Even before the performance started, protesters had gathered outside a drag show over the weekend in Southern Pines, N.C. The police deployed outside a small theater there, separating opponents of the show from those who had turned out to make sure it could go on. Weapons were barred from the street nearby.
But as the performance got underway, the theater — and much of the city — suddenly went dark, the result of what officials said was deliberate gunfire that targeted two electrical substations.
Investigators have not established any connection between the attack and the drag performance. But for many in the drag community and beyond, the coincidence of timing sparked immediate suspicion, in part because of online comments that speculated about a link. The suspicion resonated because drag shows, now a regular feature of weekend entertainment across a growing swath of America, have become an increasingly tense and armed frontline in recent months in the nation’s fraught struggle over gender and identity.
In San Lorenzo, Calif., in June, a group of men with the far-right Proud Boys entered a public library to stop a drag performer from reading a book to children. Outside a drag brunch in August in Roanoke, Texas, protesters confronted heavily armed counterprotesters who carried AR-15-style rifles and wore rainbow colors in addition to their mostly black attire. In Memphis, armed protesters forced the cancellation of a drag event in September at the Museum of Science and History in September. Early on Halloween, a man firebombed a doughnut shop in Tulsa, Okla., that had hosted a drag event.
And the gunman in Colorado Springs who killed five people last month at Club Q targeted a venue that hosted drag performances earlier that evening and was promoting an “all-ages drag brunch” for the next day.
Dozens of drag shows and library readings have drawn angry demonstrations or threats since the spring, including in New York City, after conservative commentators and Republican politicians began, ahead of the midterm elections, to amp up their rhetoric accusing the performers of targeting children and trying to sexualize them.
In Florida, the administration of Gov. Ron DeSantis filed a complaint over the summer against a Miami restaurant whose weekend brunches featuring drag performers were so popular that there was usually a line out the door. “Having kids involved in this is wrong,” Mr. DeSantis told reporters. “It is a disturbing trend.”
Tony Perkins, the president of the conservative Family Research Council, railed against a drag reading being held at a Montana zoo this summer, telling his radio audience it was “about targeting our children, about grooming our children.”
“They indoctrinate children,” said Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, a Republican, in a campaign ad as an image of a drag performer reading to children flashed on the screen. “Try to turn boys into girls.” The idea of having drag performers read to children in libraries and schools was developed in 2015 by a queer parent of a young child who wanted to make a place for kids that would be inclusive, said Jonathan Hamilt, the executive director of Drag Story Hour, which organizes readings around the country. Quickly, the idea grew from the first reading — in the Castro district of San Francisco — and spread around the country.
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“I remember very clearly as a kid not having that representation, not having that visibility and not feeling OK with who I was,” said Cholula Lemon, a drag performer in New York who has read to children at dozens of events and asked to be referred to by her stage name. “This is an opportunity to teach kids about acceptance while promoting literacy.”
The events resemble most any story time — children gather around to hear a book read and discussed — but with the reader dressed in a highly stylized and gender-fluid manner, reading from books that are sometimes about accepting oneself or others, or that explore the range of family structures.
Several states are now considering bills to rein in drag shows, a legislative effort that could also affect the rights of transgender people and their ability to take the stage in public, regardless of the nature of the performance.
Lawmakers in Tennessee and Idaho have signaled an intention to try to ban drag shows in public. In Texas, a proposed bill would prohibit minors from attending drag performances, defining them as any show in which a performer “exhibits a gender identity that is different than the performer’s gender assigned at birth using clothing, makeup or other physical markers.”
“This is going to be the first year where the drag bills are seen and tested nationally,” said Chase Strangio, the deputy director for transgender justice at the American Civil Liberties Union. “It has been very strategically manufactured.”
Friction has been building along with the popularity and mainstream presence of drag performances, which are often a kind of variety show in which gender assumptions are challenged through dress and makeup, dance and song.
“Someone recently told me that my hometown in Georgia had a drag show, which is wild,” Mr. Hamilt said.
Many drag shows remain restricted to adults, and some performers have said they do not want to perform for children. Other events welcome families, say drag performers and advocates, in order to provide a welcoming space and an example to young people who may not feel at home in traditional gender roles. Those include both brunch-time shows and readings for children by drag performers.
