On a recent Saturday afternoon at a public library in Spokane, Washington, a drag queen named Tirrany Hex was reading “Not All Princesses Wear Pink” to about 50 children accompanied by their parents.
Outside the library, a SWAT team, a pair of marksmen, and 40 police officers stood guard.
In the weeks leading up to the June 15 “Drag Queen Story Hour,” fears of violence had been percolating throughout the community. There were even rumors that neo-Nazis were plotting a “second Charlottesville” in response to the event, said Hex, whose real name is Andrea Tate.
Tate said she received threats. Her harassers even tracked down social media accounts belonging to her stepmother, who lives in Indiana — and published photos online of her as a teenage girl, trying to shame her and calling her a "demon." Additionally, Spokane police received intelligence suggesting that both protesters and counterprotesters were planning to come armed, according to a department spokesperson.
The threats, the heavy police presence, and the hordes of protesters are becoming increasingly regular features of Drag Queen Story Hours, an event series conceived in San Francisco in 2015.
The goal of the event series is to teach kids diversity, self-acceptance, and to look beyond gender stereotypes. “[Drag Queen Story Hour] captures the imagination and play of the gender fluidity of childhood and gives kids glamorous, positive, and unabashedly queer role models,” the umbrella organization’s mission statement says.
The events became an almost instant thorn in the side of the religious right, and drew protesters on a regular basis.
In the end, about 200 protesters showed up to the Spokane Drag Queen Story Hour, and they were vastly outnumbered by 400 counterprotesters. “It turned into a block party for these kids,” said Tate. “There were bubbles, and chalk, and costume bins.”
A Baptist pastor was arrested and charged with obstructing an officer. Nobody was hurt, and Spokane hosted a second Drag Queen Story Hour the following week. “It was a tumultuous couple of weeks leading up to that first reading,” Tate added. “I’m glad nothing came of it. We just got to read our books.”
Lately, grumblings and protests from bible-thumping conservatives have taken on a more sinister tone and shape, coinciding with LGBTQ Pride Month.
Organizers of the campaign against the reading hours are urging followers to publish the drag queens’ identifying information online to encourage harassment. Libraries that planned to host reading hours have been bombarded by protesters and phone calls.
A library in Warren County, New Jersey, was forced to cancel its Drag Story Hour after it received two days of nonstop phone calls. A Drag Queen Story Hour in Leander, north of Austin, Texas, was first cancelled by city officials due to threats of protests — and ultimately hosted by a pro-LGBTQ church in the area. And more than 100 protesters showed up in response to a Drag Story Hour in Rockford, Illinois, last weekend.
Conway Public Library in New Hampshire is hosting its own Drag Queen Story Hour on Friday. Library director David Smolen said he was a little taken aback by some of the online backlash to the event, and that the local police department is providing a security detail as a precautionary measure. “It made me feel like I live in a bit of a bubble,” Smolen said. “Or maybe I was just naive, because I didn’t think there would be any to-do about it; I just figured maybe a couple of people would complain.”
Threats and protests against Drag Queen Story Hour have been fueled by the baseless conspiracy theory that the events are hotbeds of pedophilia. This theory has been promoted across right-wing media, including Fox News, all the way to the racist forums on the imageboard sites 8chan and 4chan.
But conspiracy theorists felt vindicated earlier this year when MassResistance, an anti-LGBTQ organization that has spearheaded many of the protests against Drag Queen Story Hour, surfaced records suggesting that a drag queen who read at a story hour in Houston was a convicted child sex offender. The accused belonged to a collectictive called Space City Sisters. In a statement in April, the collective said their former member had resigned, and that the crimes took place when they were a juvenile.
“The background of one of our former members, who resigned effective March 4th, never surfaced due to the nature of the case, which was a sealed juvenile offense,” Space City Sisters wrote. “Background checks do not turn up such records, but the internet does not forget.” They added that there was nothing nefarious about the Drag Queen Story Hour that they participated in. “Those who attended with us will remember that we sang songs, gave our flowers to the children, and congratulated the families with high-fives when they left the facility with books,” Space City Sisters wrote. “In fact, all our interactions with children were in full view of Houston Police and protesters themselves.”
The far-right latched onto this incident, and has tried to use it to smear the entire concept of Drag Queen Story Hours.
And that idea has taken hold.
Fox News anchor Martha MacCallum recently ventured that there’s a “sexualization element” to Drag Queen Story Hours. She also pondered whether the goal of the events were to “indoctrinate and unnecessarily expose children to sexuality.” Her guest, Kim Hall, who has led the “500 Mom Strong” protest movement against the Drag Queen Story Hours, said that the event organizers were “grooming our children to be drag queens and into the homosexual lifestyle.” Earlier this month, Fox News’ Laura Ingraham’s guest on her podcast likened Drag Queen Story Hours to NAMBLA, a pro-pedophilia advocacy group.
The report has also taken root in some of them most volatile corners of the internet. “Put on black clothes grab a Nazi flag put on some iron cross patches and protest a drag queen story hour in your town or state,” someone wrote on 4chan earlier this month.
Infowars has even used the incident to promote a white nationalist meme called “Clown World.” The meme — expressed via the clown emoji or a Pepe the Frog wearing a rainbow clown wig, and often accompanied with the words “honk honk” — is meant to convey the “destruction” of society by liberals, the LGBTQ community, and people of color. It began gaining traction on 8chan and 4chan last year. In April, Infowars reported that “activists dressed like clowns” had protested at a drag queen story hour in New Orleans — and ran their story with the tagline “honk honk.”
The right-wing obsession with Drag Queen Story Hours also coincided with an uptick in far-right attention to Pride events. A group of neo-Nazis showed up to protest a Pride march in Detroit earlier this month. A few neo-Nazis also crashed pride in Knoxville, Tennessee. Users on 8chan also called for violence at the upcoming Pride march in New York City.
Deputy director of Drag Queen Story Hour’s New York City chapter, Jonathan Hamilt, says that they’ve developed safety strategies and training for their organizers and storytellers in response to some of the threats. “Our main goal is to make sure every Story Hour is safe for everyone,” Hamilt said. “Our storytellers will get ready in drag at the venue, so people don’t see a drag queen leaving, and organizers walk drag queens to their cars or mass transit.” Organizers and storytellers are also encouraged not to engage with online trolls, and undergo regular media training.
Despite the violent rhetoric and threats, Drag Queen Story Hour to be here to stay. There’s nearly 30 Story Hours planned for the next month alone, everywhere from Nebraska, to Vermont — to Berlin and Greece, according to the umbrella organization. Libraries in Tokyo and Sweden have also hosted Story Hours in the past.
“We are a program that is spreading love and tolerance and literacy,” said Hamilt. “Most people who are against it don’t know what they’re talking about. It comes down to fear of the unknown, and when they’re fearful it comes out in anger, be it homophobic, xenophobic or transphobic.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to photos of Tate as a teen. She was a cisgender girl at that time, and now identifies as non-binary.
Cover: In this Saturday, May 13, 2017 photo, Lil Miss Hot Mess reads to children during the Feminist Press' presentation of Drag Queen Story Hour at the Park Slope Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library, in New York. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)