This article is in collaboration with Kent Wired.
A total of 14 bills have been introduced across eight states targeting drag shows. Although no bill has been introduced in Ohio, protests outside drag events have increased – with two extreme situations occurring in April.
The most recent anti-drag protest in Ohio occurred in the days leading up to the drag brunch and story hour events hosted by the Chesterland Community Church in Geauga County.
The church held its first Drag Queen Story Hour April 1 with two drag queen brunches at Element 41 in Chardon preceding the event for adults 18 and older.
Jess Peacock, pastor of the Chesterland Community Church, said the church has been open and affirming for decades.
“The openness to the LGBTQ+ community has always been sort of part of the DNA of this church,” they said.
Protestors lined the street outside the restaurant carrying signs and shouting their opposition to drag brunch through a megaphone. Not only were there local protestors, but it also drew crowds from the Patriot Front, a white nationalist group.
Supporters of the drag events also gathered to rally in a counter protest outside the brunch.
As the weather changed and became rainy, protestors began to leave the scene – but many supporters stayed. Even with the crowds, both sides remained peaceful throughout the morning and early afternoon.
This attitude shifted a few hours later with the Drag Queen Story Hour, an event for drag queens to read and share stories with children.
Peacock said the organizers were prepared for opposition with high levels of security that came after an attack the week before.
“We fully expected the hate mail, the calls, stuff like that, but the violence aspect and the intensity of the rhetoric with the voicemails and the emails, that took us by surprise,” said Peacock, “I didn’t expect this kind of vile rhetoric for doing a couple of private ticketed events.”
Aimenn Penny, 20, from Alliance attacked the church with a Molotov cocktail March 24. The attack resulted in damaged property and burn marks along the exterior of the church.
“Fortunately it was surfacey cursory damage, but the intent wasn’t surfacey,” Peacock said, “Even though we were already working on security at that point, it went into overdrive. About a week out where we’re like, ‘okay, now, we’re looking at actual physical violence against us as a community.’”
Monica Mod, one of the drag performers at Chesterland, spoke on the anxiety the attack caused.
“There were times it came across my mind, if this is a good idea for me to go to because I didn’t know how safe it was going to be,” she said.
Sam Culver, a junior Kent State communications student and drag performer with the name Comatose Why, expressed the concern they felt after the attack.
“I remember I was just at work on my break, and I got a text from [Monica] that someone attempted to burn down the church with Molotov cocktails, which is when I kind of started to fear for the lives of my friends that were not only in this event, but like ticket purchasers, the children that this was marketed to,” Culver said. “This has gotten severe and it’s happening in my backyard. These are people that I love and I care for and obviously I don’t want them to get hurt.”
Penny was charged March 31 with two counts related to the attempted arson attack. He was identified as a member of White Lives Matter, Ohio, a group defined by FBI special agent Lane Thorum in Penny’s charging affidavit as having racist, homophobic and pro-Nazi ideologies.
According to the affidavit, police found “a hand-written manifesto that contained ideological statements, a Nazi flag, Nazi memorabilia, a White Lives Matter of Ohio t-shirt, a gas mask, multiple rolls of blue painters tape and gas cans” in Penny’s residence.
During his interview with the FBI following the attempted arson, Penny admitted to using the Molotov cocktails at the church with “the intent to burn the structure.” He said he was trying to “protect children and stop the drag show event” and “that he would have felt better if the Molotov cocktails were more effective and burned the entire church to the ground.”
Penny faces up to 20 years in prison.
“When I saw the burn marks, it was infuriating, and fueled my desire to make sure that this event still went on,” Peacock said. “I don’t easily give in to threats or intimidation. For me, that was the motivation to keep going.”
Monica Mod said despite the horror and terror felt from the protests and violence, she knew it was important to still hold the event.
We could not cancel it unless there was a real serious threat because if we let these people… get their way, what is that going to say about all the other events that are happening?” she said. “So it was very important that we stood our ground and no matter what happened, we were going to go on with the show.”
