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Drag Queen Story Hour at Chesterland Community Church. (All photos by Tess Owen)


SWAT Police, Bomb-Sniffing Dogs, and Extremists: A Drag Queen Story Hour in America

A church in Ohio was firebombed and threatened by extremists after it announced a Drag Queen Story Hour for children. But they did not back down.

CHESTERLAND, Ohio — The pride flags that had been sewn together and nailed over the windows of Ohio’s Chesterland Community Church gave off the effect of makeshift stained-glass, rainbow-filtering the light that typically pours into the airy sanctuary space. 

These were festive trimmings, put up on the eve of a planned Drag Queen Story Hour, but they served a darker, secondary purpose: to block a potential active shooter from having a clear line of sight to the drag queens while they read story books to kids the next day.  


This was just one of the grim scenarios—along with bombs and protesting Proud Boys—that the church and event organizers were forced to prepare for. 

The church, about 25 miles outside of Cleveland, had been targeted with a barrage of escalating threats ever since they’d announced plans in December to hold a ticketed drag brunch at a nearby restaurant, slated for Saturday, April 1, followed by a Drag Queen Story Hour at the church. 

Then on March 11, a drag event in Wadsworth—less than an hour away—drew a consortium of hundreds of Proud Boys, neo-Nazis, and white supremacists, who vastly outnumbered supporters. It was a shocking scene, but one that’s become almost a weekly occurrence at drag shows in the last year around the country, where the far-right has pivoted aggressively to anti-LGBTQ hate and “groomer” conspiracy theories. 

Six days after the Wadsworth protest, a Telegram channel for Proud Boys’ Cleveland chapter posted the fliers for the Chesterland Community Church’s drag brunch and story hour and advertised a “Rally Against Groomers” at the latter event. “It’s gonna be wild,” they wrote. 

The Proud Boys continued to advertise their rally through fliers and menacing videos, and the church received threats on social media, phone, and email. “I hope everyone at your drag brunch is murdered,” read one email, shared with VICE News (and law enforcement). “Seriously. I WANT YOU ALL DEAD.”


A week before the drag events were due to take place, under the cover of night, someone firebombed the exterior of the Chesterland church with a molotov cocktail. No one was injured, and the damage was minimal. A member of White Lives Matter, who’d attended that earlier protest in Wadsworth, was arrested Friday on federal charges and told investigators his goal was to burn down the church. 

The remains of that firebombing were still visible as church leaders participated in a security dress rehearsal Friday evening. The sign over the church’s entrance—which read, “No matter where you are from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor” in English, Spanish, and Arabic—was charred, and shattered glass still covered the walkway. 

“We should get rid of that now that the crime has been solved,” said Mallory McMaster, a local event planner who was coordinating the church’s security plan, gesturing towards the broken glass. “I don’t really want evidence of a hate crime.” 

It was beginning to get dark outside, the smell of fresh coffee brewing and pizza filled the church, and officials still had a lot more to do before turning in for the night. A copy of The Chesterland News was left out on the kitchenette’s table, with the front page story about the firebombing. Church members were assembling med kits. And McMaster was running through contingency plans for every possible scenario, including violent protests outside, a bomb threat, or a disruption. The security bill ultimately ran $25,000 and was partially crowdfunded by community members, with the rest coming out of church coffers. 


Concerns about the weekend’s events had become even more urgent after a transgender mass shooter opened fire at a Christian school in Nashville, leaving six dead, including three children. It’s still unclear if the shooter’s identity as transgender factored into their motive, but nonetheless, the far-right immediately pounced on that detail to ramp up violent rhetoric against the LGBTQ community even more. 

Following that attack, the Chester Township Police Department, Chardon Police Department, and Geauga County Sheriff’s Office put out a joint statement urging the church to cancel their events, citing “all current intelligence information available” and concerns for “potential violence.” But the church had been adamant that canceling the event would be ceding a victory to extremist intimidation. 

Rev. Jess Peacock, who uses they/them pronouns, doesn’t look like a typical reverend. Their earlobes are stretched around big pink gauges, their gray hair trimmed into a neat mohawk. They’re covered in tattoos, and on Friday, they were wearing Doc Martens and a T-shirt from a recent Rob Zombie concert they’d gone to. Sometimes they swear. But their manner belies their hard exterior. They take off their glasses whenever they speak. They have a gentle cadence to their voice and kind creases at the corners of their eyes. 


