Public response to a drag performance that occurred last month in Soldotna Creek Park dominated Wednesday’s Soldotna City Council meeting.
More than 100 people attended the meeting — either in person or remotely — reducing the usually sparsely populated council chambers to standing room only.
Backlash has been building since late June over a video, about 10 seconds long, taken at the 2022 Soldotna Pride in the Park, which was held at Soldotna Creek Park on June 17.
The video, shared to Facebook, shows Anchorage drag queen Brenden Badd twerking and doing backflips in what appears to be a miniskirt and thong. Multiple people said Wednesday that the performer was wearing skin-colored leggings and the thong over the leggings.
A version of the video shared June 18 with the caption, “Did anyone know this was happening in our town? A grown man showing his A** to little kids? Sickening,” received more than 260 comments.
Multiple people at Wednesday’s city council meeting questioned council members about whether or not they had seen the video, many of whom said they had.
Pride organizers during the meeting said the video was reshared without permission and taken out of context.
The feud came to a head Wednesday, where those mobilizing in opposition to the performance, city administrators, the city attorney, advocates for the LGBTQ+ community and others converged at Soldotna City Hall.
On the city council’s agenda Wednesday night was an administrative report from Soldotna City Attorney Brooks Chandler discussing public use of Soldotna Creek Park. Public comments on that report were heard for more than two hours.
Many who argued for more restrictions on public use of the park said generally that their problem was not with the LGBTQ+ community, but rather the sexually provocative nature of the performance. In contrast, others said the performance should be considered as a form of expression that is protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.
A review conducted by Chandler concluded that existing Soldotna laws would not have allowed the city to deny a permit to Soldotna Pride for the use of the stage for a drag queen show. That review, which explored generally whether the city could prohibit or restrict special events at the park, cited decades of existing state and federal case law.
“I ended up concluding that the existing ordinances of the City of Soldotna — the existing booking policy — did not allow the city to deny Soldotna Pride a permit to use the Fred Meyer stage for a drag queen show,” Chandler said. “That was the conclusion I reached.”
Soldotna City Manager Stephanie Queen said coordination with the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, as well as with event providers, generally focuses on event logistics and operational support, such as the number of bathrooms and trash cans needed to accommodate attendees.
“We don’t review content, we don’t review lyrics, or ask people to identify age appropriateness of an event,” Queen said. “That’s just not something that’s been ever built into our process. What we do require is that they follow the policy, follow all laws, and that includes local, state (and) federal laws.”
Rep. Ron Gillham, R-Kenai, called for Queen’s termination over the incident in an interview he gave to media last month. Gillham, who attended Wednesday’s meeting, did not testify on the issue, but shook hands with Queen, who holds a master’s and bachelor’s degree in civil and environmental engineering from Cornell University, at the conclusion of the meeting.
Queen said there’s been focus on her position as the manager of the City of Soldotna and how her authority differs from that of city council members.
“My role (is) overseeing the day to day operations of the city,” Queen said. “In doing that, I approach that work from, what I hope, is a high ethical and professional standard, both in my words and my actions. And I expect the same of our staff. And I feel we’ve done that in this case.”
Community members respond
In all, more than 50 people shared their thoughts Wednesday on how, if at all, the city should respond to community concerns about the performance.
Between the more than two hours of public testimony and 40 pages of public comments submitted in advance, concerns ranged from public obscenity and the location of the performance on one side, to legally protected expression and adherence to existing city laws on another.
Jessie Kolesar, who with her husband, Isaac, has spearheaded opposition to the drag queen performance, told council members her concerns were not about the group who sponsored Pride in the Park, but rather about what she called “sexually explicit behavior.”
“What I don’t support is (for) this kind of sexually explicit behavior to take place in a taxpayer-funded park within close proximity to a public playground,” Kolesar said. “I don’t understand what the goal is in exposing children to such obvious sexualized and provocative entertainment.”
Audre Hickey, who attended Wednesday’s meeting remotely and is an organizer of Soldotna Pride in the Park, said she posted the now-widely-circulated video because she was “impressed with the performer’s expression.” Hickey said the video has been reshared without her permission and reflects a small fraction of the three-and-a-half hour event.
She pushed back on some of the testimony provided, saying, for example, that the stage is not in the line of sight of the playground. Hickey questioned how many of the people criticizing the performance actually attended this year’s Pride in the Park event and said children who attended the performance were there with the consent of their parents.