The Chesterland Police Department had issued a press release urging the church to cancel the event in order to “protect all involved, the children attending, and the residents of Chester Township.” The department felt, based on received intelligence, there was a “realistic threat that organized protests and counter-protests could result in violence.”
The original Facebook post of the press release is no longer available.
“We felt very undermined by that because we tried having a conversation with them [Chesterland Police Department] the day before and they never got back to us,” Peacock said.
The church responded 30 minutes later with its own statement, reassuring people that the event will still be held “despite these vile threats from hate groups.”
Chesterland Community Church urged community members without tickets for the event to stay home for their safety, saying the church is “grateful for the support but we do not want anyone to be harmed by potentially violent hate groups.”
Peacock also shared their confidence in their security plan.
“We were always willing to cancel if we felt that there was an actionable reason for us to cancel,” Peacock said, “what we were not prepared to do was cancel out of just fear.”
Peacock added there were no notifications of specific threats made to the organizers or the church.
Security for the event was coordinated by Mallory McMaster, President and CEO at the Fairmount Group, a marketing and communications firm. She told the Guardian it cost around $20,000. The story hour saw barricades, metal detectors and bomb-sniffing dogs.
Monica Mod described the level of security taken as unlike anything she had ever seen. When it was time for the performers to move locations, the waiting room at Element 41 filled with escorts and cameras.
“It went from this quiet room to just the theme for the rest of the day, which was just overstimulation of the amount of people and things that were going on,” Mod said.
She said the roads and parking lots surrounding the church were all closed and blocked off so there was no place protestors could go. Bomb-sniffing dogs also searched each car before it entered the church parking lot.
”We’re not going to spare any expense on keeping people safe,” Peacock said. “Some might say we went overboard but our church was attempted to be burned down. So overboard was just fine for us.”
Despite the protests and violence, more than 100 residents still gathered to hear the stories.
“We weren’t doing this to make a statement,” Peacock said.“We were doing this because we thought there would be people in the area who wanted to just take part in these. It wasn’t to make a statement, it wasn’t to become social justice warriors or anything like that. We just wanted to have some fun.”
Following the events, Culver took to social media to further share what happened.
“I want to blow this open,” they said. “I was like I want to show every single person that follows me, I want to show everyone on this campus that this is happening an hour away from us. We are people that are under attack from legislation and bans. We need to do everything in our power to push back on that.”
Protestors gathered in opposition to a Drag Queen Story Hour in Wadsworth March 11.
The event, titled the “Rock-n-Roll Humanist Drag Queen Story Hour,” was advertised as a show for all ages. Aaron and Krista Jo Reed hosted the event as an “entirely self-promoted charity event” meant to be “an epic celebration of life and love and diversity and hope.”
Reed attributed the event’s creation to inclusivity. “I was forced to leave my last charity because of rampant transphobia from the members and the founder, and I very publicly resigned,” he said. “This is the kind of event I always wanted to throw but they would never let me, and it was the kind of event that was important at the time. This is where everybody’s focus is. It’s the frontline of the civil rights struggle.”
The event was to promote a children’s book, Elle the Humanist, written by a nine-year-old girl and her father “who were tired of answering all the commonly asked questions about being the only humanists in a very conservative town.”
Following the reading, there was a “a short Rock-n-Roll drag celebration performance” at the city’s Memorial Park.
Neo-Nazis, White Lives Matter protestors, and members of the Proud Boys and Patriot Front, both of which are white supremacist groups, swarmed the park.
“It was striking,” Reed said. “It was terrifying for a lot of people.”
According to Them, members of the neo-Nazi group Blood Tribe, wore red sweaters and carried flags with swastikas. They chanted “Pedophiles get the rope,” “F*gs go home,” and “Sieg Heil,” with a one-armed salute.
Penny was one of the protestors present in Wadsworth prior to the attack in Chardon. Thorum detailed in the affidavit how Penny traveled there prior to March 11 to distribute propaganda pamphlets. He was then identified by Wadsworth Police as a protestor present at the story hour.
