HELENA — In just over a week, Montana Pride is set to kick off its 30th anniversary celebrations in downtown Helena. However, there are some uncertainties around the events this year, because of a new state law restricting drag performances.
“We've got all sorts of things that happen that have drag at them, and you don't know, because this law is so poorly written, what's going to target them or reclassify a business as a sexually oriented business,” said Montana Pride president Kevin Hamm.
The groups and individuals challenging House Bill 359 are now calling on a federal court to put the law on hold, saying it’s held up the permits Montana Pride needs from the city of Helena.
HB 359 prohibits schools and libraries that receive state funding from hosting “drag story hours” during regular operating hours or a sponsored extracurricular activity. It defines drag story hours as when a performer with “a flamboyant or parodic” persona and “glamorous or exaggerated costumes and makeup” reads children’s books or does other learning activities with children present.
The bill also bans “sexually oriented performances” in front of minors – either on public property or at a business – and it bans them altogether in locations that receive state funding. It defines “sexually oriented” to include “stripping, salacious dancing,” and any other “lewd or lascivious depiction or description.”
During the 2023 legislative session, supporters of HB 359 argued drag performances can’t be separated from sexuality, and they highlighted reports of explicit behavior at shows in other states. Opponents said the bill was unnecessary, used overly broad definitions and was based on misleading impressions of drag.
Earlier this month, a number of organizations and individuals filed a federal lawsuit over the new law, saying it infringed on the right of free expression.
As the Montana Free Press reported this week, the plaintiffs have now amended their suit – stating that the city of Helena “withheld permits for the Montana Pride event” because the planned events included drag performances. With Montana Pride set to begin on July 30, they asked for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction to stop the law from being enforced before that.
“In the absence of immediate judicial relief, thousands of Montanans will be unable to assemble peaceably to celebrate the diversity of human gender and sexuality,” their updated brief read.
On Friday, Helena City Attorney Rebecca Dockter told MTN that the city has not denied a permit for the event. She said they are still processing the request, and that it is taking longer because staff are going over changes from previous years’ events – including a new route for the Pride parade. She said she expects a permit will eventually be granted.
However, Dockter said the city did talk to Montana Pride organizers about concerns related to HB 359, including the possibility that city employees could be held liable if the law was found to apply to any Pride events.
“Their concerns are valid,” said Hamm.
Hamm said organizers are most concerned about how HB 359 could affect a drag brunch, scheduled to be held outdoors on Front Street July 30, and a street dance, planned for a week later. However, he said those aren’t the only events they have questions about.
“I'd rather make sure the law's enjoined, because we have other events that are going to go on throughout the year that are going to involve drag, that are going to involve the queer community in interesting ways and that this law targets – so we might as well get it fixed now,” he said.
Dockter said the city did ask the organizers if they had backup plans for if the law remains in place. Hamm said they do have options, including moving the drag brunch to a private business, but they are not focused on that at this point.
“We always have backup plans,” he said. “We don't want to have to use them because they're not as good. But Pride is going to happen one way or the other.”
Hamm said HB 359 was one of a series of bills this year that members of the LGBTQ+ community saw as targeting them.
“We’re not going anywhere,” he said.
A hearing on the motion for a temporary restraining order is scheduled for Wednesday afternoon at the federal courthouse in Helena.