At one point during Friday’s security briefing, attended by about six people, Peacock crouched down on the floor with their head in their hands. They were feeling a bit woozy. They’d not been sleeping well and hadn’t been able to eat. 

“If something were to happen to someone I care about or feel like I have some responsibility to, such as the congregation, I’d be devastated. I’d just be absolutely devastated. I would live with that guilt for the rest of my life,” Peacock told VICE News in an interview later that evening. 

Rev. Jess Peacock of Chesterland's Community Church (Tess Owen/VICE News)

Reverend Jess Peacock of Chesterland's Community Church (Tess Owen/VICE News)

Peacock says that they’ve been grappling with what they feel are dueling responsibilities, as a pastor and as an activist. As a pastor, Peacock says their number one priority is to keep their congregation safe. But as an activist, they believed it’s important to stand firm and move forward with the event, despite threats and the police urging them to cancel it. 

“I shudder to think what message could be sent to these groups who seem to be, at least recently, constantly getting their way through fear, intimidation, and violence,” Peacock said. “I don’t want to bolster that for them. I don’t want to encourage them.” 

By 9 p.m. Peacock was headed home. “I’m just really exhausted,” they told McMaster, who was sitting at her laptop still working. “I’m just going to keep praying for the horrible weather, because that works to our favor.” 

“We don't need the weather,” McMaster replied. “We did it.”



At 8:00 a.m. Saturday, it was a crisp, blue sky morning, and McMaster was idling in her truck in a parking lot outside of Chardon, the township where the drag brunch would be taking place. McMaster was waiting for drag queens Veranda L’Ni, Monica Mod, Empress Dupree, and Carmen La’shon, as well as eight abortion clinic volunteers who were also due to arrive. They’d agreed to repurpose their bright pink vests emblazoned with the words “CLINIC ESCORT VOLUNTEER”—and their experience ushering abortion patients through throngs of protesters—to ensure the safety of the drag queens that day. 

The queens trickled in one by one. Their anxiety about the day was palpable. 

Veranda L’Ni—whom her fellow queens repeatedly touted as “the tallest drag queen in Cleveland, Ohio”—said she hadn’t slept much. She was putting on a bit of a brave face that day, she said. 

“We’re all wearing costumes and make-up, but we’re wearing faces already,” said Veranda L’Ni, who has been working as a drag queen for 15 years. “You’ve got to kind of not let that show through, but sometimes it does.”

Abortion clinic volunteers helped escort drag queens between venues

Abortion clinic volunteers helped escort drag queens between venues (Tess Owen/VICE News)

The clinic volunteers, the drag queens, and McMaster traveled convoy style to Chardon, where the Community Church was hosting two drag brunches at local restaurant Element 41, located right on the town square. Both brunches were ticketed events, for audience members 18 and over, and had sold out after just 36 hours. 


Just a few doors down from Element 41 was McMaster’s office, which was used as the “green room” for the day. The two locations shared a back alleyway, which was blocked off by police cruisers on Saturday and would be used to safely transport the drag queens to the venue. 

The drag queens were each assigned a volunteer, who escorted them quickly from their vehicles, down some steps to a non-descript gray door, past an armed security guard, through a cobwebbed basement, into McMaster’s office. (The various security guards coordinated the drag queen’s movements and were instructed to refer to them as “the kittens,” another safety precaution.) 

“This is a drag show, and you are all the ones who have had to put yourselves on the line. This is not what you signed up for, and I’m sorry,” McMaster told them once they’d arrived. “I know that all of these security measures are terrifying and a lot. So to balance out how much we’re putting you through, we want to make it as calming and fun for you as possible.” 

McMaster explained she’d solicited donations from supportive community members to help transform her office into a space worthy of drag queens. Locals she’d never met had dropped off mirrors, snacks, decorations, and elaborate floral arrangements. “The woman who delivered [the flowers] yesterday was like, ‘Girl, if I knew they were for drag queens I’d have made them sparkly,’” McMaster said. 


Each drag queen was given a gift bag that contained, among other things, reiki crystals, served mimosas in styrofoam cups, and presented with a stack of letters containing words of encouragement, which they huddled together and read aloud. 

“Flowers in spring are a renewal of life. Thank you for being with us today. You are the freshness we need so desperately. I will never forget your kindness and courage today,” Veranda L’Ni read. “Blessed are the peacemakers. Please continue to share yourselves. We care about you. We stand beside you.” 

Empress Dupree joked that she’d have to put on her bottom fake eyelashes to catch her tears if they were going to continue to read these cards.