Members of the White Lives Matter, Ohio, which Penny was a part of, were at the event “carrying swastika flags and shouting racial and homophobic slurs and ‘Heil Hitler.’”
The protests were captured by documentarian Ford Fischer on Twitter.
A call and response heard was “Weimar conditions, Weimar solution.”
The “Weimar Republic” is the name for the German government from 1918 to 1933, the time between the end of the Imperial period and the start of Nazi Germany. It was a time of political turmoil and violence, economic hardship, and also new social freedoms and vibrant artistic movements,” according to the Holocaust Encyclopedia. This period fought for sexual freedom – including the freedom LGBTQ+ people. These challenges assisted in Hitler’s rise to power.
There were numerous reports of violence between protestors and supporters of the events. Fischer captured video of a supporter deploying mace on a protester in full chain mail.
The story hour event exceeded 200 attendees – and protestors vastly outnumbered supporters. Wadsworth Police Chief Dan Chafin told The Akron Beacon Journal (ABJ) the event continued as planned but “the situation remained volatile from start to finish.” Protestors shouted racial and homophobic slurs. Guests of the event, including parents and children, were followed by protesters in and out of the event.
In a Facebook post, Reed wrote to supporters that the protestors “destroyed a couple of the organizers’ cars…including ours.”
By the end of the four-hour event, two people were charged with misdemeanor disorderly conduct and arrested after use of pepper spray and a flag pole as a weapon and a protester who scared witnesses when he pointed a gun at a crowd. The ABJ later clarified the weapon was a pepper spray gun and not designed to shoot bullets.
“There were just Nazis surrounding us on all sides,” said Reed. He said the local Christian groups stood next to them and yelled slurs.
Inside the gazebo, where the event took place, things went well.
“We absolutely rocked the event itself,” Reed said, “I have to say that I was amazed by the fortitude of the people that showed. It took a whole lot of guts to go through that, especially with your kids.”
As part of the event, Reed and his wife donated a BMX bike and scooter for a raffle. A local 10-year-old transgender girl won the prizes.
“Her dad messaged me and said it was the first time he’d seen her smile in such a long time, and I was like that made it worth it right there,” Reed said.
Reed’s friends started a GoFundMe to help support car expenses. Reed shared his plans to use any leftover funds to start a charity, Equality Rocks.
The event was controversial from the start. Reed said three days of threats, the sponsors, venue, talent, and charity receiving the donations backed out, leaving him with “a month to find new everything.”
Reed obtained a permit to host the event and use sound equipment in the park but Wadsworth City Council President Bob Thurber said in a statement that it had “been promoted in a manner harmful to the city.”
“I had to get a permit, that they fought until almost the last minute, for my sound equipment,” said Reed, “and they allowed the Nazis to blare sirens and bull horns and all kinds of stuff all around without a permit.”
Prior to the event, the city of Wadsworth released a statement saying “after much discussion and legal review, we have no choice but to let the event take place.”
Thurber wrote in his statement, “I will be asking Wadsworth City Council to consider legislation that would ban adult oriented performances held on city property with minors in attendance.”
Reed said he held the event in a public space after a private venue denied it. The event was criticized on social media because it was directed towards children.
Reed told the ABJ the event was all made appropriate for kids. He felt the opposition was using the event for political gain, and he alleged that Thurber, who is running for mayor, worked with Gary Fox, a local businessman and pastor, to intentionally create controversy around the story hour event. Reed said he thought this was done so Thurber could set himself apart from the current conservative mayor, Robin Laubaugh.
Reed spoke at a city council meeting following the event, where he was removed for “coarse language.” After being removed, he allegedly took down the prisoner of war flag and flew the Ally Pride Flag on the pole outside City Hall.
“Bob Thurber threw me out of the city council meeting for using the word ‘bullshit’ to reference what he had done to my family,” Reed said. “I walked outside and raised the Allied flag on the city pole and they charged me with criminal mischief for doing that.”
