A drag show planned for Saturday night as a fundraiser at the Memorial Opera House is the target of a protest against the event in the Porter County-owned venue.
The protest appears to be the culmination of anger by some in the community about plans to renovate the aging facility; outrage about the content of the show, which is for those age 18 and up; and the heat of election year politics with the November general election just weeks away and an open seat on the Board of Commissioners, which oversees the theater.
Regardless of who is renting the facility or what the event is, county officials said, they can’t pick and choose who uses it.
“The venue is available for rental by the general public,” Scott McClure, the county attorney, said in an email. “The First Amendment of the United States Constitution protects citizens’ exercise of free speech from restriction by the government, with few exceptions.”
A Facebook post earlier this week by “Kelly Z Freedom,” which has since been taken down, notes recent controversy among county officials about a holdup of the American Rescue Plan Act funds being released to nonprofit organizations over the $6.5 million cost of renovating the opera house .
The renovation was initially included in ARPA projects last year but withdrawn because of public outcry. More recently, elected officials have discussed using interest from the county’s nonprofit foundation from the sale of the county hospital for a bond issue for the work, though no action has been taken.
“Now … another slap in the face … this taxpayer funded CIVIL WAR MONUMENT DEDICATED TO VETERANS is hosting a ‘I’m Coming Out Drag Show,’” stated part of the Facebook post.
The event is a fundraiser for LGBTQ Outreach of Porter County. The call for people to “peacefully protest” notes it will take place across the street from the opera house in downtown Valparaiso at 104 Indiana Ave.
“Kelly Z Freedom” did not respond to a request for comment via Facebook Messenger but the event organizer and county officials said they stood by the drag show.
The Board of Commissioners, which has a 2-1 Republican majority, approved renting the opera house for the drag show during their Sept. 6 meeting as they went over the consent agenda.
“It’s a venue rental, and they have every right to be there,” said Commissioner Laura Blaney, D-South.
Scot MacDonald, the opera house’s executive director, said this is the first year LGBTQ Outreach of Porter County is holding their event at the opera house. The organization reached out to MacDonald about renting the venue for a fundraiser and are being charged $500, the flat rate for nonprofits, as well as incidental costs.
The opera house has hosted other drag-themed events, including a talent show a few years ago.
“It was a completely different group. It was not a fundraiser, it was a private rental,” MacDonald said, adding that the opera house also staged “La Cage aux Folles” right before that. “We’ve done this before with no issue.”
The opera house works with a private security company for concerts and other events but in the interest of safety for all given the protest, the venue staff also has contacted the Porter County Sheriff’s Department as an added measure.
MacDonald reiterated that any organization is free to rent the opera house.
“It’s a public building,” he said.
Simon Anderson Schelling, chair of LGBTQ Outreach of Porter County and one of its founders, said the organization started three years ago and holds regular meetings and events to provide a sanctuary for the LGBTQ community and their allies.
Previously the organization has held drag bingo in local parks in recognition of National Coming Out Day, which is Oct. 11, but decided to take a different approach this year.
Anderson Schelling doesn’t feel the need to respond to the protesters.
“My goal in everything I do for our organization is to create a safe space where everyone can be their authentic selves and we are welcoming, and that’s what we want our community to be, that welcoming space,” he said.