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PHOTO: DRAG QUEEN STORY HOUR

How COVID ‘Truthers’ Stirred Up a Culture War Over Drag Queen Readings

A UK tour of drag queen reading events for kids has been dogged by fiery protests by COVID conspiracists and the far-right, who falsely claim the events are “grooming” kids.

BRIGHTON, UK – It’s the day before Pride is set to return to Brighton, the UK’s unofficial LGBTQ capital, after a two-year COVID-induced hiatus, and the city is draped with rainbow flags. Yet in the plaza in front of the city’s Jubilee library – the latest stop on a controversial tour of drag queen reading events for children – the atmosphere crackles with homophobic slurs.

“These people are paedophile protectors,” says Michael Manoel Chaves, a prominent COVID truther influencer, as he weaves his way through the LGBTQ and left-wing counterdemonstrators who have gathered to show their support for the reading. 

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“Jimmy would be proud!” he taunts, referring to the UK’s most infamous paedophile, the TV host and serial sex offender Jimmy Savile.

Chaves’s mob of fellow protesters, most of whom are drawn from COVID-conspiracist and far-right networks, are heavily outnumbered by counter-demonstrators, but they’re making their presence felt. According to the protesters, the reading event and people who support it, are actively “grooming” kids, while the drag queen due to give the reading is a “paedophile.”

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Protesters and counter-protesters in Brighton. PHOTO: Martin Pope/Getty Images

Even young families attempting to slip past the angry throng of protesters to bring their children to the reading can’t escape the mob’s fury. “You should be ashamed, exposing your child to something like that,” shouts a protester. 

Entry into the library is tightly controlled, with several layers of security, and for good reason. Sab Samuel, the 27-year-old drag performer at the centre of all this commotion, has received violent threats and his home address has been circulated on far-right chat groups. Previous events on the tour have been infiltrated or shut down by protesters. And just an hour or so from now, Samuel – having read a storybook to a room full of children as his drag alter ego Aida H Dee – will be blocked from leaving the library in his car.

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Sab Samuel in his stage make-up. PHOTO: TIM HUME

In an intimidating confrontation that the aggressors, prominent COVID “truther” influencers, filmed and posted to COVID conspiracist channels on Telegram, the men blocked Samuel’s car from leaving the library car park with their vehicles, while calling him a “paedophile” and yelling: “Why are you grooming children?” 

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The men were affiliated with a hardline COVID conspiracist group, Alpha Team Assemble, which subscribes to the bogus sovereign citizen ideology that’s widespread within the truther scene. The arcane anti-government ideology uses pseudo-legal jargon to peddle the false notion that its followers are sovereign, can essentially declare themselves exempt from laws they don’t like, and even have the power to “arrest” others under so-called common law.

Thankfully, no such “arrest” was attempted – the men eventually retreated after Samuel’s driver repeatedly sounded the car horn, which drew a member of the public to the scene. But the security scare meant the two remaining readings for the day were postponed.

Afterwards, in nearby Hove Library, as the crowd of protesters outside dissipates after the event is called off, a shaken-up Samuel tells VICE World News he feared for his life during the confrontation. He’ll now have to significantly ramp up his security arrangements.

“If I was on my own I would have been kidnapped and taken away,” he says.

“Do I think any of those people could have had knives on them? Absolutely. Do I think I just came close to somebody who might have had acid or bleach on them? Yeah, actually I do.”

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How did it come to this?

Although the furore over Drag Queen Story Hour in the UK appeared to have erupted from out of nowhere over the past month or so – seemingly beamed in from US culture wars, where militant far-right groups like the Proud Boys have stormed drag reading events – the event itself is nothing new. 

The movement, in which drag queens read to children with the aim of promoting queer role models and tolerance, began in the US in 2015. Samuel held his first reading event in the UK two years later, and formally set up Drag Queen Story Hour UK two years after that; his main goal, he told VICE World News, was to provide children with the LGBTQ role models he’d never had growing up.

The concept has long had its critics, who believe that drag is an inherently inappropriate concept to be attached to anything relating to children. They argue that the readings are misguided, needlessly provocative, and potentially even counterproductive to LGBTQ acceptance. Opponents have included religious conservatives, including Christians and Muslims, as well as critics of “gender ideology.”

