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Small Tennessee town defers possible ban on drag shows over legal concerns

Reps from Elite Productions, the company that employs performers for the drag shows at Envy, argued they drag performances are not adult entertainment at a Portland city Council meeting on Monday night. (WZTV)

A large crowd offered fiery debate at a Portland, Tennessee, city council meeting on Monday where town leaders discussed banning drag shows.

Both supporters and protesters crowded Portland City Hall to capacity to have their voices heard in the city council meeting.

Portland Mayor Kenneth Wilburn said he wanted to amend a town ordinance that would ban adult-oriented businesses in the downtown area. The discussion began after a bar and restaurant called Envy began hosting drag performers.

Last week, Mayor Kenneth Wilburn said downtown isn't zoned for adult entertainment, and he's updating the existing city ordinance to reflect that.

"It's classified technically as a cabaret type show," Wilber said in an interview last week. "We feel like the community has spoken, and we feel personally feel like it's not something we want in our main district, especially downtown that we're trying to build the retail."

Currently, Envy on Main Street is restaurant by day and a bar at night with a show featuring female impersonators. The owner, Vee Truong, said in an interview last week that he had no idea the backlash he would receive when renting the space.

"They were attacking race, color, gender," Troung said. "I thought this is not even about drag shows no more. It's about something way beyond that."

The Monday night vote drew the attention of the ACLU, who called the ordinance "unconstitutional."

"The First Amendment protects freedom of speech and expression, no matter what you are wearing," said Thomas H. Castelli, ACLU-TN legal director. "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."

Prior to the city council meeting, supporters and protesters gathered outside City Hall.

Inside the meeting

The standing-room-only meeting saw passionate arguments both for and against the ban.

"Where this is at, it's going to have an impact on our children," said Bill Sloan, Portland resident. "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."

Folks in support of the ban said they were worried about the impact of drag shows on the town's children and invoked religious language in their arguments.

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

Drag performer Nikole Grace said the ordinance is a form of bullying.

"It is a crying shame that the men and women on this committee want to ban drag," Grace said. "It is a crying shame because it is going to do a horrible deal to your community. This is a prime example of bullying."

Representatives from Eilte Productions, the company that employs performers for Envy, said drag performances are not adult entertainment because there's no nudity or touching involved.

"To be considered adult entertainment, that involves nudity," said Raymond Guillermo, of Elite Productions. "Has anyone on the council been to one of our shows?"

Other people in attendance took the opportunity to express to the city council what drag performers mean to them.

Portland lawmakers feared the ban could bring a lawsuit to the town and discussed delaying the vote.

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

A key part of the city council's decision hinged on whether or not the drag show at Envy classified it as an adult business. The councilmen expressed concern the ordinance wouldn't apply to Envy in any event because its primary purpose is as a bar and restaurant.

The Portland City Council voted to defer the dicussion on the ban until November 6. The city plans to seek an opinion from the attorney general on the legality of the ordinance before putting it to a vote.

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