The far-right strategy of menacing LGBTQ gatherings—particularly drag-queen events—took shape this summer, fueled by “groomer” rhetoric designed to not just to threaten but to engender stochastic terrorism, and has been ongoing, finally culminating in the mass shooting at a queer club in Colorado Springs last month.
A November report by the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED) showed that there have been more than 17 anti-LGTBQ+ protests in Texas in 2022—a number that does not include events that were canceled or delayed due to threats by anti-LGBTQ+ extremists.
“While coordinated organizing against the LGBT+ community has not been a primary driver of far-right militia and militant social movement activity in recent years, this pattern has changed significantly in 2022,” ACLED reported. “Far-right militias and militant social movements like the Proud Boys and Patriot Front have increased their engagement in anti-LGBT+ demonstrations by over three times this year, from 16 events in 2021 to 52 events as of mid-November 2022.”
The Texas events had both attracted vows from far-right elements to protest when they were announced. In San Antonio, a Christmas-themed drag show at the Aztec Theatre attracted several dozen heavily armed members of the right-wing extremist militia This Is Texas Freedom Force (TITFF)—and a crowd of counterprotesters there to defend the show, numbering in the hundreds. Some of them were armed as well.
The TITFF protesters were joined by members of the San Antonio Family Association, a far-right religious activist group that opposes all forms of birth control. The show they were protesting, “A Drag Queen Christmas,” is a touring performance that includes performers who have featured in RuPaul’s Drag Race, and is visiting 36 cities. It wasn't marketed as an all-ages or children's event, but it was technically open to all ages.
"Tonight, we're to stand up against underage kids being allowed into drag shows," TITFF President Brandon Burkhart told the San Antonio Current. "That being said, we're also working with [Republican] State Rep. Bryan Slaton with a bill that will ban underage kids from these drag shows. So, I wanted our guys to be out here tonight and get first-hand knowledge because they're going to be testifying in front of the Senate and the House on this bill, and I want them to have first-hand knowledge of what happens at these drag shows."
The militiamen and their supporters were significantly outnumbered and outgunned by a coalition of community members that included armed members of Veterans for Equality and several John Brown Gun. After it became clear that the militiamen weren’t interested in confronting the large crowd of counterprotesters, the gathering turned into a raucous party.
"It's important that all of our community, the LGBTQ community, the drag community, and all marginalized communities know that they have a voice on the dais and that they know they are going to have people out here with them when they're faced with a task," said District 2 Councilman Jalen McKee-Rodriguez, who joined the counterprotesters.
"We want to make sure that everybody knows that we are here for them, they are not alone, and they are loved," said Gen Peña, leader of the Austin-based Veterans for Equality.
Benjamin Clodfelter, a member of Veterans for Equality, came armed with a rifle. "I know that they use guns to try to intimidate people on the left, and they can’t do that if we’re also armed," he explained. "I’m not here to try to shoot anybody or anything like that, but if they want to try to intimidate, well, we can stand up to it, and to me, this is an expression of that."
Robert Salcido Jr., executive director of the Pride Center San Antonio, said the recent attacks on drag queens were not about the drag queens themselves but about the LBGTQ community as a whole and their long fight for equality under the law and civil rights.
“Then when we won marriage equality, they went after trans folks and then trans youth, and now they’re bringing drag queens into the conversation,” he said. “Make no mistake that this is not about drag queens. This is about the LGBTQ+ community, and their disdain with us or their dissatisfaction with us as a community, trying to further erase us from the community.”
Four days later, in Grand Prairie, when “A Drag Queen Christmas” was scheduled for the Texas Trust CU Theatre, the planned protest attracted more than just anti-LGBTQ activists. As Steven Monacelli reported for The Texas Observer, the gathering outside the theater featured a wide-ranging gamut of the far right: Christian nationalists, neofascist Patriot Front marchers, and open neo-Nazis who threw up stiff-armed salutes, carried banners with swastikas and Totenkopf death’s heads. One protester wearing a swastika patch also had a handgun visibly sticking out of his pants pocket.
Once again, they were badly outnumbered by a community defense coalition that again included armed John Brown Gun Club members, as well as the Party for Socialism and Liberation. Grand Prairie SWAT police were deployed to the scene.
A performer in the Christmas drag show, Brooke Lynn Hytes, quipped on Twitter: “If you don’t have 150 armed protesters, and a SWAT team on the roof, outside your show are you even doing Drag?”
