Kathryn Vargas wasn’t sure whether she would take her kids to the Pride Month Family Storytime event on Saturday at a public library in McKinney, Texas, a suburb north of Dallas.
The straight mom of three young boys, who lives in nearby Plano, wants to raise her children to be open-minded and accepting, but having seen similar Pride events become targets for confrontation around the country she had some reservations. There was already chatter of protesters showing up to this event, and with her firefighter husband at work, it would just be her with the kids.
Still, she felt compelled.
“We decided that sometimes being an ally is just showing up,” Vargas said. “And so we decided that we would still show up and that it was important.”
But when she arrived at the Roy and Helen Hall Library, she was greeted by an unexpected sight: a huge group of counterprotesters had completely outnumbered the right-wing demonstrators.
Wearing Pride rainbows and carrying signs to support the library and the LGBTQ community, these counterprotesters were on a mission to drown out the hate and make those attending feel welcome.
“The word went out on the internet…and people showed up,” said Michael Phillips, a historian and senior research fellow at Southern Methodist University, who was among the counterprotesters. “It was pretty well organized to make sure that the families bringing their children to this event weren't harassed, weren’t harangued — basically to form a human shield.”
“We formed a corridor that families could pass through,” Phillips added.
As an unusual Pride Month draws to an end, LGBTQ activists around the country have been disturbed by an increase in political and legislative attacks on the community, which have in turn compelled some on the far right to attend Pride events in order to intimidate people or cause mayhem.
On June 12, Idaho police arrested 31 white nationalists — including seven from Texas — in Coeur d'Alene, accusing them of seeking to disrupt a Pride event in a city park. On the same day in Alameda County, California, Proud Boys interrupted a Drag Queen Story Hour at a Bay Area library, shouting anti-gay and anti-transgender slurs. One of the men was wearing a T-shirt with an image of an AR-15 and the text "Kill your local pedophile." And just this weekend in Sparks, Nevada, Proud Boys also turned out to protest at a Drag Queen Story Hour event at a library on Sunday. Police were on scene, but had reportedly left by the time one of the men approached the library while carrying a gun, sending counterprotesters fleeing inside.
Texas has been a hotbed for much of the anti-gay sentiment. In February, Gov. Greg Abbott ordered state workers to investigate families who provide gender-affirming care for their trans children as potential child abusers — however, this has been temporarily blocked by state courts. Abbott has also said he intends to prioritize a Texas version of Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which would restrict mentions of LGBTQ topics in classrooms. Just this month, Abbott’s Republican Party in Texas inserted anti-gay language into their official platform, calling homosexuality an “abnormal lifestyle choice” and opposing any special legal status for LGBTQ people or penalties for people who oppose the community, among other things.
“We are the Republican Party of Texas, not the Westboro Baptist Church,” one Republican delegate who opposed the changes told the crowd before he was met with boos.
Multiple LGBTQ events have also been targeted in the Dallas area by right-wing extremists, as Salon reported last week. These have included a family drag show at a local gay bar, an adults-only drag brunch, and a city council hearing that had passed a proclamation in support of Pride Month. A couple in McKinney have also called on school officials to remove almost 300 books they believe do not “promote a healthy lifestyle.”
Saturday’s library event in McKinney came one day after another Pride event at a local clothing store was also threatened by protesters.
Denise Lessard, a spokesperson for the city of McKinney, told BuzzFeed News the Pride Month Storytime was in keeping with other library events that celebrate the community’s diversity. “In honor of Pride Month each year, we display age-appropriate literature throughout the library and host programming that celebrates our LGBTQIA+ community,” Lessard said. “Our programs are clearly marketed so residents can choose what activities they want to attend. All are welcome.”
Patrick Cloutier, a McKinney City council member at large, told BuzzFeed News he had apprehensions about the books that would be read at the event, so had visited the library on Friday to read them for himself. Objecting to mentions of the words “queer” and “drag queen,” he said he let other council members know he was concerned and wouldn’t want his 2-year-old granddaughter exposed to such things.
But attending himself on Saturday, Cloutier said he was pleasantly surprised. The event was held in a room that wouldn’t disturb other patrons who hadn’t bought tickets or who didn’t want to hear the readings. And the woman who read the books — who was not a drag performer — was engaging and made the children smile, Cloutier said.
“I was appreciative that people who were voluntarily there got what they wanted and what they were looking for,” Cloutier said. “The way she engaged the kids and the words that came out of her mouth, I saw nothing wrong with when I was in there.”
But outside, protesters had gathered. Initially, there had been a mix of people wearing Trump gear or religious insignia. Soon, suspected members of the Proud Boys and Three Percenters hate groups showed up, some armed and wearing body armor, others wearing face coverings from rest stop chain Buc-ee's that has become part of the Proud Boys uniform.
“It was clear that they were there to intimidate, to scare,” said Jesse Ringness, a documentary journalist in nearby Frisco who is running for state office as a Democrat.
Sisters Josie and Mallie, who asked that their last names not be published out of fear they might be targeted, said the militia members soon began making crude and hateful comments in attempts to agitate the counterprotesters.
“They started kind of saying different things, calling us groomers, pedophiles. They were fat-shaming people, they were calling other women whores and just horrible things,” Josie said. “You could tell that they wanted to incite some type of violence. They just wanted to make us get angry so they could have something to use against us.”
“I was just thinking about how scared little tiny kids would be seeing masked people with big vests on wearing black,” Mallie said. “Like, that would be scary, just walking out in the library.”
Four counterprotesters who spoke with BuzzFeed News said they purposefully tried not to pay any heed to the rhetoric, for fear of inflaming the situation. Instead, their goal was to try to counteract the hate with love.
“When the kids started walking out from Pride storytime, they were booing them and kind of yelling different comments at them. So we just kind of cheered louder,” Josie said. “And people walked in front of the kids so they wouldn't see them.”
“It wasn't about fighting the other side. It wasn't about getting some viral clip. It was 100% about supporting those that were there for a free public event,” Ringness said. “And it's really disheartening to see a public library youth event for families drawing out armed militiamen. What did those armed militiamen expect to do with guns and pepper spray? I don't understand.”
Given the expected protesters, officers were on hand to supervise, said McKinney Police Department spokesperson Carla Marion Reeves: “We were not called to the scene, but were nearby, monitoring and keeping an eye on things to make sure the event was peaceful.”
There were no arrests, but police issued one citation for assault by contact to someone who pushed another person — an incident that appeared to be caught on camera and shared by Steven Monacelli, who first reported on the protests on Twitter.
Vargas, the mom who took her sons to the event, said she had felt uneasy by the right-wing protesters. Her oldest son had wanted to explore the library during the storytime event, but she insisted that he stay close in case LGBTQ opponents crashed the event.
“There's nothing that can quite prepare you for just a deeply unsettling feeling of seeing armed hate groups close to your small brown children,” Vargas said.
But when her family exited the event, any hateful chants were drowned out by cheers from LGBTQ supporters. One person even walked them to their car while blocking out hateful signs using an umbrella. Vargas said she felt extremely grateful, but also heartbroken that LGBTQ people had to protect an event that was designed to celebrate them.
“There were protesters there that held up signs about protecting kids, but it was members of the LGBTQ community and allies that shielded my brown boys from these hate groups,” Vargas said. “They were the actual targets on Saturday. And yet, they absolutely would not flinch when hatred stared at them.”