Portland Postpones Vote on Cabaret Drag Show Ban

PORTLAND, Tenn.—After a small but very vocal demonstration outside Portland City Hall yesterday afternoon, and after hearing impassioned testimony from many local citizens, the city's Council of Aldermen and the mayor postponed their vote on Bill 17-59, which would have outlawed drag shows in the city's downtown area.

As AVN reported yesterday, after the Envy Restaurant Bar & Grill rented its space out to Elite Productions for a drag show in early August, Portland's mayor Kenneth Wilburn got some complaints from local citizens protesting that such activity could be legal in their town, and on September 5, a bill was introduced to amend the city's adult zoning ordinance to add "adult cabaret" to the businesses prohibited in the downtown area, and specifically to ban "male or female impersonators, or similar entertainers" from performing.

The proposed ordinance was immediately condemned by both the Tennessee branch of the ACLU and an organization known as the Tennessee Equality Project, both of which wrote letters to the mayor and aldermen asking that the bill be shelved.

The chamber where the Aldermen's meeting was held, scheduled for 6:30 last evening, saw a capacity crowd as opponents and supporters of the ordinance crowded in to be heard on the issue.

"Where this is at, it's going to have an impact on our children," said Bill Sloan, Portland resident, according to a report by Fox17-TV journalists Katie Grunik and Nikki Junewicz. "They're going to see this. It's right in the middle of town. It's going to have an effect on our families and children." (No children were allowed to attend Elite's first and so far only drag show at the Envy, and they would be barred from any future ones.)

Almost needless to say, many of the locals attending the meeting in this Kentucky border town raised fundamentalist religious objections to the shows.

"God will not be mocked," declared Portland resident Nicole Vestal. "He's destroyed cities for sexual sins."

Speaking in favor of allowing the shows to continue, transvestite performer Nikole Grace lamented, "It is a crying shame that the men and women on this committee want to ban drag. It is a crying shame because it is going to do a horrible deal to your community. This is a prime example of bullying."

The ban would also be illegal, as ACLU-TN legal director Thomas H. Castelli had previously noted.

"The First Amendment protects freedom of speech and expression, no matter what you are wearing," he said. "It's discriminatory and unconstitutional to single out male and female impersonators in a bid to shut down their speech. If members of the city council are uncomfortable with the drag show, they do not need to attend the performance. But they can't ban it."

That point was emphasized by Elite Productions' co-owner Raymond Guillermo, who told the council, "To be considered adult entertainment, that involves nudity. Has anyone on the council been to one of our shows?"

Some of the evening's discussion by the aldermen centered around the question of whether the Envy could be deemed an "adult cabaret" under the ordinance, since its primary business was as a bar and restaurant except for the few evenings that would be devoted to Elite's drag show. They also took note of the fact that the ACLU opposes the ordinance, and they've been known to file lawsuits to support their viewpoints.

"If we pass this, we're getting sued," portended Portland Alderman Brian Harbin.

By the end of the meeting, the aldermen had decided to put off voting on the measure until November 6—and in the meantime, city officials plan to run the ordinance past state Attorney General Herbert Slatery III regarding the constitutionality of the ban before deciding whether to take up the bill again.

Pictures: Scenes from the Portland protest and council meeting.