He was cited and summoned because the POW flag is considered city property. Reed pleaded not-guilty to the charge of criminal mischief, according to the Medina Gazette.
Thurber did not respond to calls or emails asking for a statement.
Thurber told the ABJ his consideration for legislation would wait until after the event. Many of the complaints surrounding the event were on the appropriateness of drag story hours for children.
“I would like city council to consider whether or not adult-type entertainment that involves children (is) appropriate in Ohio,” he said.
Thurber referenced the recent limits placed in Tennessee to determine what shows can be performed with children in the audience.
On March 2, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee signed a bill that would prohibit “male or female impersonators who provide entertainment that appeals to a prurient interest” from performing on public property or anywhere a minor could be present. It also prohibits the impersonators from happening within 1,000 feet of schools, public parks or places of worship.
The Department of Justice defines “prurient interest” as “a shameful or morbid interest in nudity, sex or excretion.”
The bill avoids defining the performances as “drag” and instead uses “adult cabaret performances.” The broad definition allows for the interpretation that anyone perceived to be performing in a non adult-only venue as a gender different from the one they are assigned at birth could be subject to a misdemeanor charge on the first offense and a felony on the second.
Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson who drafted the bill told NPR on March 6, “just as current law prohibits strip clubs from admitting children, this legislation would also prohibit sexually suggestive drag shows from being performed on public property, or on any non-age-restricted private property where a minor could be present.”
Luke Rathbone, a senior Kent State fashion design student and drag artist who performs as Evelyn DeVille, shared his opinion on the bans.
“Honestly, I had a really hard time wrapping my head around this because it is all so absurd on so many different levels,” Rathbone said. “There is no way to ban drag. It’s going to happen either way. Criminalizing it isn’t going to do anything. It hasn’t done anything in the past. It’s still here.”
Judge Thomas Parker, a federal judge in Tennessee, put a temporary block on the bill, according to NBC News. He wrote to NBC, “If Tennessee wishes to exercise its police power in restricting speech it considers obscene, it must do so within the constraints and framework of the United States Constitution.”
Tennessee is the first state in the U.S. to have a restriction on drag performances, but other states are poised to follow suit, with proposals from states including Texas, West Virginia, Nebraska and South Carolina featuring similar measures to restrict drag performances.
“I see it [drag bans] as just a big distraction – It’s just a way for certain political groups to pull focus from actual problems,” Rathbone said. “I’m just a little crossdresser. I like to put on wigs and wear dresses. But with that comes a big political movement, whether I want it or not.”
Some opposition to the Drag Queen Story Hours came from a defense of the children attendees.
Johnson celebrated the passing of the Tennessee bill on Twitter saying, “This bill gives confidence to parents that they can take their kids to a public or private show and will not be blindsided by a sexualized performance.”
Peacock objected to that stance.
“The goal here is it’s not about the children, they don’t give a crap about the children,” they said. “If they gave a crap about the children, they wouldn’t have tried to firebomb a church that has a preschool in it. If they cared about the children, they wouldn’t have threatened the events that children were going to be at.”
Culver said they do not think there is anything bad about Drag Queen Story Hours events. “When I was a volunteer at a Safety Town, I would read books to kids all the time,” Culver said. Safety Town is a children’s program set in a replica town designed to teach kids about fire, traffic and water safety. “The only thing that changed is how I look. The only thing that changes with these people is we want to dress up really pretty, and we want to put on big wigs and fun makeup, and we want to look beautiful.”
Many people are worried about the impact laws like the Tennessee drag ban could have on the transgender community. Oneconcern arises over the enforcement of the law and how police may determine what is drag, since the bill’s language is so broad.
Advocates worry trans people may be falsely labeled as “male or female impersonators.”
“It’s not that I’m not worried about drag being banned, because I can take off my drag, but trans people are trying to live every single day in their truth and without that, that’s horrifying,” Rathbone said.
Amanda Stayer is Editor in Chief of Fusion Magazine. Contact her at [email protected].