city is denying the permits because of HB 359, however the city says a final decision has not been made on the permits. Pride events have gone forward, including with drag performances, in other cities in the state with no issue, but an attorney for the plaintiffs said with the law being new and broad, people are still trying to understand how it applies.

“The City of Helena denied these permits because the planned events included drag performances,” said the amended complaint filed Monday.

City of Helena spokesperson Jacob Garcin said in an email Wednesday the special event permit application from Montana Pride has not been denied and is still being reviewed. He said there is no set timeline for the review to be completed.

“City staff met with the event organizer last week to discuss all aspects of the application, which included HB 359 and how it would impact the event,” he said. “But with any event this size, there are usually many aspects to discuss during the permit review process.”

Event organizer Kevin Hamm, who is also running for Congress in Montana’s second districtsaid in his declaration that Montana Pride is typically the largest pride event in the state, with events that include drag shows, a parade, artisan markets, a rally and educational events.

Hamm said he met with city officials last Thursday and was told the city “would not issue the requested permits while HB 359 remained in effect and enforceable.”

HB 359, sponsored by Rep. Braxton Mitchell, R-Columbia Falls, drew scrutiny and protest as it made its way through the legislature earlier this year. The bill’s language, inspired by similar bills in Tennessee and Texas, changed significantly during the legislative session, and ultimately bans a range of performances. But it specifically names Drag Story Hours.

The lawsuit, filed earlier this month with plaintiffs from around the state, names Butte-Silver Bow County Administrator J.P. Gallagher, who canceled a lecture at a public library on the history of Two Spirit people in Native American tradition by transgender woman Adria Jawort, due to concerns it might break the new law. Consequences for breaking the law would include a potential $5,000 fine and suspension proceedings for library staff.

Andy Nelson with the Western Montana LGBTQIA+ Center said Missoula Pride, which also featured drag performances around town, didn’t see any hiccups in getting their permits as it related to HB 359. He said city officials met with organizers to express support for Missoula Pride prior to the event and some walked in the parade. The event took place mid-June after HB 359 had been signed.

“The biggest concern of many of the performers and venue hosts was fear of being sued,” he told the Daily Montanan.

Nelson said the Center, one of the Plaintiffs in the lawsuit, received advice from lawyers on conducting drag events during Pride. He said they made sure all in attendance for their on-campus drag brunch were over the age of 18 because the campus receives public funds. Organizers also made sure the Drag Story Hour event was secure from potential protesters.

He said HB 359 is “more of an attack on transgender, intersex, nonbinary and Two-Spirit people,” citing the the event Jawort eventually relocated after the library cancelled.

“The event was cancelled because people feared that she would be perceived as in drag, where she wasn’t she was going to be dressed as her authentic self as a trans Two-Spirit woman,” he said. “So that opens the door to all sorts of possibilities where a trans person can find themselves liable.”

Upper Seven Law attorney Constance Van Kley told the Daily Montanan that because the bill has broad implications, people are starting to see expanding interpretations of it.

“Yes, Missoula Pride went forward, but now the bill has been on the books a little bit longer, people are starting to read it more closely and pay more attention to it,” she said. “Over time, the breadth of the law is being realized.”

The bill was written to target the LGBTQ+ community, she said, but has language that impacts far beyond. She said any entity that receives state funding isn’t allowed to put on performances, including films, that have any sexual content whatsoever, even if the audience is made up of adults — which could mean a theater could run into issues playing a PG-13 movie.

“When you have law that is vague and is broad, it just means that it’s going to be enforced in potentially discriminatory and certainly selective ways,” she said. “I don’t think that the City of Helena is out to get Pride. I think that they’re probably basing their interpretation on a good faith reading of the law; I think that just indicates a problem with the law.”