“Does this council think they know better than the parents to determine what event parents can bring their children to?” Hickey asked. “If the council intends to restrict the time and manner of this event, that is exactly what you will be conveying to our community.”
Though many said their support for or opposition to the performance was unrelated to the LGBTQ+ community, debate at times touched on the historical exclusion of LGBTQ+ people from facets of society.
Dan Pankoski suggested that members of the LGBTQ+ community “police” themselves and questioned why they were at the city council meeting “demanding (their) rights.” All people, Pankoski said, must have “morality.”
“It seems like the more we try to respect and give you rights, the more you’re going downhill with it,” Pankoski said. “So I am calling the (LGBTQ+) community to police themselves and not do this and not cause such controversy unless you just like this.”
Michele Vasquez, who described herself as a longtime ally of the LGBTQ+ community, said that LGBTQ+ people have the same right to use public spaces as anyone else.
“The LGBTQ+ community, allies, friends and family have every right to use public areas to celebrate Pride, just like any other group, as long as we abide by city code, state laws and federal laws,” Vasquez said. “Pride is always for and about celebrating the LGBTQ+ community and nobody is forced to attend. It is a private event and a public space.”
Multiple people who testified Wednesday compared community backlash to the 1984 movie “Footloose,” in which a character played by actor Kevin Bacon moves from Chicago to a town where dancing and rock music has been made illegal.
“I feel like I’ve been sucked into a bad parody of “Footloose” (because of) people wanting to control a fun dance show,” said Dawn Magness, of Soldotna.
Soldotna Mayor Paul Whitney described the video as “an unfortunate five seconds,” and said he’s sure city administration “will be taking a serious look at the policies and procedures.”
In his memo, Chandler described multiple paths forward that the City of Soldotna could take in response to the incident. If the city decides it wants to revise its policies and practices, Chandler advised that those changes be “carefully considered and intended to achieve a stated policy goal other than government censorship of unpopular speech.”
Any new limit on the type of expression allowed at the Soldotna Creek Park stage, he wrote, should specifically define what is and is not prohibited. The city should also preemptively gather evidence showing how limits on performances impact youth, Chandler said, if it plans to implement any new restrictions.
There are ways the city could implement “reasonable time, place and manner restrictions” on an activity protected by the U.S. Constitution, like dancing, Chandler wrote. For example, the city could put in place a restriction that tries to prevent someone who is offended by a performance from seeing that performance unwillingly.
The city could also end its current policy that allows groups not sponsored by the city to use the park facilities for events, Chandler wrote. In that case, the stage would no longer be considered a public forum.
The section of Soldotna Municipal Code that describes personal conduct in city parks was crafted in 1975, Chandler’s analysis found, and that alone is reason enough to revisit the policies, some council members said.
“As we look at amending this portion of the city code, as the city attorney pointed out, we should be careful as we consider how to achieve a stated public policy,” said Soldotna Vice Mayor Lisa Parker. “The many parks we have in our community are community parks and should remain community parks.”
Council member Justin Ruffridge agreed.
“During this process, and in speaking with all of these individuals, I have come to the conclusion that there is need for some policy change, if for any reason than, as council member Parker had already observed, our statutes and policies and ordinances in some of our sections are quite old,” Ruffridge said.
Other council members maintained that it is not the government’s role to restrict different types of speech.
“Freedom of speech means freedom of speech for all, period,” said council member Jordan Chilson. “As we make our parks available to different public groups, it is not the government’s job to restrict what is expressed at those group events as long as all applicable laws and policies are followed.”
“I think I’ve seen worse on halftime for the Super Bowl, at cheerleaders at the local ballgames and at some of the dance studios,” said council member Linda Farnsworth-Hutchings. “ … To be real honest with you, I was really impressed with the flips because that takes a lot of strength to do that.”
Any proposed changes to Soldotna’s city code typically require multiple city council meetings to become enacted: one meeting where the changes are introduced and another where a public hearing is held and the council votes.
“That would take a few months, particularly because now is the time of year, you know, when our parks department is really busy — they’re spread in a lot of directions,” Queen said Wednesday. “Realistically, I think that work would happen probably over the next few months and into the fall if we were going to come back with some recommendations.”
Wednesday’s meeting of the Soldotna City Council can be viewed in full on the city’s website at soldotna.org.
Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at email@example.com.