Activists Gear Up for ‘Terrifying’ Pride Month As Threats Increase, Brands Drop Out

Lifestyle

When Susan Steinberg, the chairman of the Mahwah Pride Coalition in Mahwah, New Jersey, began organizing a Drag Queen Story Hour for Pride Month last year, she anticipated it would be well-attended and relatively non-controversial. Though Mahwah, which has a population of about 26,000, tends to skew conservative, Steinberg says residents have largely been supportive of local Pride events. “We live in a very nice town,” says Steinberg, a realtor. “People are very friendly most of the time.”

Then someone asked Steinberg if she had seen a flier being circulated under doorsteps and among local Facebook groups, accusing the drag queen hosting it of being a “known pornographer” and claiming the event “normalized pedophilia and abuse of children.” The backlash went national: the Mahwah Drag Queen Story Hour was publicized on the far-right transphobic Twitter account Libs of TikTok, and Steinberg says the mayor of Mahwah received more than 300 calls protesting the event. She went to the police to see if she could add extra security in light of all the threats, but she says they told her she would have to pay extra. “We’re a small group,” she says. “[We] just don’t have the resources.” 

When the Drag Queen Story Hour was held on June 13, 2022, it attracted a small phalanx of protesters associated with the white supremacist movement White Lives Matter, according to the Anti-Defamation League. The protesters held megaphones and shouted epithets, an event that garnered national news coverage. “[They were] effectively terrorizing the children,” Steinberg says. “It was terrifying.” 

In the leadup to this year’s Pride Month, the experience has stayed fresh in Steinberg’s mind, and the organization has decided they will not be holding another Drag Queen Story Hour this year. “Those events are a chance for kids to hear about inclusion and they’re wonderful opportunities for parents to bring their kids to see someone who may be different,” Steinberg says. “[But] we’re not in a position to deal with the directed hate.”

The fears of the Mahwah Pride Coalition are shared by LGBTQ activist groups across the country. In the midst of an increasingly militant anti-trans and drag movement on the right — including protests, legislation, and aggressive and threatening social media campaigns — watchdog groups are closely monitoring Pride events out of concerns for potential violence. As a result, many Pride parade and drag performance organizers are recalibrating their event slates, and in some cases, spending thousands of dollars outside of their budgets to ramp up security. At the same time, controversy-shy corporate sponsors are backing away or dropping out altogether — leaving local Pride organizers to fend for themselves. 

Attacks against drag shows and the LGBTQ community in general have been mounting over the past few years, with 14 states currently considering bans on public drag performances and/or minors attending drag shows. (One such bill in Tennessee has been signed into law, though it’s currently under temporary restraining order by a federal judge.) Transgender rights are particularly under attack, with nearly 73 out of 549 proposed anti-trans bills curbing access to health care and public spaces passing in the United States this year, according to the data resource Trans Legislation Tracker

“The legislative climate is dangerous right now,” says Dan Dimant, media director for NYC Pride. “[There] is a lot more consideration these days than there used to be on safety, just given the climate we’re in.” 

As such rhetoric has heated up, attacks against members of the LGBTQ community have also been on the rise, with significant spikes during Pride month, according to data provided by GLAAD. In June 2022, there were 37 attacks against the LGBTQ community reported nationwide, a more than 900 percent increase from attacks against the LGBTQ community in the previous month. 

“The legislative climate is dangerous right now,” says one organizer. “[There] is a lot more consideration these days than there used to be on safety, just given the climate we’re in.” 

A spokesperson for GLAAD confirmed to Rolling Stone that hate groups like Patriot Front and the Proud Boys were responsible for the bulk of the attacks on Pride events nationwide last year. The Proud Boys claimed responsibility for a June 12 protest outside a Disney-themed drag brunch in Arlington, Texas culminating in a member of the group shouting anti-LGBTQ slurs and calling LGBTQ people “pedophile[s],” while Patriot Front led a plot to violently disrupt a Pride festival in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, last year, resulting in 31 people being arrested and charged with conspiracy to start a riot

Multiple federal agencies have also released public bulletins warning of increased violence against the LGBTQ community during Pride. In February, the Kansas City Regional Fusion Center, which works with local, state, and federal agencies to respond to terrorist threats in the greater Kansas City area, issued a memo assessing that threats to the LGBTQ community are “likely to persist in the Kansas City Metropolitan area in 2023,” urging law enforcement to be particularly aware of potential risks at “parades or marches, drag queen shows, and DSQH [Drag Queen Story Hours] that occur in the area.” The memo cited the mass shooting at the gay bar Club Q in Colorado Springs, which killed five people last November, as precedent. 

On hate forums such as 4chan and r/theDonald, anti-LGBTQ rhetoric has been aggressively ramping up in advance of Pride, according to data from the SITE Intelligence group. On 4chan, a user posted a meme of Pepe the frog dressed as a clown (often a catch-all reference to progressives) superimposed against a rainbow flag, with the caption “When the Honking Turns Into Screaming” and the text “Can’t wait for June in two weeks.” 

Another post on a Telegram channel associated with the Proud Boys urges users to look up “drag queen pedophile event[s]” in their area, encouraging people to start “putting pressure on” local libraries hosting Drag Queen Story Hours. Anti-extremism groups are particularly concerned about the Proud Boys, which have stated their intention to wage counter-protests at events across the country in an initiative they deem “Proud Month” in an effort to “challenge this perversion of the Nuclear Family and Gender,” according to one post on Telegram. 