Critics include academics like Frank Furedi, emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Kent, who has written of his objections to the concept. He told VICE World News that while he considered himself “really liberal,” he found something “quite flawed and very unpleasant” about the readings.

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“It masquerades as an attempt to encourage young children to read, which is a worthy enterprise,” he said. “But you’ve got a confusion of a certain objective to do with inclusion, diversity.”

“Either you’re going to create a love of reading, or you’re going to give them this… If you confuse these two, then you cannot help but create a dynamic where the impulse towards indoctrination trumps the educational, creative dimension of what you’re doing.”

But while religious conservatives and gender-critical feminists have written articles and blogs and held up signs at protests against the readings this summer, it’s the presence of radicalised fringe groups – COVID truthers and the far-right – that have turned the protests into a fiery, threatening spectacle, with six readings having to be called off and rescheduled.

These ugly scenes, it seems, have come about amid a perfect storm of conditions. The first ever Drag Queen Story Hour national tour, funded by local councils and ending on Thursday, has played out against a backdrop of growing public anxiety and hostility over gender ideology and trans rights. And that’s given radicalised groups from the overlapping far-right and COVID conspiracist scenes a prime target to mount sustained campaigns against, sensing a wedge issue with the scope to potentially bring converts into their fold.

These groups have been actively coordinating protests against the tour on Telegram, often sharing propaganda material created by the US far-right. The films, which show children twerking, or walking down runways with scantily clad performers, bear no resemblance to the UK drag readings – which, as VICE World News observed, involves Samuel reading a story book to children as his drag persona, wearing a miniskirt and beehive wig, with no references to gender or sexuality. 

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The performance, as Samuel and many others have pointed out, bears scant difference to a  book reading by a “pantomime dame,” an uncontroversial mainstay of British children’s entertainment.

“These people are victims of misinformation campaigns that have been fed to them by different channels: bad journalism, governments, protesters here and overseas,” Samuel tells VICE World News. “We’ve got flat earthers, COVID-deniers, anti-vaxxers. I call them the dickhead hate protesters.”

Their ideology, he says, has made them “hateful,” targeting the LGBTQ community with age-old slurs of being “paedophiles” or “groomers.”

“Queer people, gay and trans people, non-binary people – they think we’re disgusting and don’t deserve rights. And I have now become public enemy number one because of it.”

Among the far-right groups agitating over the issue is Patriotic Alternative – an organisation, led by veteran neo-Nazi Mark Collett, which has tried to unite the various disparate strands of the British far-right under its umbrella, while attempting to give a politically palatable sheen to its racist beliefs. The group, which subscribes to the far-right great replacement conspiracy theory, has recently made headlines for encouraging its supporters to co-opt International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples by displaying “White Lives Matter” signs across the UK.

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According to Tim Squirrell, a far-right expert at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue who has been monitoring the campaigns against Samuel’s tour, the group sees the protests as “a really important front in the fight against ‘degeneracy’.”

“They have this idea that that LGBTQ ideology is being forced on children is literally turning them gay, and this is a way to destroy the white race,” he said.

But as well as being an important issue for the group ideologically, it also sees drag readings as a potential wedge issue through which to gain attention and potentially recruit supporters.

“It's genuinely important to them ideologically – but also really important for getting attention,” he told VICE World News. “They see this as an opportunistic thing to bring people into the fold and redpill them,” said Squirrel. 

The group claims to be making at least modest inroads in this regard, said Squirrell. On Patriotic Alternative Telegram chats, the group’s deputy leader has claimed that members of the public have approached them at protests saying that while they aren’t “nationalists,” they support their stance on the drag issue and want to get further involved.

Then there are the COVID conspiracists, who appear to have been a more significant presence at the protests, with recognisable influencers from the UK’s radicalised corona truther networks showing up.

For casual observers, it may seem unclear why a movement that sprung up in opposition to COVID lockdowns and vaccines, which is convinced the pandemic is a hoax orchestrated by elites, should be spinning its wheels over drag reading events.

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But hostility to the LGBTQ “agenda,” specifically the trans community, is rife in the COVID truther movement. It routinely frames LGBTQ identities as a symptom of the sickness of the modern world – something out of sync with the natural order of the universe, being pushed by elites with a sick agenda.

