Something felt wrong from the moment Brian Hernandez took the stage. Gazing out into the Friday night crowd at the Starlighter, the San Antonio music venue where his drag troupe was about to perform, he couldn’t shake the uneasy feeling in the pit of his stomach.
“I introduced the first performer, and then I went to the owner and said, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t do this, something feels off,’” Hernandez, who performs under the stage name Miss Taint, told BuzzFeed News.
The next day he realized he’d been right — video of the show, filmed by an attendee who turned out to be a far-right self-proclaimed “independent journalist,” had gone viral online. Furious conservatives sent a torrent of hate to the venue and performers on social media and in emails, calling the drag queens “groomers” and “demonic.” The outrage was largely focused on the presence of a child at the show, who the videographer said was “unattended.”
Hernandez knew exactly who that child was — there’d only been one there, and she was the young daughter of a food vendor who works right outside the venue selling Filipino cuisine. A single mother who often brings her daughter to work, both have gotten to know Starlighter staff and performers well, who often help look after the 4-year-old when she comes inside during her mom’s shifts.
“The little girl was just running in from outside, sitting at a table drinking juice,” Hernandez said. At the end of the night, the girl’s mother posted a photo from the event thanking the drag queens for treating her daughter “like a niece.”
But to the thousands who watched that video, none of that mattered. The Starlighter was bombarded with harassment and death threats. On Sunday, they announced they were canceling all drag events for the remainder of the year due to safety concerns.
The girl’s mother has even been targeted — after receiving an Instagram DM that menacingly stated “next time it’s going to be an Amber Alert,” she put an AirTag in her daughter’s backpack and warned her not to go with any strangers. She’s furious at the man who took the video and is considering a lawsuit.
“I think he’s sick, putting my daughter out there without my fucking consent,” the mother, who asked to be identified only by her first name, Mei, told BuzzFeed News. “If my daughter was in danger, he could’ve called the cops, but he didn’t, because he knew I was right there.”
The incident at the Starlighter is one of the countless drag events nationwide that have recently found themselves facing protests and violent threats from right-wing extremists. More than 124 drag events were threatened or protested in 2022, according to a report published by GLAAD last month; this past weekend alone, shows in Ohio, New York, Florida, and North Carolina were targeted.
The backlash against drag stems from a growing wave of anti-LGBTQ hatred that has coalesced into something of a right-wing moral panic. Conservatives have repeatedly smeared the LGBTQ community and their allies as people who sexually abuse and are predatory toward children — baseless claims that have roots in age-old anti-gay tropes and conspiracy theories like QAnon. The term “groomer” has made its way into the mainstream, appearing on Fox News and in talking points of high-ranking Republican lawmakers like Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Colorado Rep. Lauren Boebert. Florida's "Don't Say Gay" law, which bans teachers from speaking in class about sexual orientation and gender identity, was nicknamed the "Anti-Grooming Bill" by one of Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis's top staffers.
Among the most targeted drag events have been those intended for children, like libraries’ drag queen story hours. This isn’t a coincidence, RuPaul's Drag Race star Nina West told BuzzFeed News.
“I think they’re using drag queen story hour as kind of this way in,” West said. “They can’t call us faggots anymore, so they’re calling us groomers and pedophiles.”
Just weeks since five people were killed at a gay bar in Colorado Springs the night of a drag event, performers across the country are determined for the show to go on, but fear what could happen next. Many are increasing venue security measures; some are waiting until they get there to put on their makeup, wigs, and costumes.
“Every single show I go to, I am absolutely terrified before I go out on that stage,” said Kevante Tatum, who performs as a backup dancer in drag shows. Tatum was about to go onstage Saturday night at a venue in Southern Pines, North Carolina, where conservatives were protesting outside, when the power went out. His first instinct was to listen for gunfire, he said; he immediately thought of the Colorado shooting, where one of his own friends was wounded.
Days later, thousands in North Carolina still don’t have electricity, and police have said the outage was due to an act of “intentional vandalism” by a still-unidentified culprit. Many have speculated whether the incident could be related to the drag protests, a lead police have said they’re investigating, but have thus far not found evidence for. But the panic the outage sparked at the venue spoke volumes; LGBTQ people are on high alert, bracing themselves for the next tragedy.
“We didn’t know what was going on,” said Jaleel Cheek, who performs alongside Tatum. “With all of us confined in this space with no light inside or outside, not knowing if there’s people waiting for you outside or hiding, anything could have happened in that moment.”
Jason DeShazo, who performs under the drag name Momma Ashley Rose, had never personally faced one of these protests until Saturday. About a dozen men showed up outside a fundraiser for his nonprofit, Rose Dynasty, brandishing Nazi flags and a large banner that read, “Drag queens are pedophiles with AIDS.”
Many families with children attended the event in Lakeland, Florida, which included family-friendly drag performances, as well as singers, musicians, dancers, and a raffle. DeShazo said he hated that he couldn’t do more to shield them from the Nazis’ vitriol as they yelled about “groomers.”
“You’re so worried about protecting children, supposedly, and you’re screaming and acting like this to children,” DeShazo said. “Call me names all you want, but children don’t need to experience this and hear this.”
Many drag queens who perform at kid-friendly events said it’s frustrating to have their work so maliciously and dishonestly depicted as sexual. Lori Lu, who appeared in a drag queen story hour in Staten Island on Saturday, said protesters were absurdly claiming that the “dancing” that was part of the event would include twerking and lap dances.
“I want to know, how ‘sexual’ is it to do ‘Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes?’” Lu said. “Because that’s all we did.”
These disingenuous claims serve a purpose, said Juicy Garland, a drag queen who had far-right protesters including the Proud Boys show up to her story hour last month in Concord, New Hampshire.
“There’s nothing sexual about a story hour reading event,” Garland said. “And the use of language like ‘groomers’ or implying this is some sort of attempt at slow-rolling pedophilia are all moves to delegitimize the entire queer movement, and ultimately, to provide justification for anti-queer legislation in the long run.”
“We shouldn’t have to put our lives at risk to read storybooks to kids,” Garland said.