“It was safe on television because it was mediated, or in a bar late at night, some place that you would not go,” said Joe E. Jeffreys, a historian of drag who teaches at New York University. “But the drag story hours brought it into a more public venue.”
The growth of drag story hours has sparked a debate in conservative circles over what to do in response.
The split was highlighted, in 2019, by a clash between two conservative pundits: Sohrab Ahmari, who wanted to use the power of the state to combat what he saw as “transvestic fetishism,” and David French, who favored protecting principles of free speech even in the face of speech he found personally repugnant.
The debate overtook the pages of multiple conservative publications, social media and, at one point, an actual stage, at the Catholic University of America, where a conversation ostensibly about the future of American conservatism turned once again to drag story hours.
“As silly as this debate is, it’s also morally serious in its own way,” said Andrew Walker, an ethicist at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. “For a lot of Christians, they look and see a culture that has no moral limits.”
But starting about two years ago, in the wake of the 2020 election, the level of vitriol surrounding the events began to grow online, fueled by videos from drag performances shared widely by prominent right-wing accounts like Libs of TikTok.
“Many of these performances are quite different than they’re presented,” said Christopher Rufo, a conservative activist who helped make “critical race theory” a Republican boogeyman and has spoken out against drag shows events for children. “If you look at Texas, for example, you see things that are indefensible,” he said, such as simulated sex acts.
“You start getting into the territory where it doesn’t resemble grandmas reading children books,” Mr. Rufo said.
Even the Drag Story Hour events have proved problematic for many conservatives, who worry not just about sexuality, but also about introducing children to different ways of thinking about gender.
Michael Foster, a pastor in Ohio, said he was profoundly disturbed by video footage he saw online. One image that circulated in conservative circles — of a drag performer with elaborate horns reading to children in a library in California in 2017 — stuck with him.
Mr. Foster decided to put on a “Pastor Story Hour” last month at his local public library. About 35 children attended the first event. No one showed up to protest.
But for drag performers, the possibility of aggressive protest has grown. Those affiliated with Mr. Hamilt’s group have been trained to take safety precautions both during the events and online.
“I plunged into an animal-like freeze state,” said Panda Dulce, a drag performer, describing the moment when several Proud Boys interrupted her attempt to read to children at a library in San Lorenzo. “I was scared for the kids.”
One of the protesters had a shirt with the words “Kill Your Local Pedophile” and a picture of an AR-15-style rifle, she said. “They called me a ‘groomer,’ a ‘tranny’ and an ‘it,’ and accosted the families as to why they’d bring their children to a pedophile,” she said.
After the disruption, the reading continued — “Families, Families, Families!” by Suzanne Lang, a picture book about different kinds of families featuring zoo animals — and the men were later investigated for hate crimes, though no charges were brought, said Lt. Ray Kelly of the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office. “We ended up doubling down as a county on the drag queen story hour and doubled the number of sessions,” he said.
Parents who arrive with their children at drag events are often the targets of protesters. Gretchen Veling brought her 17-year-old son, who identifies as nonbinary, to the drag brunch in Roanoke, Texas, in August. She said she thought there might be protests but was surprised by the presence of so many armed men and women outside the door — to protect the show.
“I have never in my life seen that,” she said, but added her family felt reassured by the rainbow flags and patches and the fact that one of the de facto guards complimented her son’s earrings. The performance was “incredibly family-friendly,” she said, and a great experience for her son. “When we got back to the car, he said, ‘That was one of the best things I’ve ever been to,’” she said.
The event, in a conservative suburb of Fort Worth, was packed with people, she said.
Similarly, the North Carolina drag show on Saturday night was sold out, with more than 300 people in the audience. It was not the first drag show in the town of Southern Pines, but it had attracted more negative attention online than previous events, said Naomi Dix, the drag performer who hosted the show and asked to be referred to only by her stage name.
Still, when the lights went out, Naomi Dix, who was onstage at the time, thought it was part of the show. So did the people in the audience at first. By that point the protesters outside, whose permit expired before the show began, had gone home.
Soon, everyone inside was singing songs together, illuminating the space with cellphone lights. “My job at that point is to go out into the audience and make sure everybody felt safe,” she said.
Only after, when news spread that the outage had been deliberate, did she worry that it might have been because of her show. Investigators have not ruled out any connection. In the meantime, Naomi Dix is working on putting together a new performance, to make up for the one that was cut short.
Patricia Mazzei contributed reporting.