Rita Katz, executive director of online terrorist threat tracking agency the SITE Intelligence Group and author of Saints and Soldiers: Inside Internet-Age Terrorism from Syria to the Capitol Siege, says that the group tracked record levels of anti-LGBTQ hate last Pride, and that they have reason to believe things are only getting worse. “LGBTQ hate has become a mass-obsession, and we are preparing for what we fear will be an even more troubling environment during Pride Month 2023,” she tells Rolling Stone, adding that the LGBTQ community has become “a — if not the — leading target of the far right,” with an emphasis on the trans and drag communities. 

In speaking to organizers of Pride events, it’s clear that many of their concerns are not necessarily with individual hate groups, but with targeting by larger social media accounts like Libs of TikTok and Gays Against Groomers, which have been instrumental in directing harassment against LGBTQ people and drag performers. 

“LGBTQ hate has become a mass-obsession,” says the director of an online terrorist threat tracking group. “We are preparing for what we fear will be an even more troubling environment during Pride Month 2023.”

“Anyone who spends enough time online and monitoring it is aware of the risks,” says Hamel, a committee member for the Boston Dyke March, citing as an example last year’s bomb threats against the Boston Children’s Hospital following a Libs of TikTok post about providers offering gender-affirming care to minors. “But for us it’s important to provide a sense of community, a space where folks can heal.”

For many event organizers, fears of violence have translated into significant changes in event programming slates. “For some reason, drag has now become worse than killing somebody with an AR-15,” says Robert McNamara, a Franklin Pride board member in Franklin, Tennessee, a small town of 85,000 south of Nashville. McNamara’s festival plans faced heated resistance last month following a protracted battle for the group’s permit application to be approved, prompting more than 300 people to pack into City Hall in protest. 

Led by members of the right-wing affiliated, “parental rights” group Moms for Liberty, a member of which referred to Franklin Pride as “not pro-religion, pro-community, pro-Christianity, pro-family or pro-America,” the community vote for the permit approval was a tie, leading the mayor to break the tie in favor of the festival. But the decision came at a cost: in order for the group to get approval by City Hall, they had to drop their drag show this year. “It’s obnoxiously absurd, the amount of energy [Moms of Liberty put] behind us [not] having a drag show,” McNamara says. 

Though none of the event organizers Rolling Stone spoke with said they’ve received a significant increase of threats in the leadup to Pride this year, some are investing more resources in security this year. Josh Coleman, the president of Central Alabama Pride, says the group has spent an unprecedented $7,000 to fence in the festival in Birmingham, $3,000 on private security, and $7,000 on city police. Attendees will also be wanded and asked to go through a metal detector and a bag search. 

Investing in security resources can be a weighty proposition for many Pride event organizers like Coleman, who stage events in relatively small cities on shoestring budgets. Dena Stanley, the cofounder of Pittsburgh Pride Revolution, says the organization has contracted with a queer-owned security agency, spending approximately 30 percent of its budget, or three times as much as it has in previous years, on increasing protection for the community. It also changed the location of its festival from a more open area to a more secure, wooded locale to deter potential snipers, “instead of being a fish in a pond for open season,” she says.

The question of whether Pride events should prominently feature a police presence has long been a contentious one within the LGBTQ community, which has faced decades of violence and harassment from police. Some events have opted not to employ formal security at all, instead using community volunteers for safety and crowd management purposes. “We don’t feel that the police protect us, and in general the Boston police department makes our attendees feel unsafe,” says Hamel, an organizer of the Boston Dyke March, citing the controversial police presence at a white supremacist-led 2019 Boston “Straight Pride” parade as an example. “A lot of people feel scared.”

In light of the far-right backlash against Anheuser-Busch for partnering with trans influencer Dylan Mulvaney for a social media campaign, some Pride event organizers also sense reticence on corporate sponsors’ part to get involved this year. “Increasingly corporations are being drawn into the fray,” says Katz, citing a “whirlwind of threats and hate” against Target for its rollout of Pride merchandise as another example. 

Stanley, the cofounder of Pittsburgh Pride Revolution, says that multiple former sponsors of the event have pulled out, with one specifically objecting to the fact that the festival will be hosting a space for kids this year. “It has been a bit of a struggle,” she concedes. “But people need to understand that there are youth who are queer as well, and they need spaces to thrive and survive.” 

Coleman says he has also noticed a reluctance on behalf of brands to get involved with the festival due to the immense controversy surrounding events like drag shows. 

“You can tell there’s been a shift from some brands,” he says, adding that two major corporate sponsors who funded Pride last year, have not yet confirmed support for the Alabama pride festival. “They haven’t outwardly said anything but you can’t help but wonder if it’s because of anti-LGBTQ legislation in the Alabama state legislature. Is this why you’re stalling or haven’t confirmed support yet?” 

“It has been a bit of a struggle,” says one organizer in Pittsburgh. “But people need to understand that there are youth who are queer as well, and they need spaces to thrive and survive.” 

Some organizers, however, emphasize that for the most part, planning Pride this year has been business as usual. “We do ourselves a disservice by thinking of this as new, or even drastically increased for that matter,” Debra Porta, executive director of Pride Northwest, tells Rolling Stone. “[The hate is] just more visible.” While Porta declined to disclose specific details about this year’s security plan, she asserts that “our community is actually most safe when we are together in large numbers, and work in collaboration to keep each other from harm.”

Ironically, the attacks on the LGBTQ community may be emboldening more people to become involved with Pride events, not less. Coleman says he has seen an increase in people outside the LGBTQ community becoming involved with Pride, as has Steinberg, who says that Mahwah Pride has attracted 50 percent more volunteers from the local high school. 

“Believe it or not, I think all the nasty politics and laws are encouraging more people who have been thinking about hosting an event to say, ‘We have to do it, we have to fight back,’” she says. “That’s the way we will fight back, with visibility, with celebration.” The goal of Pride this year, she says, will be to show the world that for the LGBTQ community, despite all outward efforts on the right to ensure otherwise, “life is OK.”

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