Before the drag queen show even started in Southern Pines, North Carolina, protesters were already outside. The police positioned themselves in front of the small theater, separating those who protested from those who had attended to ensure that the show took place. Carrying weapons was prohibited in the vicinity.
But when the show started, the theater was suddenly dark — like much of the city. According to authorities, the blackout was caused by shots fired at two electrical substations.
Investigators have not identified any link between the attack and the performance. But for many people inside and outside the drag community, the temporal coincidence led to immediate suspicion. In recent months, drag queen shows, now a staple of entertainment across much of the US, have become an increasingly tense and armed frontline in the country’s complicated war over gender and identity.
In San Lorenzo, California, in June, a group linked to the far-right organization Proud Boys entered a public library to prevent a drag queen from reading a book to children. In Roanoke, Texas, in August, progressive protesters confronted conservatives armed with rifles where a drag queen brunch was taking place.
In Memphis, Tennessee, in September, armed protesters forced the cancellation of a drag event at the Museum of Science and History. On Halloween night, a man threw a Molotov cocktail at a donut shop in Tulsa, Okla., which had hosted a performance.
And the Colorado Springs shooter who killed five people at Club Q last month attacked a venue that had hosted performances the same night and was promoting an “all-ages drag brunch” the next day.
Dozens of concerts and readings in libraries have drawn protests and threats. Prior to the midterms, conservative commentators and Republican politicians began to escalate the discourse by accusing performers of targeting children and attempting to sexualize them.
In Florida, the administration of Governor Ron DeSantis filed a complaint against a Miami restaurant whose weekend brunches were so popular they had lines out the door. “Having children involved in this is wrong. It’s a disturbing trend,” said the Republican in prejudiced speech.
The president of a conservative organization criticized a reading by drag queens held at a Montana zoo by claiming on a radio show, without providing any evidence, that the event was intended to entice children. “They indoctrinate children,” Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio claimed, also openly falsely, in a campaign ad that featured an image of a drag queen reading to children. “They try to convert boys into girls.”
The idea of having drag artists read to children in libraries and schools was proposed in 2015 by a queer parent of a child who was interested in creating an inclusive space for children, according to Jonathan Hamilt, executive director of Drag Story Hour, which organizes public readings in USA. From the first event, in the Castro district of San Francisco, the idea gained strength and spread.
“When I was a kid there wasn’t that representation and visibility — and I didn’t feel good about who I was,” says New York drag queen Cholula Lemon, who has performed readings for children at dozens of events and asked to be quoted. by stage name. “It’s an opportunity to teach children about the value of acceptance and at the same time promote a love of reading.”
The events resemble almost all storytelling, but the reader in this case dresses in a highly stylized and gender-fluid manner, and the texts read sometimes speak to accepting self and others or explore diversity. of family structures.
Several states are studying bills to limit drag queen shows. It is a legislative effort that could also affect the rights of transgender people and their ability to perform on stage in public, regardless of the nature of the performance.
Lawmakers in Tennessee and Idaho have signaled their intention to ban public performance by drag queens. In Texas, a project wants to ban the presence of minors in any show in which the artist “displays a gender identity that differs from the gender assigned to him at birth, using clothing, makeup or other physical markers”.
Many events are still restricted to adults, and some performers say they don’t want to perform for children. Others welcome families, aiming to provide a welcoming space — they include brunchtime shows and public readings by drag queens for a child audience.
“Drags weren’t at risk of being attacked in the past because they performed on TV or in bars at night, a place you wouldn’t go with kids,” says Joe E. Jeffreys, a historian of the drag movement who teaches at New York University. . “But Drag Story Hour brought that world into a more public space.”
Among conservatives, the divide came to prominence in 2019 with a clash of opinions between analysts Sohrab Ahmari, who advocated the use of state power to combat what he saw as “transvestite fetishism”, and David French, in favor of protecting principles of freedom of expression, even in the face of a speech that he himself considered repulsive.
In the wake of the 2020 election, the level of aggression and rejection of the events began to rise online, fueled by videos of drag queen performances shared widely by high-profile right-wing accounts such as Libs of TikTok.
Christopher Rufo, a conservative activist who helped turn so-called “critical race theory” into a Republican bogeyman, says he has heard of performances in Texas at which there were allegedly simulated sexual acts. “It’s terrain that no longer feels like grandmas reading stories to children.”
Even Drag Story Hour events have proven problematic for conservatives who worry about children being introduced to different ways of thinking about gender.
Pastor Michael Foster in Ohio decided to host a “storytelling hour with a pastor” at his local public library. About 35 children attended the first event. Nobody protested.
But, for drag queens, the risk of facing aggressive demonstrations has been growing. Artists associated with Hamilt’s group received safety training for public events and the online environment.
Describing the moment when the Proud Boys stopped their attempt to read to children, Panda Dulce says, “I froze like an animal. I was afraid for the children.” One of the protesters, she said, was wearing a T-shirt with the words “Kill Your Local Pedophile” and a picture of an AR-15 rifle. “They called me a recruiter and a ‘tranny’. They interrogated the families aggressively, asking why they were taking their children to a pedophile.”
After the interruption, the reading — of “Families, Families, Families!”, by Suzanne Lang, an illustrated book about different types of families, with zoo animals — continued. The men were investigated for hate crimes but were not charged, according to Alameda Police Lt. Ray Kelly. “The county approves the event and after the episode doubled the number of sessions.”
Parents are often targeted by protesters. Gretchen Veling took her 17-year-old son, who identifies as non-binary, to drag brunch in Roanoke in August. She says she thought there might be protests, but was surprised by the presence of so many armed security guards.
“I had never seen anything like this in my life,” he says, adding that the family was reassured by the rainbow flags and the fact that one of the guards praised the young man’s earrings. The presentation, according to her, was suitable for the family audience. “When we got back in the car, I heard, ‘It was one of the best events I’ve ever been to.’
The North Carolina drag show was sold out; there were more than 300 people in the audience. It wasn’t the first event of its kind in Southern Pines, but it had drawn more negative attention online than previous events, according to Naomi Dix, who hosted the show — she asked to be referred to by stage name only.
When the lights went out, Naomi thought it was part of the show, and at first the spectators thought the same. By that time, the demonstrators outside had already dispersed. Before long people in the theater started singing, lighting up the space with their cell phones. “At that point, my role became to go out into the audience and reassure everyone,” she says.
It was only later, when word spread that the power cut had been deliberate, that she began to fear the risk of being linked to the show. Investigators have not ruled out the possibility. Meanwhile, Naomi Dix prepares a new presentation to make up for the one that was interrupted.
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