What’s with the rise in hate groups outside drag shows?

Organized anti-LGBTQ2S+ protestors are spewing hate outside drag shows in BC and beyond.

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      Drag performer, singer, and comedian Toddy started out in the drag king scene in Toronto five years ago. In the years since, they’ve moved to Vancouver, toured across the country, and won Season 1 of OUTtv’s Call Me Mother

      But last December, they found themself on the receiving end of a campaign of organized hate. A small but loud group of anti-LGBTQ2S+ protestors began showing up outside their drag shows in BC and Alberta, brandishing signs reading “no sex shows for children.” 

      “I’m not shy to talk to these protesters. I grew up Christian,” Toddy told the Straight, shortly after arriving home from Kelowna. They had been touring with a mix of 19+ and all-ages shows, and initially thought protestors were angry that children would be exposed to adult content.  

      They tried to explain that different types of drag shows had different kinds of content, but were shut down. Drag itself was what the protestors felt was unacceptable.

      “One group of protestors specifically, it became very clear very quickly that they were fully homophobic and transphobic,” they said. “That’s what this is about: this is just blatant transphobia and homophobia that’s done under the guise of protecting children.”

      Toddy is far from the only drag performer to have their shows met with hate in the past few months. Last summer, a family-friendly drag show at Caffe Fantastico in Victoria was cancelled after the business was threatened with violence. A drag queen story time event at Kits House in November was protested by people “chanting and yelling profanities,” according to Global News. And earlier this month, a similar volunteer-run story time event with drag queen Conni Smudge at the Coquitlam Public Library drew a number of anti-LGBTQ2S+ protestors, who were met with a large crowd of counter-protestors turning out in support. Around 200 families attended. (It was one of four drag events around the country to be protested that weekend.)

      In an email, Samantha Wink, manager of marketing and communications at the Coquitlam Public Library’s Poirier branch, told the Straight, “Coquitlam Public Library is a trusted and welcoming institution, dedicated to providing innovative spaces and services that promote learning and knowledge, and that engage all of Coquitlam’s diverse communities.”

      Elizabeth Simons, deputy director of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network, said in a phone interview that many of the anti-LGBTQ2S+ protesters were likely linked to other right-wing networks. 

      “If you look at Coquitlam last weekend, there was lots of footage and images of what the protestors were wearing,” she said. Some were wearing “skulls with Canadian kind of imagery” and promoted language around “being united and freedom.” 

      “That’s all part of the populism, convoy, COVID conspiracy movement,” Simons said. “We’re seeing that across Canada, where basically every single event is being, if not organized by, attended by the same [groups of] people.”

      It’s difficult to point to any single factor as causing the surge in anti-LGBTQ2S+ hate. Simons said Canadian anti-LGBTQ2S+ sentiment is a mix of the UK playbook, where trans people are framed as an affront to women’s rights; and the US’s more religion-focused attacks against queer and trans people that are hawked by the aggressively anti-LGBTQ2S+ social media account Libs of TikTok (Chaya Raichik) and Fox News host Tucker Carlson. The attacks against drag shows come from a deliberate right-wing conflation of drag with being trans; Toddy said protestors clearly saw all kinds of gender non-conformity as “a sexual thing.” 

      Part of it is also the way right-wing organizations “piggy-back” on each other, Simons said, where they gravitate towards whatever the flashpoint issue of the day is. In 2017, it was anti-Islamophobia motion 103; in 2018 it was Yellow Vests and Western alienation rhetoric; and in 2020 it was COVID conspiracism. Combined with the 2022 convoy, which laundered a variety of far-right talking points into the public sphere, and you end up with what Simons described as “this horrible, hateful ouroboros of shit.”

      Toddy said that the harassment they faced at drag shows was definitely organized, as the same people often showed up to protest multiple shows.

      “Literally two days ago, our show was protested. We also had a group that pretty much followed us through a tour that I did through BC and Alberta,” Toddy said. “There’s a network of them that send quite a lot of personal information to different groups … to have our shows protested.” 

      However, they noted that their specific harassers seemed separate from the anti-vax, Freedom Conovoy type of organizing spaces, showing that there is by no means a consensus on anti-LGBTQ2S+ views, even in more right-wing or libertarian networks in Canada. 

      “When we did our Calgary show, [the protestors] posted in the like, freedom rally group and the freedom rally group shut them down really hard,” Toddy said. “I was just told about this. But I really appreciated that. And this doesn't have to be like a left wing/right wing thing … If you're fighting for freedom, and you believe in that, then we [LGBTQ2S+ people] should be able to live our own truths as well.”

      Toddy said that though the protests were “absurd,” the presence of people so actively attacking the LGBTQ2S+ community and drag shows was “draining.”

      “Everyone’s just started hiring extra security, making sure that we are safe and our audience is safe,” they said. “I talk about this in a light-hearted way, because you have to kind of laugh about it. But what people are going through right now is actually really serious, and it’s really scary.”

      While Simons said she had heard of some drag performers not being invited back after their events were protested, the importance of supporting drag shows—and supporting the LGBTQ2S+ community against the actions of a tiny minority—remains important. 

      “The defenses that have been popping up have been really, really great,” she said. It’s important “that organizations like libraries keep these things going and try to normalize it, because there’s no reason why they should stop.”

      For Coquitlam Library’s part, Wink said the event elicited nothing but glowing feedback from attendees. 

      “Comments to staff after the event included thanks for organizing the event, happiness that they could attend, and exclamations on how much fun their children had,” Wink said. “We would be happy to host another drag story time in the future.”