“I'll take every ounce of love,” said Veranda L’Ni. “It's the only way we're going to get through this.”

Chardon Square

Officers in camouflage were positioned on the roof of Element 41. Scores of other cops, including officers on horseback, were clustered around the square. Temporary security cameras outfitted with license plate scanners, purchased by local police with funds from Homeland Security, were trained on the exterior of the restaurant.

A wire fence was set up around the entrance to the restaurant, which was blocked off by another armed security guard. 

Hours before the drag show had even begun, far-right protesters had started assembling across the street from Element 41, eventually totaling a few dozen. 

Dozens of far-right protesters gathered outside Element 41 in Chardon, Ohio, which hosted a sold-out drag brunch (Tess Owen/VICE News)

Dozens of far-right protesters gathered outside Element 41 in Chardon, Ohio, which hosted a sold-out drag brunch (Tess Owen/VICE News)

One had a sign saying “Boycott Perversion. Dump the Drags. Make America Straight Again.” Others waved the yellow “Don’t Tread On Me” Gadsen rattlesnake flag. A 4x4 with fluttering Christian flags and a bumper sticker saying “Put On The Full Armor Of God, So That You Can Take A Stand Against the Devil’s Schemes” was parked directly across from the restaurant. 

“What a merciful God we have to allow you to even be alive,” one protester bellowed through a megaphone. “You should be burning in hell today.”

Then, about 10 uniformed members of the white nationalist group Patriot Front marched into the square like a tiny army. As is typical for the group, their faces were covered. They chanted “Life, Liberty, Victory,” and unfurled a large, hand-painted banner saying “Strong Nations, Strong Families.” After about 30 minutes of flexing in front of the cameras, they marched off, piled back into their rented U-Haul van and drove away. 

About ten members of Patriot Front, a white nationalist group, showed up to protest the drag event

About ten members of Patriot Front, a white nationalist group, showed up to protest the drag event

Organizers had asked counter-protesters to stay away from the events, because they were concerned about skirmishes. But regardless, a couple dozen antifasicsts in all-black gathered early on Saturday outside the restaurant, with signs like, “Fascists Go Home” and “Drag Is Not a Crime.” One of them carried a boombox, lending an absurdist element to the scene by blasting Disney songs, such as “Everybody Wants to Be a Cat” and “Cruella D’Ville” over the din from the far-right protesters. (Playing licensed music is also leftist protest tactic, because it renders any video footage obtained by media largely unusable due to copyright). 

A small group of counterprotesters, including antifascists in all black, also convened outside Element 41.

A small group of counterprotesters, including antifascists in all black, also convened outside Element 41.

Inside, the drag brunch was getting underway and was like any other drag brunch, and aside from occasional references to the fracas outside. Pride flags were displayed on all the tables, attendees ate pancakes and eggs, sipped mimosas, and cheered loudly. 

While many in the audience were personal associates of the drag queens or members of the church, some were just community members who wanted to come along to the drag show. 

Tim Riley, 75, was one of them.

“This is my first drag show,” Riley exclaimed. “What fun!”

Riley, who’d lived in the Chardon area his whole life, was up out of his seat, filming on his phone, when Monica Mod—suitably dressed in a checkered black and white dress with black bouffant hair—lip-synched to the hit musical Hairspray’s “Baltimore”. 

“This reminds me of the 60s again, where it’s time to stand up and resist what they’re [the far-right] trying to do to our country,” Riley said later. “We now have what I call a concerted effort to try and discriminate against a group of people. Pure and simple, it’s discrimination, and it’s a sad thing. I thought we’d come farther than this.” 

Veranda L'Ni performing at the drag brunch at Element 41 in Chardon, Ohio. (Tess Owen/VICE News)

Veranda L'Ni performing at the drag brunch at Element 41 in Chardon, Ohio. (Tess Owen/VICE News)

Meanwhile, the “lake effect” rain was rolling in. The blue sky and sunshine had been replaced by vicious winds and icy rain, and the temperature had plummeted. The far-right had dispersed, seeking shelter from the bad weather. 

Throughout the day, the Cleveland chapter of the Proud Boys continued to post to their Telegram, making cryptic suggestions that they were preparing for bad weather—and potentially arriving on a bus. 


The Church

Drag Queen Story Hour at the church was the primary target of the threatened protest. Emboldened by legislative attacks by right-wing lawmakers on any forms of entertainment or education containing even vaguely LGBTQ themes, the far-right have latched onto Drag Queen Story Hour events, which they say are tantamount to “grooming” children. 

