COLUMBUS, OHIO —The event was billed as “Holi-drag Storytime” and the electronic flyer asked would-be audience members if they were “ready for a family-friendly, LGBTQ+ holiday tradition?” It was going to be held at the First Unitarian Universalist Church and tickets were $10, which included hot chocolate, a goody bag and a candy cane. The school sponsoring and hosting sold about 1,000 tickets and raised thousands of dollars for a local LGBTQ charity. The event was canceled mere hours before it was set to begin.
That Saturday morning, more than 50 people, including members of the Proud Boys and the Patriot Front, stood along the road leading to the church in tactical gear, holding guns and wearing face masks. They chanted “life, liberty, victory” and “reclaim America.” Some gave the Nazi salute.
“They showed up with army weapons for an event that was for kids from kindergarten through fifth grade,” recalls Mikayla Denise, one of the drag queens scheduled to perform. “They were trying to induce fear into our hearts by coming around wearing that army gear, making us feel unsafe, making us feel like they want to hurt or kill us.
“These people are coming to spew hate when we are creating a positive, beautiful space for kids with the support of their parents and teachers. I always wanted to be an educator. When I perform in the schools, I can use my art form to connect with young people. I didn’t grow up seeing folks that look like me living truthfully and honestly, and that’s why I do the story hour.”
Cheryl Ryan, manager of Red Oak Community School, the elementary school hosting the event, blamed Columbus police for forcing organizers to cancel the show. “I spent a week calling our police department and leaving voicemails about the reports we had seen,” Ryan told The Nation.
According to Ryan, the police presence was minimal, while police Sgt. Steven Dyer was recorded high-fiving a member of the Proud Boys and saying, “I’m here to support their right to protest.”
“In the end, our performers felt unsafe without a police presence, while our [community] safety team felt unsafe with a police presence,” Ryan said. This situation has played out more and more in cities across the nation this past year. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, in the first six months of 2022, the Proud Boys showed up to 28 separate LGBTQ and reproductive justice events. In June 2022 — celebrated as Pride Month — the activity increased.
A recent report from the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation found at least 141 incidents, in 2022, of anti-LGBTQ protests and threats targeting specific drag events, including during Pride festivities and false rhetoric against performers deployed in campaign ads for the midterm elections. The report found a number of the drag events targeted by threats and protests were first targeted by right-wing media outlets, such as Fox News and the Daily Wire. A Media Matters report found Fox News devoted more hours targeting drag queens and trans people than covering the January 6 insurrection hearings.
“Things really changed since the January 6 protests,” says Jonathan Hamilt, executive director of (and performer in) the nonprofit Drag Story Hour. “We’ve always had protests, and they were peaceful protests. Since January 6, it’s gotten really scary, really fast, and we don’t call them protests any more. Now what we are seeing are hate crimes.”
Hamilt tells In These Times the “scariest thing you can see at a Drag Story Hour [event] is a white supremacist with a concealed weapon,” and that what the Proud Boys are doing is not protest but terrorism with acts of hate.
Instead of disavowing the Proud Boys or Patriot Front, some Republican officials have taken drag shows as a cause célèbre. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is conducting a probe into child attendance at an event called “A Drag Queen Christmas,” and Republicans in more than a dozen states are trying to pass legislation targeting drag shows. A bill that recently passed in Tennessee appears to make it a criminal offense for a drag artist to perform in public or any location where the show could be seen by minors.
The intimidation from the Proud Boys, the Patriot Front and other right-wing groups has often been met by counterprotests and resistance from social justice groups and queer allies. Leo Ferguson, an organizer with the group Jews for Racial & Economic Justice, participated in a counterprotest in Queens, N.Y., and noted the movement is dangerous.
“Some of these people are confused and nonviolent,” Ferguson says, “but recently we are seeing more and more people who are confused and violent. Their ideology is racist, homophobic, transphobic, white supremacist.
“It’s absolutely terrifying and deeply threatening.”
Eesha Pandit is a Houston-based writer, activist and freelance consultant who believes in social justice movements, the power of intersectionality, feminism, sisterhood and the power of collective action.
Her writing can be found at Crunk Feminist Collective, Feministing, Salon, The Nation, RH Reality Check, Feministe and In These Times. She has also appeared on numerous TV news outlets including CNN, HLN, MSNBC and Grit TV with Laura Flanders.