North Brookfield Nixes Drag Performance At June Pride Event; ACLU Sends Protest Letter

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North Brookfield selectmen have rejected a request for a drag performance on the town common they had previously approved after determining it to be “adult entertainment” not suitable for public property.

The elected board, which oversees the day-to-day operations of the town and considers permits for public events, initially said yes to the application but then later reversed course on a 2-1 vote after members learned more about the proposed performance. 

“After extensive research, we got some information that would prohibit the drag portion of that show,” board chairman Jason Petraitis said during a meeting on April 11.

“This board is not trying to regulate anyone’s existence or freedom of expression. Our aim is to ensure that any event approved for the general public will not, even inadvertently, harm anyone who might possibly attend the event,” Petraitis read from a prepared statement at the meeting. 

Petraitis granted that while there may be “drag performances that are not centered on elicit behavior or intended to be sexual, the majority of these shows do include sexual innuendo and behavior that exaggerate all aspects of the individual’s sexuality.”

Selectman Elizabeth Brooke Canada disagreed, saying she doesn’t consider drag shows adult entertainment. “I mean, it’s freedom of expression. I’ve been to these events. I’ve never seen anything that’s been unsavory to anybody, and I trust that our police force would enforce anything that’s unlawful or adult in nature,” she said.

Canada questioned the other two selectmen’s definition of adult entertainment. “I haven’t seen anything at a Pride event that could be classified under adult entertainment or anything that’s sexual in nature,” she said. “Do we put regulations on other events that are happening in town that other people are offended by?”

North Brookfield is a central Massachusetts town of about 4,700 about 15 miles west of Worcester.

The request for the Pride event on the North Brookfield common on June 24 was made by Rural Justice Network, a group that puts on Pride events affirming homosexuality and transgenderism in small towns.

Selectmen first discussed the application for the Pride event during a board meeting on March 28. During the approximately 20-minute discussion, board members showed hesitancy only about the drag portion of the event.

“I just want to know what kind of dancing and vendors are going to be there,” Selectman John Tripp said. “Is it going to be lewd and pornographic dancing? I’ve never been to one, but kids are on the common.”

“If there’s anything that’s inappropriate, I’m not going to sign off on it,” he continued.

A representative from Rural Justice Network recognized Tripp’s concern and emphasized that the planned drag performances are family-friendly and would mimic the ones at the event Rural Justice Network put on in the neighboring town of West Brookfield in June 2022.

“There’s a lot to the LGBTQIA, the queer community; it’s not just drag performers. But this is a really important part of the community. And they don’t do dance any more provocatively than the kids at Kara Anderson’s dance studio or Beyonce, and they’re always very covered,” the woman representing Rural Justice Network said, informing the board that videos from the West Brookfield event were on the group’s Facebook page. (The woman did not state her name during the meeting.)

Links to the videos are provided below.

One man at the meeting (who did not identify himself) said he attended the West Brookfield event last year, stating that “it was an extremely family-oriented event:  lots of kids, lots of activities for the kids, nothing at all untoward.”

Another woman (who also didn’t state her name) disagreed with that assessment and said that the drag performers were dressed in tight-fitting clothing and danced “very provocatively.”

The board eventually voted to grant the permit on March 28 on a 2-1 vote, with Petraitis and Canada voting yes and Tripp voting no.

At the April 11 meeting, Petraitis reversed course, saying he had determined that drag shows are adult content and should not be allowed on the town common. Canada voted yes, as she did during the previous meeting. Tripp voted no, as he did during the previous meeting. On the 2-1 vote, the board rescinded its previous approval of the permit.

During public comment at the April 11 selectmen’s meeting, a woman who lives across the street from the common said she wanted to know how anyone could consider the performances in the West Brookfield videos appropriate.

She listed several incidents in the videos that she considered indecent, including a performer “pulling off of his skirt — and the crowd cheering to that — so that he was standing in a leotard; it was ill-fitting with a bottom part that was — he had tights underneath, but it was ill-fitting.”

The incident the woman describes can be seen in a video on the Rural Justice Network Facebook page. The video is 5 minutes and 25 seconds long.  The performer taking off his skirt can be seen at the 0:40 mark.

Videos of three other performances from the 2022 Pride event in West Brookfield are also posted on the Facebook page of Rural Justice Network.  One shows an individual clothed in a black leotard with a long wig and makeup on. The other two can be found here and here.

The woman, who did not state her name, also mentioned “gestures done by the performer, who rubbed his hand over his top part and then did a Khmer symbol and then rubbed his hand across his bottom half.”

“I don’t know how you think that that’s O.K. for children living across the street from the common to be seeing in the middle of the day as they look out their window,” she said.

The audience at the April 11 meeting, which was larger than at the March 28 meeting, applauded after she concluded speaking.

No representatives from Rural Justice Network were at the April 11 meeting.

New Boston Post contacted Rural Justice Network for comment. In a Facebook message sent to New Boston Post on Friday, April 21, a spokesman for the organization said the group was not notified that the board of selectmen was going to discuss the application again. We were not aware until they already had the vote. No one had notified us, and we are desolate about the decision, the spokesman said in the message.

Asked whether the group plans to hold the Pride event in June without the drag portion, the spokesman said the group has not made a decision yet, stating that members were carefully considering how the community responds to the recent attention, and how it will affect things going forward. Our priority is making sure everyone feels safe.

The decision to rescind permission for the drag show caught the attention of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, which sent a letter to the board on Tuesday, April 18, calling the withdrawal of the permit “unconstitutional.” The letter states that the move is a violation of freedom of expression, saying that “this is censorship based on the content of the proposed speech and the viewpoint it expresses, including that gender identity may be fluid and individuals should be treated equally and accepted regardless of how they choose to express their identity.”

The letter requests a response by Wednesday, April 26, to avoid potential litigation over this issue.

The Worcester Telegram & Gazette published a story about the dispute on Wednesday, April 19, and a follow-up story on Saturday, April 22.

NewBostonPost contacted North Brookfield’s board of selectmen for comment but did not hear back by deadline.


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