In May, drag performer Mx. Tara Byte showed up at bbgb, a children’s bookstore in Richmond, Virginia, to read picture books to kids, play games, and help children with crafts projects. Like other drag queen story hours at libraries and bookshops around the country, it was a family-friend event with age-appropriate activities — which is why the staff at bbgb was surprised to see the store become a target just months later.
“That was the first time we received hate and backlash from groups in the public,” Angie Zhao, the store’s events coordinator, said of preparing for the store’s Halloween-themed story time. “It was really jarring for us. We were getting hateful messages.”
In the preceding months, right-wing culture warriors had become increasingly obsessed with banning books with LGBTQ themes from schools and libraries, claiming they were actually pornography, and falsely smearing drag queens as people who engage in child sexual abuse. The result has been an increase in protests, threats and attacks, and drag queen story hour fun now usually comes with a side of security concerns and preparation.
The shop followed guidelines from the national Drag Queen Story Hour organization: Don’t engage with hate messages. Make sure you know your exits. Get the support from your community.
“The rule of thumb is really to have no engagement at any level,” Zhao said. “It’s not even worth it, but there are a few times where you have the urge to write back.”
Protesters showed up to the Halloween story hour, and police monitored the situation. Bookstore staff consider themselves lucky that the hateful messages didn’t escalate to violence.
“There was a lot of talk, but not a lot of follow-through,” said Jill Stefanovich, the store’s owner. “They said stuff like, ‘Let’s send 200 real men to shut this place down,’ ‘You’re grooming kids,’ and ‘You’re reading pornography to kids.’”
That kind of rhetoric has become common in many areas, and some Republican candidates even made homophobia and transphobia cornerstones of their platforms ahead of this year’s midterm elections — and right-wing pundits and conservative politicians haven’t dialed down their anti-LGBTQ commentary in the weeks after a mass shooting at Club Q, an LGBTQ nightclub in Colorado, left five people dead.
Popular conservative YouTuber Matt Walsh blamed the victims by falsely claiming the violence happened because they’d been harming kids. And when discussing the shooting, Fox News’ Tucker Carlson argued that doctors who perform gender-affirming health care are abusing children.
Just days after the attack, Herschel Walker — the GOP Senate candidate in Georgia who is facing a runoff against Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock — released an ad featuring Riley Gaines, a former college athlete who is well known in Republican circles for complaining about having to compete against Lia Thomas, a transgender swimmer. In the ad, Walker said it was “unfair” and “wrong.” Neither Gaines nor Thomas are from Georgia.
The Proud Boys, a far-right extremist group, have been disrupting family-focused drag events all year, and the Club Q shooting hasn’t deterred them. The group set their sights on a Holi-drag story time planned by a school in Ohio that was supposed to take place over the weekend. The group said the event was going to be “wild,” which Right Wing Watch noted is likely a reference to former President Donald Trump’s tweet about his rally that preceded the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
Event organizers initially said in a statement that they were getting support from that community and had a safety plan, but ended up canceling the story hour on Saturday morning because of a dispute over security. Dozens of far-right protesters still showed up. Many of them wore masks, tactical gear, and carried guns. One witness even recorded some of the extremists doing a Nazi salute.
It wasn’t the only drag queen story hour event that was protested over the weekend. In New York, a Staten Island storytime proceeded despite the protests. And in Lakeland, Florida, right-wing protesters showed up to a charity event featuring drag queens with demeaning signs and Nazi flags.
The next drag queen story hour at bbgb is scheduled for Dec. 17. Stefanovich and Zhao haven’t gotten any hateful messages yet — but they also haven’t begun publicizing the event. They’re prepared for attacks once they do, especially since they’re already on the radar of conservative groups in the area, but they also plan to move forward with the storytime if they can.
“Exposing kids to people that are different, or maybe are the same, is so important to us,” Stefanovich said. “We believe these books and experiences will transform children.”