What Is QAnon? Everything to Know About the Conspiracy

As lockdowns have ceased and COVID vaccination drives eased off, said Squirrell, the networks of radicalised conspiracists that formed during the pandemic to oppose those measures have now locked on to issues like Drag Queen Story Hour as their new target – a continuation of their fight against the dark forces of the New World Order. The fantasy of heroically rescuing children from “groomers” also resonates strongly within a movement heavily influenced by QAnon, which centres around a myth that children are being systematically abused by a cabal of wicked elites.

“They see it as entirely of a piece with COVID,” said Squirrell, adding that the conspiracists saw both the drag readings and COVID vaccines as examples of a grossly overreaching, authoritarian state, which infringed on individual liberty and bodily sovereignty by supposedly pushing COVID vaccines and hormones on kids.

He cited one video of Chaves, the prominent COVID truther influencer, protesting outside a library, in which the conspiracy theorist drew a neat albeit entirely spurious link between COVID vaccines and the drag story hour event.

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“He’s standing outside saying, ‘This is a library, but it's also a vaccination centre, so you can go and pump your kids’ veins full of poison, then have them groomed by a drag queen’.”

Some of the conspiracist protesters in Brighton tell VICE World News that they believe the left-wing counter-protesters are somehow paid for by the state, or that the drag events are a deliberate social provocation engineered by the architects of the New World Order in order to .

“The people defending this are being used by the World Economic Forum to propagate these divisions and the sexualisation of children which is totally inappropriate,” Piers Corbyn, a prominent conspiracy theorist and brother of former Labour party leader Jeremy, tells VICE World News outside Hove Library, where he’s been attempting to start chants of “Your parents were straight!” through a megaphone.

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Piers Corbyn, second from the left, in Brighton. PHOTO: Martin Pope/Getty Images

Drill down deep enough and most conspiracy theories are inevitably founded in age-old antisemitic beliefs, and the delusional ideas that have cropped up around drag queen story hour are no exception.

One protester, who will only give VICE World News his first name, Dave, and describes himself as a local, self-employed father-of-three, says he believes the drag events have been orchestrated as a deliberate provocation to foment social disorder by “people much, much higher than the elites.”

“Most people I’ve spoken to think it’s the government doing it, they don’t understand there’s a much more powerful level above that. International finance controls it,” he says, before invoking the Rothschild banking dynasty, who have been the subject of antisemitic conspiracy theories for centuries.

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On Wednesday, Samuel touched down on the British Crown Dependency of Guernsey, one of the Channel Islands, ahead of the final reading of the tour on Thursday. While the barrage of protests and threats he has faced this summer have been traumatising, they’ve only made him more determined to continue his readings.

“The show will go on,” he told VICE World News in Brighton. “I'm absolutely not deterred.”

For Squirrell and other monitors of the overlapping, conspiracy-addled networks of COVID truthers and right-wing extremists, the tour has been a striking demonstration of the potency of these radicalised movements to wreak havoc once they mobilise, often seizing on targets thrown up by the seething culture wars.

While the end of lockdowns and the tapering off of vaccination drives had taken the steam out of the COVID truthers’ fight against those measures, their movement remained radicalised, spoiling for a fight, and poised to spring into action once a new target came into its crosshairs.

Now Samuel’s tour is over, it seems, they’re already moving on to the next fight. Earlier this week, Chaves, the COVID truther influencer, posted a video to his 17,000 Telegram subscribers, outlining a plan to tackle the latest conspiracy theory consuming conspiracy-land; that illegal migrants crossing the Channel on dinghies are in fact a secret army of United Nations soldiers.

“Everyone’s getting involved,” said Chaves, detailing a proposed plan of action for his followers. “Go into the hotels, see if you can get in past the front door… If you can see the dining room with fucking 400 soldiers in there, then film that.”

“Then we can come up with a plan,” he continued. “Either they’re swamping the country with refugees… and a lot of people are talking about them trying to lose the white race and make everybody brown… But… a lot of you people think that this is a UN army coming to invade, and if it is, then what the fuck do we do about it? What the fuck do we do about a UN army on British soil coming to fuck us up?”