Both of the Texas protests were organized by Protect Texas Kids (PTK), an anti-LGTBQ group that began organizing protests this summer at drag shows, wielding the incendiary “groomer” rhetoric. Those protests, including one in Dallas, also attracted a range of white nationalists and other hate groups. The organization’s leader, a self-described “Christian fascist” named Kelly Neidert, has called for “rounding up” people who attend Pride events.
As Monacelli observes, “the increasingly common presence of armed fascists outside of spaces hosting queer expression is something that’s difficult to ignore”:
While Neidert has deflected responsibility by saying she doesn’t invite the neo-Nazis to her events, it’s clear her rhetoric has inspired such extremist groups to show up. In Grand Prairie, members of the Aryan Freedom Network, a neo-Nazi group with roots in Texas who have shown up outside multiple drag shows, carried signs that looked a lot like those carried by the non-Nazi protesters. Neidert has yet to denounce other far-right groups who show up regularly to her protests, such as the Proud Boys—a neofascist street gang with chapters across the country whose leaders are currently in trial facing seditious conspiracy charges. Toward the end of the protest in Grand Prairie, Neidert was seen speaking with what appeared to be a member of Patriot Front.
The protest in Boise had been planned for the better part of a month. It was largely spearheaded by the Idaho Liberty Dogs, a Boise-area group that has been involved in protests at Pride events and other ostensibly liberal causes, and reportedly has connections inside local police departments. The Liberty Dogs’ Facebook account began publicizing a planned performance called “Drag Santa” being held as a fundraiser at the Idaho Botanical Gardens in late November.
“Let them know you will NOT be giving them your business both this season or at all in the future if they move forward with this event against children,” the post read. “If this event is not canceled, there is a group that will be showing up to protest.”
Their followers began calling the garden’s offices and threatening the business. Comments on the Liberty Dogs’ Facebook page called for protesters to arm themselves, while others shamed parents who might bring their child to the event.
"Call the Idaho Botanical Garden and demand them to cancel Drag Santa for their family event," states the Facebook page. "We're asking all concerned residents, parents, grandparents and churches, to please show up December 18 from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. and stand up against the sexualization of children and for protecting their innocence. If people continue to be silent, the worst is yet to come."
A reporter for KTVB-TV contacted a local Proud Boys member who vowed to be out there. In an email, a spokesman for the Boise chapter said that not only his group would be protesting at the garden, but so would nine other chapters from Idaho, Utah, Oregon, and Washington.
"Drag shows are not the issue," stated the email. "Children at or in drag shows are the issue."
A coalition of Boise community activists, however, also organized a large counterprotest for the Sunday event. In response to the protest, there are other organizations that are stepping up to protest the protest. Kimra Luna, Co-founder of Idaho Abortion Rights said that the Idaho Liberty Dogs had done this at numerous events over the past few years.
"Our plan of action is to do whatever we can to keep those groups that want to cause disruption away from the event," Luna said. "We will be festive, other groups are joining us, and we'll have lights and wings, and we will be a wall to protect people from seeing the hateful protestors."
And when the day rolled around—and it was cold, blowing, and snowy—they formed a large contingent of supporters outside the botanical gardens. However, none of the threatened Proud Boys managed to appear.
The far right, including Idaho Liberty Dogs, tried to spin their failure as a stunt intended to make “leftists” freeze in the cold. White nationalist Dave Reilly, one of the people who promoted the protest, claimed at his faux-news website that it was all a stunt: “However, these claims were false, and were designed as a ruse, to trick a bunch of mentally ill left-wing radicals into standing out in the cold for hours on end.”
That doesn’t explain, however, why his ally—right-wing provocateur David Pettinger, most recently seen trying to pose as a reporter during a press conference about Boise’s white-supremacist police captain—in fact, showed up to record the protest and found himself apparently alone, so he ended up just recording the counterprotesters and handing that content over to Reilly.
Nor does it explain why, afterward, members of Ammon Bundy’s claque of “Patriots” began harassing the Idaho Liberty Dogs in their Telegram channel, mocking them for their failure to shut down the drag show. One of the Liberty Dogs supporters retorted defensively to the Bundy backers: “Until you come back with your own protest organized and attended, you’re irrelevant. … It has nothing to do with Bundy except his groupies seem to be super upset ILD wasn’t there.”
Even if it was intended as a ruse, though, it demonstrated the power of community support for LGBTQ people in the face of fascist thuggery. “People showed up in record numbers, and no one regrets it, though,” observed Redoubt Antifascists.
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