The Soldotna City Council on Wednesday defeated legislation that would have adopted a citywide lewdness policy and made that behavior a fineable offense. The move came nearly 10 months after a drag performance held as part of a pride celebration in Soldotna Creek Park last summer sparked outrage among some community members.
A clip of that performance, which circulated widely on social media, showed a drag queen in skin-colored leggings, a thong and a miniskirt doing backflips in Soldotna Creek Park as part of the performance.
In the months since that performance was held, the Soldotna City Council has heard hours of public comments, some from people who say the performance was obscene and inappropriate for a city park, and some from others who say dance is protected speech under the First Amendment and a form of expression for the LGBTQ community.
The council during their March 8 meeting considered a package of legislation crafted in response to feedback the city received after last year’s pride event, which Soldotna City Manager Stephanie Queen called then the city’s “best effort” to address those concerns.
Included in that package was an ordinance that would have prohibited obscene conduct from city parks, an ordinance that would have prohibited obscene conduct throughout the City of Soldotna and a resolution that would have updated the city’s reservation and special event policy for Soldotna Creek Park.
Queen told council members during their March 8 meeting that, even if the two ordinances and the resolution had been in effect prior to last summer’s “Pride in the Park” event, she does not think that the drag performance shown in the widely circulated video would have been prohibited.
In crafting legislation that responded to community concerns over the incident, the city consulted with City Attorney Brooks Chandler, held a public work session with the Soldotna Parks and Recreation Advisory Board and public hearings prior to voting on any legislation.
The council on March 8 defeated the park-specific lewdness and lascivious behavior ordinance, as well as the Soldotna Creek Park resolution. That resolution referenced language in the park lewdness ordinance that was no longer sound because the first ordinance failed.
Considered by council members on Wednesday was the citywide lewdness ordinance, which was tabled at the council’s March 8 meeting. If approved, that legislation would have added to city code a new section defining and prohibiting lewd and lascivious behavior, and making such behavior fineable up to $250.
Among other things, the new section of Soldotna Municipal Code would have defined terms like “obscene,” “specified sexual activities” and “specified anatomical areas,” and added violations of the code to the city’s fine schedule.
The Soldotna City Council chambers were reduced to standing-room only on Wednesday as dozens of people testified on the legislation.
Those who spoke in opposition to the creation of a new city lewdness policy said that last summer’s drag performance did not violate any laws already articulated in Alaska State Statute and said any action taken in response to a pride event that limits conduct could send a negative message to the LGBTQ community.
“Pride in the Park has always respected laws, including the First Amendment, and will continue to uphold those,” said Audré Hickey, one of the people who organized last summer’s pride event. “We are asking for clarity and we don’t believe this ordinance has it. We’ll continue to follow the laws and we will continue to have drag queens.”
Ash Magallanes, who said her kids are being raised by two moms in this community, said parents should be allowed to decide what is and is not appropriate for their children to see. The language in the ordinance, she said, is vague and opens the door to discriminatory practices for the LGBTQ community.
“Please understand that your decisions, actions and the language that you use directly contribute to how the community receives us when we leave our house and will continue to affect ours and our children’s daily lives on a daily basis,” Magallanes said.
Some in favor of the ordinance said their concerns were not about a specific group of people, but rather about what types of behavior should and should not be allowed in the city’s public spaces.
“We’re not talking about one specific group and I wanted to add my voice to that,” said Bradley Mangle. “I don’t care if you want to have your pride celebration — go for it. We’re talking about a specific kind of behavior. I no more want to see the backside of a man than I do the breasts of a porn star celebrating a playboy convention. There are certain behaviors that are decent and there are certain ones that are indecent for the public eye.”
Even so, testimony among some of those who testified in support of the legislation used words like “sexual fetishes” and “sexual fantasy” to talk about last summer’s drag performance.
“Public parks are for the enjoyment of families, not for the sexual exploration and sexual fantasy gratification of confused individuals,” said Dustin Real, who called drag “a mockery of women” and “akin to blackface.” “What is decent and moral should be common sense. The fact that this topic has to be debated shows the decline in decency and grasp of common sense in our society.”
City council members ultimately voted 4-2 in opposition of the legislation. Two amendments introduced by Soldotna Vice Mayor Lisa Parker, which would have implemented minor language changes, also failed.
Parker told attendees Wednesday that the council is unable to reconsider the legislation defeated at the council’s March 8 meeting, because reconsideration would have needed to happen during that meeting. For council members to reconsider the ordinance defeated Wednesday, one of the four people who voted in opposition would have needed to initiate the process.
Council member Jordan Chilson, who voted in opposition to the legislation, said that, in considering a citywide lewdness policy, he considered what problem the ordinance would solve. Much of the behavior the ordinance would prohibit, Chilson said, is already prohibited by state law, and the City of Soldotna isn’t dealing with the kind of behavior that isn’t addressed in state law.
Further, Chilson emphasized that city staff said that implementation of the ordinance would not have prohibited the drag performance last summer and noted that not everyone has the same values when it comes to what is or is not appropriate for a city space. There’s room for Soldotna for everyone, he said, and the legislation cannot be separated from the event that inspired it.
“When you put it in context and factor in the reality that it originated due to outrage over … pride and the performance in the park, this is going to be interpreted as directed at them,” Chilson said. “That message comes across as saying, to us, you’re no better than those that have sex in public, masturbate in public (or) perform bestiality and we don’t want your kind here.”
Regardless of how the council voted on the lewdness ordinance, Chilson said the City of Soldotna still plans to move forward with upgrades to the city’s noticing and reservation protocols for Soldotna Creek Park.
Council member Dave Carey, who voted in support of the ordinance, said it is his job to represent constituents while also staying true to his own values, and that voting in support of the legislation is what is correct to him. The discussion between the city council and members of the public over the last nine months, he said, has been a healthy exercise.
Carey said he was hopeful that after “week after week after week after week of people showing up” to engage with the issue, members of the public “have a more enlightened view of their fellow human people and what different people experience in their lives.”
“I would certainly hope that makes all of us more compassionate and hopefully more kinder to each other,” he said.
Wednesday’s full Soldotna City Council meeting can be streamed on the city’s website at soldotna.org.
Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at firstname.lastname@example.org.