But it wasn’t immediately clear where protesters, if they materialized, would even be able to gather. The church is located on a residential road, and its grounds were blocked by metal barricades. A muddy ditch, rather than a sidewalk, flanked either side of the road. 

A large police presence had blocked off a school parking lot just up the street. And two SWAT teams were positioned. 

To access the church’s parking lot, drivers had to show their IDs to an armed private guard. Another guard used an inspection mirror to check the undersides of vehicles for bombs. A third guard walked a bomb-sniffing dog around cars, and popped their trunks to search for possible explosives. 

The Community Church in Chesterland, Ohio, spent around $25,000 on security, including bomb-sniffing dogs. (Tess Owen/VICE News)

The Community Church in Chesterland, Ohio, spent around $25,000 on security, including bomb-sniffing dogs (Tess Owen/VICE News)

Another guard with a bomb-sniffing dog was stationed halfway up the walkway to the church. 

More security guards used metal detection wands on everyone coming into the church and checked bags for possible weapons. 

When the drag queens arrived, they pulled around to a side entrance. They’d had a costume change, wearing colorful, flowy dresses, sparkly crowns, and fairy princess-like ruffles, and walked briskly into the church. 


At 3:50 pm, 10 minutes before the show began, the Proud Boys posted another video to their Telegram. “Hey groomers, are you ready? It’s about to get wild,” read title cards that flashed up on the screen. And then, on the next screen, “PSYCH! APRIL FOOLS.” 

The news that the Proud Boys’ threatened protest was allegedly an April Fool’s Prank rippled slowly across the church, cutting through the tension. 

And then it was time for the show to begin. 

Drag Queen Story Hour at the Community Church in Chesterland, Ohio

Drag Queen Story Hour at the Community Church in Chesterland, Ohio

Media were asked to stand at the back of the sanctuary and adult attendees crowded into pews on the right side of the aisle, while about 10 rapt children sat cross-legged on a rug as drag queens read them books about imagination, creativity, self-acceptance, and inclusivity. There were short breaks for dance parties, where the kids twirled and bounced to songs by children’s entertainers. 

And finally, Veranda L’Ni said the goodbyes, thanking everyone for coming out to “say hi and to see a whole lot of glitter, and hear some great, great stories.” 

“This is what we do. This is who we are. And we’re going to keep doing it,” Veranda L’Ni said. 

That was it. Peacock hugged the drag queens, who were wiping tears from their faces. Kids and their parents went up to the front of the sanctuary to get photos with them.

Sydney Yahner, 23, who was helping McMaster coordinate the security plan, told VICE News she had to step out during the story hour because she’d gotten so emotional. 

“I was sitting in the first pew, just sitting there, and watching the kids so happy to be there, and so carefree. They have no idea what went into this, and they never should," Yahner said. “We prepared so well, the kids came and they had a great time. It’s just another Saturday for them, and that’s all you can ask for.” 

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Drag Queen Monica Mod reads "Red: A Crayon's Story" to children at a Drag Queen Story Hour in Chesterland, Ohio

Peacock stuck around, as the audience started to dwindle. 

Peacock says that April Fool’s prank or not, the money spent on security was worth it. They were not intimidated into submission and held the event as they planned. And Peacock could care less if the Proud Boys want to claim a victory or not. 

“At the end of the day, whatever they need to feel like they won—I. Don’t. Care. I’m sick of talking about the Proud Boys. I’m sick of worrying about the Proud Boys. If they’re looking for a win in this, fine. Great. You got your win,” said Peacock. “We spent a lot of money that we really didn’t have a lot of, but that says a lot about them.”

Peacock was unequivocal about the fact that they plan to hold future Drag Queen Story Hours at the church—but security will continue to be a major concern, in “light of this new era we’re in,” they said.  

“Once your church is attempted to be burned down with a molotov cocktail, you have entered a new era,” said Peacock. “It's kind of pathetic that we have to do that because there are people in this world that still think hate and violence is going to get them their way. But if that's what we have to do, then we will do that.”

Peacock’s plans for the rest of the evening? Eating an edible, watching Wrestlemania, and getting a good night’s sleep. 

Additional reporting from Nick Childers and Jika Gonzalez

(Disclosure: Gavin McInnes, who founded the Proud Boys in 2016, was a co-founder of VICE in 1994. He left the company in 2008 and has had no involvement since then.)