In Boulder County, Colo., right-wing protesters faced a “wall of rainbows” as supporters of drag queen storytime rose up for their community.
Trigger warning: This article discusses transphobia, homophobia, sexism and misogyny, violence against children and others, and self-harm.
Feb. 25, 2023, should have been a quiet Saturday morning at the Wandering Jellyfish bookstore in Niwot—a town of less than 5,000 located between Boulder, Denver and Fort Collins, Colo. Inside, a group of families gathered in rapt enchantment around the colorful and animated Miss Shirley, a drag queen beloved throughout the state for her ability to captivate children’s imaginations with stories and a message of love and acceptance—as well as her ability to transfix adult audiences with other styles of entertainment when appropriate.
Outside in the northern Colorado sunshine, from their base of operations across the street, right-wing protesters of the event were faced with a “wall of rainbows.” Following the recent ban on public drag performances in Tennessee, stakes were high. Several neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups across the U.S. had designated Saturday, Feb. 25 a “National Day of Hate.” George Tristan, the leader of the Boulder County Republicans, led a protest on this day.
But residents of Boulder County had other ideas. Saturday’s right-wing protesters were outnumbered at least four to one.
Drag Queens and Queer Rights
Geographer Dr. Damon Scott studies how places can shape our sense of self and community. “Drag performances have long been important, generative spaces where gender norms are parodied, contested and neutered,” he said. “Drag queens—both from the stage and on the streets—have been at the very forefront of the expansion of civil rights and the pursuit of social justice for LGBTQ people.”
There is much more to this history than most people realize, says Scott. “José Sarria mobilized gay bar patrons to exercise their political clout in San Francisco in the early 1960s. Whether hosting fundraisers, holding voter registration drives, organizing protest marches or leading parades, drag queens have since carved out social and political spaces for LGBTQ people to gather and forge meaningful connections.”
This tradition is alive and well, a gay man from the nearby town of Longmont commented on Saturday. “I’ve never met a drag queen who isn’t positive. They’re trying to teach you, you can be anyone. You can be whatever you want to be, and that’s okay.”
For feminists—and there were many in attendance in Niwot on Saturday—supporting drag can protect queer communities from the anti-LGBTQIA+ hate that reinforces patriarchy and other inequalities like class and race. With transphobia in the media and with the rise of “trans-exclusionary radical feminism” or TERFism, it is crucial for responsible and inclusive feminists to take a strong stance against anti-trans attitudes.
Whether hosting fundraisers, holding voter registration drives, organizing protest marches or leading parades, drag queens have carved out social and political spaces for LGBTQ people to gather and forge meaningful connections.Damon Scott
‘Grooming’ and Nationalism
My original plan on Saturday was to join the counterprotest. Instead, I left my sign in the car and turned on my recorder.
Events surrounding drag queen story hours reveal how local anti-queer rhetoric connects with authoritarianism at the national level. Mardi Moore, executive director of Out Boulder County, a crucial resource for LGBTQIA+ people of northern Colorado, said right-wing extremism is ubiquitous across the U.S., even in areas seen as liberal or progressive, like Boulder County.
“Extremism from the right is everywhere,” said Moore. “The reality is that we have extremists who live here and who organized the signage today, using the national language of ‘groomers.’ This is a part of a larger narrative that’s been started by the leadership of the Republican party. We also know that white supremacists have added LGBTQIA+ people to their list of people they hate, and will actively harm them.
“The other problem with the protesters is that they’ve conflated drag queens with trans people,” she continued. “They’re ignorant and mean-spirited.”
Another drag supporter, a 15-year-old boy whose mother brought him to the event so that he could publicly express his support for LGBTQIA+ rights, further broke it down for me. “I think [the protesters] are probably bigots. Most of it’s just projecting.”
“I was disgusted but not surprised to see the new head of the Boulder County Republicans make one of his first acts to harass children and their parents enjoying the diversity available in our county,” said local attorney and activist Darren O’Connor.
Parasol Patrol: Rainbows in Stereo
In the eye of this decades-old storm, I also encountered a new and powerful approach to resistance.
Outside the Wandering Jellyfish was a panorama of rainbow parasols. When I drew nearer, I noticed the quiet, calm, friendly smiles of the people holding them. Small children wearing noise-canceling headphones were gently accompanied into the bookstore by parents and protectors, some in drag like Sister Dottie Bair of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence.
Together, these sights and sounds (and lack thereof) are the hallmark of Parasol Patrol, an organization founded and led by queer people of color. Based in northern Colorado, Parasol Patrol is a major reason drag queen storytime remains possible in the area, and their approach is catching on outside Colorado as well.
Wandering Jellyfish co-owner and manager Carissa Mina said “the outpouring of community support for this event was incredible.” A large number of attendees were volunteers with Parasol Patrol, as well as with Out Boulder County.
Rather than focusing on the extremists harassing children, Parasol Patrol centers on shielding kids from trauma and showing them love and acceptance. They call themselves volunteers rather than counter-protesters.
A bi/pan woman in her 20s explained to me that the rainbow umbrellas are more than visually impactful; volunteers use them “to protect kids from seeing any hateful messaging or people who are not really supportive.” Another volunteer said they were “trying to be a buffer between those hateful things those people say and kids just here to read the story.”
We’re not trying to turn your straight kids queer. We’re trying to keep your queer kids alive.Pasha, co-founder of Parasol Patrol
Parasol Patrol also aims to demonstrate the power of remaining positive. By withholding the engagement extremists crave, Parasol Patrol reduces the chaos rather than escalating. The work requires tremendous equanimity, particularly behind the scenes, between receiving countless threats of violence and keeping up with the far right’s constantly changing codes and tactics.
Parasol Patrol often faces unfounded accusations of ‘grooming,’ as do storytelling drag queens, educators who teach scientific facts about human gender diversity, and queer people in general. Co-founder Pasha responds to this clichéd dog whistle by reminding detractors that queer kids are disproportionately at risk of suicide: “We’re not trying to turn your straight kids queer. We’re trying to keep your queer kids alive.”
Moore describes what Parasol Patrol creates as “more of a festival feel of celebration.” Volunteers often carry signs, but never with messages countering the protesters—only positive ones intended for the kids, like, “WE LOVE BOOKS” and “LOVE IS LOVE.”
Pasha said, “We want to show them they are loved and supported by the entire community, not just fabulous queens but folks they might see at the grocery store, et cetera. And not in spite of who they are but because of who they are.”
“That’s what we have to hold in our heart,” Moore added, quoting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous words, “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
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