Montana Pride Derailed by Anti-drag Bill, Lawsuit Says

The city of Helena is accused of withholding permits for upcoming Pride events in an amended lawsuit over House Bill 359

By Mara Silvers, Montana Free Press

LGBTQ+ advocates, nonprofits and businesses are suing the city of Helena for allegedly withholding permits for upcoming Pride events in light of the 2023 state law banning drag performances and story hours in public places.

The new accusations from the Helena-based Montana Pride organizers are part of a lawsuit originally filed in early July in federal court. The plaintiffs in that case, including a transgender author, a public school teacher, local arts organizations, nonprofits, a brewery and a bookstore, argue that the Republican-sponsored House Bill 359 is an unconstitutional violation of free speech rights. 

In a motion filed Monday with an amended complaint, attorneys for the plaintiffs asked Montana District Court Judge Brian Morris to grant a temporary restraining order and block the city and state from enforcing the law for the time being. 

“[O]n the thirtieth anniversary of Pride events in Montana, Montana Pride is on hold — and will remain on hold absent judicial relief,” attorneys wrote in their latest brief. The plaintiffs are represented by the Helena nonprofit firm Upper Seven Law. 

City of Helena public information officer Jacob Garcin said Monday in an emailed statement that the permit applications were still being reviewed and had not officially been denied. 

“As of this morning, insurance documentation still needs to be submitted and some of the City departments that are involved in permitting are reviewing and providing comments on the application, which is standard process,” Garcin wrote. 

Constance Van Kley, an attorney with Upper Seven Law, stood by the updated lawsuit’s allegations in a Monday statement to Montana Free Press.

“Whether or not the City intends to do further administrative work before officially denying the permits, City officials have informed Montana Pride that the permits will not be issued so long as HB 359 is in effect,” Van Kley said. “We are not unsympathetic to City officials, who are stuck between state law and the Constitution, but the First Amendment has to come first.”

Festivities for Montana Pride, including many held at private businesses around the state capitol, are scheduled to begin July 30 and run through August 6. If issued, the permits would allow drag shows and a parade to take place in public streets in downtown Helena. 

The final version of HB 359, signed into law by Gov. Greg Gianforte in May, does not seek to define “drag show.” The legislation, however, defines drag kings and drag queens as “a male or female performer who adopts a flamboyant or parodic” male or female persona “with glamorous or exaggerated costumes and makeup.” It also broadly defines “sexually oriented performances” in a way that could apply to drag performances and bans those events from public libraries, schools and any public place where a minor is present. 

Republican lawmakers and social conservatives have recently advanced similar legislation targeting drag shows and story hours around the country. Supporters of the Montana law, including bill sponsor Rep. Braxton Mitchell, R-Columbia Falls, have cast drag performances as inherently sexual, rather than artistic expressions of gender, and maintain they are inappropriate for minors. 

HB 359 has proved difficult for some public officials to interpret and enact. Butte officials in June decided to cancel a public library event with writer Adria Jawort, a transgender woman and Northern Cheyenne tribal member, over fears that her discussion about the history of two spirit people would conflict with HB 359. Jawort, who was not appearing as a drag performer, protested the decision as “spineless” and later gave her presentation at a different venue. 

In court documents, Montana Pride president and founder Kevin Hamm alluded to another instance of local officials interpreting HB 359 with caution. He recounted a meeting he had July 13 with the Helena city manager, city attorney and other city employees during which he was “informed that the city of Helena would not issue the requested permits while HB 359 remained in effect and enforceable.” 

Hamm noted that the requested permits were “functionally identical” to those the city approved in 2022.

Asked whether the city interprets the proposed drag shows and parade as conflicting with state law, city spokesperson Garcin referred to his earlier comment. City manager Tim Burton declined to comment on the matter through Garcin on Monday. City attorney Rebecca Dockter was not available to respond to the amended lawsuit Monday afternoon.

Hamm, who is running against Montana Republican Congressman Matt Rosendale for the state’s eastern seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, called the drag law “a colossal waste of time and money” in a later statement to MTFP. He pointed his objections primarily at the Republican lawmakers who supported the measure while acknowledging the city’s position.

“The issue is HB 359 and the fact that the City isn’t willing to put its staff on the line for these permits — nor should they. The law as written makes it so that public employees can be targeted by bigoted individuals,” Hamm said. HB 359 allows individual minors and their parents to file a lawsuit against anyone “who knowingly promotes, conducts, or participates as a performer in the performance” up to 10 years after the incident. 

“The permits are held up by the ridiculousness of HB 359, nothing more, and both the city and Montana Pride recognize that fact,” Hamm said. “It’s gross. It’s maddening. And ultimately, it’s a waste.”

The original complaint filed in July argues that the legislation, which saw broad support among Republicans during the 2023 Legislature, is “a breathtakingly ambiguous and overbroad bill motivated by anti-LGBTQ+ animus” that has already caused plaintiffs improper restrictions on their free speech. By not granting permits for the Pride events, attorneys said, the city of Helena is continuing to enact similar harm.

“In denying event permits to Montana Pride, Defendant City of Helena intended to suppress and in fact is suppressing Montana Pride’s protected speech, denying it the opportunity to host constitutionally protected events, and denying the audience the opportunity to attend these events,” Monday’s amended lawsuit said.

A spokesperson for the state attorney general’s office said Monday that the office had not yet received formal notice of the lawsuit.

This story originally appeared in the Montana Free Press, which can be found online at montanafreepress.org.