PAnda Dulce was about to start her Drag Queen Story Hour in San Lorenzo (Calif.) when eight to ten men arrived and began shouting homophobic and transphobic insults. When the men arrived—including one wearing a shirt with an image of an AK-47 that said “kill yr local pedophile”—everyone else fell silent, she said.
“They called me a groomer, a pedophile, a tranny, an ‘it,’” Panda Dulce said in a statement shared with TIME. “My heart hammered. I had a complete freeze response.”
Law enforcement responded quickly, no one was hurt, and the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office is now investigating the men, who were identified as members of the far-right Proud Boys organization, for their role in a potential hate crime. The incident did not leave San Lorenzo’s LGBT community shaken. The incident was not isolated.
Research by TIME, Media Matters and other progressive media watchdogs has shown that at least 11 LGBTQ Pride events in America have been disrupted or postponed due to violence threats within the past two-months. Those numbers reflect a “step up in aggressive activity targeting LGBTQ people,” compared to recent history, according to Peter Montgomery, a senior fellow with Right Wing Watch, a project by the progressive group People For the American Way.
In addition to the San Lorenzo event, at least two other events put on by the nonprofit Drag Queen Storytelling Hour—which hosts kids’ storytelling hours with drag queens across the country—have been disrupted so far this June. On May 11, the same day as the San Lorenzo incident, 31 men believed to be linked to the white nationalist group Patriot Front were arrested in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, for conspiracy to riot at a nearby Pride event.
Although Pride events have been held in thousands of American cities this month, advocates claim this year is different. Jonathan Hamilt, the executive director of Drag Queen Story Hour, says the threats the organization has received—including a credible bomb threat that forced organizers to cancel an event—have increased, and are “getting scarier and more real.”
Officers stand close to a group men who were arrested on charges of conspiracy to riot. They are believed by police officers belonged in the group that was found behind a U-Haul truck in the area of a North Idaho Pride Alliance LGBTQ+ celebration in Coeur d’Alene (Idaho, U.S.A., June 11, 2022).
North Country Off Grid/Youtube/Reuters
This is due to the fact that anti-LGBTQ language, once largely reserved for right-wing groups, has been widely adopted by mainstream conservatives. Lawrence Rosenthal is the Berkeley Center for Right-Wing Studies’ chair.. “There is a legitimacy to it now,” he says. “That point of view is now more or less the formal point of view of the Republican Party.”
According to NBC News a number of anti-LGBTQ laws have been introduced by conservative state lawmakers in the past two decades. These include approximately 240 anti-LGBTQ bill bills just for 2022. Prominent Republican lawmakers have also repeatedly argued that educating children about LGBTQ issues is “inappropriate,” and some have equated it with “pedophilia.” In March, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s press secretary tweeted that opponents of Florida’s new ban on LGBTQ classroom instruction in primary school are likely “groomers.” On June 8, DeSantis suggested he may direct the state’s family services agency to investigate parents who take their children to drag shows, after a Dallas drag event for children on June 4 went viral. Protesters were also present at the event.
There’s a straight line between lawmakers’ language linking the LGBTQ community to child abuse to an uptick in threats at Pride events, says Montgomery of Right Wing Watch. A lot of anti-LGBTQ rhetoric is being used as a tool for accessing political power, he adds, in an effort “to use fear as an organizing strategy.”
Another reason for an uptick in threats at Pride events is “escalating anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and misinformation going unchecked online and in the media,” argues Sarah Kate Ellis, President and CEO of the LGBTQ media monitoring organization GLAAD, in a statement to TIME. “News networks like Fox News and social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter need to take urgent action and enforce their own guidelines and policies against such rhetoric.”
A Media Matters report released Monday points at the popular conservative Twitter account Libs of TikTok, as well as several segments on Fox News, for amplifying rhetoric about “grooming.” Libs of TikTok also tweeted about the San Lorenzo Drag Queen Story Hour in late May. Fox News has been criticized for its celebration of Pride month. A Media Matters report released February noted that Georgia GOP Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene said on conspiracy theorist Alex Jones’ radio show that discussing gender identity with children was “grooming,” and that if her daughter had a trans summer camp counselor, her husband would “beat” them “into the ground.”
LGBTQ events have been threatened and protested for decades. As Brad Pritchett, the field director of the LGBTQ advocacy group Equality Texas, puts it: “Having folks protest Pride celebrations is nothing new.” Moral panics about LGBTQ people have been occurring for decades, stretching back to the 1970s when anti-LGBTQ activist Anita Bryant’s campaigned with the slogan “Save Our Children” to repeal an anti-discrimination ordinance in Florida. LGBTQ organizers are also used to dealing with violence. Protesters from the 1970s, for example, had to face the possibility of brutal police force. Modern Pride organizers are well-equipped to handle any type of disturbance. Equality Texas says it plans to send a “Pride Safety Kit” to every Texas Pride celebration in its network this year.
However, there have been many more incidents of Pride protests in the recent past. A rally by the Georgia Youth Justice Coalition scheduled for June 12 was canceled after an organizer received a “gun related death threat,” an organizer tells TIME. Media Matters research also revealed that anti-LGBTQ protesters disrupted an adult-only drag brunch in Arlington on June 12, Tex. and that a Palm Beach drag Pride event was canceled following a threat of mass shooting on June 6. Media Matters also found that a family-friendly drag show in Jasper, Ind., was reportedly canceled June 1 over “safety and security” concerns, and a Pride Fair in Keizer, Ore., was reportedly canceled May 7 due to concerns about protests.
Particularly severe threats have been made to Drag Queen Story Hours. In Apex, North Carolina, Pride Festival organizers announced June 4 that “violent threats” against a Drag Queen Story Hour had caused the event to be canceled. (The event took place on June 9). TIME hears from Hamilt that two Drag Queen Story Hour performers were also shot using a pellet gun during the same week. And Hamilt says he received a “serious bomb threat” about an event in New York on June 1, leading the event to be canceled.
“It’s a really challenging time, and it’s scary for us right now,” Hamilt says.
Lil Miss Hot Mess, a drag queen on the board of Drag Queen Story Hour, defends performances for children, saying that “drag activates children’s imaginations and helps envision a more just and fabulous world.” But lawmakers in both Florida and Texas are working to criminalize bringing children to drag shows. Axis Tampa Bay received a statement from Anthony Sabatini (Florida State Rep.) that he intends to bring a child to a dragshow as a felony. A Texas lawmaker, however, announced June 6 that he was proposing legislation to prohibit minors attending shows.
Back in San Lorenzo, Panda Dulce says she returned to the reading room after the alleged Proud Boys were escorted out of the library by law enforcement because she did not want to give the men the “satisfaction” of knowing they could disrupt the event. She said she read the book she’d prepared for the kids, Families, Families, Families!, about different family structures, featuring zoo animals.
In her view, far right extremists now feel more emboldened to “step out of the darkness” and target people. “That is what scares me the most—what happened [in] San Lorenzo is merely the most recent link of premeditated homophobic and transphobic violence,” she said. “And this event will be far from the last.”
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