Amid intensifying threats to events where drag queens read storybooks to kids, the drag community is considering how to stay safe. These gatherings happen at libraries, bookstores, and other free public places, where the performers entertain and delight children while introducing them to new types of people and teaching them acceptance and inclusion through storybooks. The right wing has recently increased its targeting of the drag community in its battle against all things LGBTQ. In one sense, it’s just the latest example of the types of hate the community has always faced. But in another, the vitriol seems to be gathering steam — and reach — on the right.
Jonathan Hamilt, executive director of the national nonprofit Drag Queen Story Hour, says attacks on drag culture are just the flavor of the moment when it comes to the right wing’s anti-LGBTQ goals. “It’s transphobia and homophobia when you’re hating on drag culture, because it’s part of our community,” he says.
Last weekend, members of the Proud Boys crashed storytime at San Lorenzo Library near Oakland, California, in what law enforcement described as a “hate crime incident” on Twitter. The Alameda County Sheriff’s Office said in a press release five men entered the library and began shouting “homophobic and transphobic slurs.” Witnesses described the men to police as “extremely aggressive with a threatening violent demeanor, causing people to fear for their safety.” The statement describes the Proud Boys as a “right-wing hate group with anti-LGBTQ affiliations.”
The sheriff’s office is investigating the incident using hate crime protocol, according to public information officer Ray Kelly. “Facts and evidence will determine if it is a hate crime,” Kelly tells Rolling Stone. “We will present the case to the District Attorney for their review.”
After police kicked the Proud Boys out of the library, drag queen Panda Dulce says she launched right back into the event: “I didn’t want them to have the satisfaction of knowing they could effectively disrupt our program,” she tells Rolling Stone in a statement. But Hamilt says the organization is doing more to protect themselves. After the incident, he heard from the Anti-Violence Project, a New York–based nonprofit that aims to protect members of the LGBTQ community. “We’re doing an organization-wide training with them to help us have more protocol and procedures when it comes to safety measures,” Hamilt says. “We want all of our families to have a fun time and our events to be a safe and secure experience.”
Though they won’t offer specific examples, citing the safety of the organizations they work with, AVP teaches deescalation strategies and a community-led model that relies on neighborhood ties. “Safety comes from relationships,” says Audacia Ray, director of community organizing and public advocacy at AVP. “It comes from building relationships with your neighbors, with other groups in your community that might not be drag queens, but might be folks who are concerned about kids having access to information, people who care about libraries, people who care about public spaces. That’s also how we start to build understanding across many different identities. Different members of the community getting to know each other — meeting a drag queen, having a conversation.”
The disruption at the San Lorenzo library comes amid a worsening political climate for the LGBTQ community: just one day earlier, 31 members of the white nationalist group Patriot Front were arrested en route to an Idaho Pride event and charged with conspiracy to riot. Conservative parents have recently berated school boards for stocking public school libraries with books that include LGBTQ storylines. Just this year, hundreds of anti-LGBTQ bills have been proposed in state legislatures across the country. And, of course, this is all happening as elected officials openly label political opponents ‘pedophiles,’ the calling-card accusation of QAnon conspiracy theorists.
But drag queens have become a target in particular. Earlier this month, Florida Senator Marco Rubio successfully got a Drag Queen Story Hour event canceled at an Air Force base in Germany, saying it would expose children to “sexually charged content.” In his letter to the U.S. Air Force Secretary, Rubio referred to a kids book written by Lil Miss Hot Mess called The Hips on the Drag Queen Go Swish, Swish, Swish. He quoted her saying she’d written the book to help kids “experience the magic of drag and to get a little practice shaking their hips or shimmying their shoulders to know how [they] can feel fabulous inside of [their] own bodies.” He called the event propaganda and said decisions about kids’ bodies should be made by “moms and dads.” “It’s kind of a lot to have a U.S. Senator come for you in that way,” Lil Miss Hot Mess says.
Even before the rise and radicalization of Donald Trump’s QAnon-adjacent right wing, Lil Miss Hot Mess says she’s gotten plenty of hate. “I think [the drag community has] been the canaries in the coal mine for this intensification of homophobic and transphobic — not just hate, but really disinformation,” she says. She’s witnessed firsthand the way rhetoric claiming drag queens are pedophiles has crept from the territory of trolls on the fringes of society to the mainstream language of the conservative movement. Still, she plans to continue reading to kids. “If we cancel events out of fear, that’s letting them win,” she says. “Which is not to say — there could be very credible threats that would change that calculus. But I don’t want to think about that.”
Miss Peppermint, a drag queen who appeared on RuPaul’s Drag Race and is now on the reality show Call Me Mother, says the public shouldn’t let attacks on drag queens distract from the essential work of protecting the most vulnerable members of the LGBTQ community. “I think this ‘let’s attack drag queens’ is a red herring. Transgender youths are the ones who are really being atacked,” she says. “I do believe we deserve the right to perform freely and not have our art stifled, but the more vulnerable groups are trans youths and trans women of color.” Drag queens reading storybooks could potentially reach trans kids who are struggling. “Just being in the same room with a human being who has done the work to really connect their sense of identity… That is going to radiate off of them. It will resonate as an inspiration to the youth who are the spectators of the story hour, and it will resonate as a threat for people who are trying to cancel it.”
Lil Miss Hot Mess says she’s already seen a huge show of support from allies in neighborhoods where story hour events are being held, in the wake of the Proud Boys incident. “As people are hearing about this recent round of blowback, they want to support us,” she says. “In North Carolina, there was a story hour that was planned as part of a Pride festival, and I saw pictures, and they had huge, huge crowds because people wanted to show up to support them. That is the sort of silver lining of this: it really shows you who your friends are and who’s there to support you.”