Can’t drag us down: Columbus performers stand strong amid threats

The December cancellation of Holi-Drag Storytime is the latest shot in a targeted campaign being waged by the right wing against drag culture. But local practitioners of the form said it will fail.
Bianca Debonair
Bianca DebonairCourtesy the artist

In the 10 days that have passed since organizers canceled Holi-Drag Storytime, Bianca Debonair, one of the three Columbus drag performers who had been scheduled to read at the event, has purposely maintained a low profile. 

On the day of the canceled reading, which had been targeted for protest by neo-fascist street gang the Proud Boys, Debonair traveled to Akron, where she participated in a previously scheduled drag competition and remained through the weekend. In the time since, she’s continued to exercise increased caution, still shaking the residual effects of having been in the crosshairs of right-wing extremists for nearly a month. 

“I was very stressed out. I had someone making sure I got back and forth to work okay, and I had to make safety calls to check in with my friends and family,” said Debonair, who traced the start of the campaign against Holi-Drag to a Nov. 14 Twitter post made by director turned right wing social media personality Robby Starbuck, followed the next day by a statement from the Ohio Proud Boys in which the group announced its intent to protest the reading in-person. “My family was concerned, because [these groups] had my picture plastered all over the internet. So, that made me very nervous, very cautious. I still find myself looking around any time I go anywhere. Is it safe? Is anyone following me?”

Holi-Drag unraveled in the midst of an accelerated right-wing campaign directed at drag performers and event spaces across the country. A recent report by GLAAD uncovered 124 incidents of threats or anti-LGBTQ protests aimed at drag events this year through Nov. 21. 

In June, a group of Proud Boys breached a library in San Lorenzo, Calif., to stop a drag performer from reading a book to children. On Halloween, a man in Tulsa, Okla., firebombed a donut shop that hosted a family friendly drag event. In November, a gunman in Colorado Springs killed five people at Club Q, which had staged drag performances earlier in the evening. 

While this ongoing campaign is rooted in fear and violence, it has also revealed a deep resolve within the Columbus drag community, whose members said the scene has drawn closer amid the intensity of recent targeting. In separate phone interviews, five local drag queens and kings expressed similar sentiments about the resilience of the form and those involved with it, articulated most directly by Corey Williams, who has been practicing drag for more than 20 years and performs under the stage name Anisa Love.

“They think their guns are stronger than our will,” said Williams, whose solo drag appearance during a holiday concert at St. John’s Church on Sunday was also subject to a Proud Boy protest. “They are not.”

Artwork advertising the canceled Holi-Drag Storytime
Artwork advertising the canceled Holi-Drag StorytimeFile art

The concept of having drag performers read to children originated in 2015 in the Castro district of San Francisco, then spreading nationwide. Debonair said the events resemble any story time, but with the reader dressed in a more elaborate, playful costume. “A lot of the kids kept asking if I was a princess,” Debonair said of the response from young people to the 2021 Holi-Drag reading, also hosted by Red Oak Community School and staged without protest or incident. “I don’t even think they knew we were drag queens. They just thought we were pretty women in dresses reading books and having fun.”

“I’ve done shows for kids numerous times … and it has nothing to do with our sexuality, or whatever gender we’re presenting,” said Brent Fabian, who for the last 13 years has hosted UNtwisted Tuesdays, an open stage drag show at Boscoe’s on South High Street. “It’s just a giant, pretty, theatrical show with lots of glitter and lots of lights and lots of hair. And the kids love it. It’s like going to Disney World in your own little town.”

Story hours and similarly family-oriented drag shows can also provide a welcoming space for young people who may not adhere to normal gender roles. Mariah Ward, a drag king who performs under the name Shawty West, said that if these types of events had existed when she was a child, it might have allowed her to feel more secure with who she was from an earlier age, rather than “scouring places and trying to find ways to be comfortable.”

For Mikayla Denise, who read at Holi-Drag in 2021 and was slated to appear again this year, these story hours are another way to give back to the community, and particularly its young people. Denise said she briefly studied early childhood development in college and has always had an interest in becoming an educator. “If the parents are asking for this for the children, and the children are asking for this for themselves, then what are the drag queens doing wrong?” Denise said. “A drag queen isn’t causing any harm, but a grown man sitting outside of a children’s event with an AK-47 can cause people a lot of harm – mentally, physically, spiritually.”

Erin Upchurch, executive director of Kaleidoscope Youth Center, highlighted this hypocrisy, calling out a few of the myriad ways the right wing “Save the Children” crowd could more materially impact issues related to child safety.

“We can just look at Columbus City Schools, the largest district in the state with more than 40,000 students, approximately 70 percent of whom live at or below the poverty level, where they qualify for free or reduced-cost lunch,” Upchurch said. “So, if we want to save and protect children, we can make sure that all kids have food to eat and a safe place to live. Just in our community of Columbus, there are more than 4,000 young people between the ages of 14 and 24 who are homeless. There are all of these ways we as a society can better keep children safe, and hand-picking something you don’t agree with, or that you’re uncomfortable with, is disingenuous at best.”

Earlier this week, the Proud Boys added more fuel to the argument that these protests are less about protecting children than eradicating all drag performances. On Sunday, the group showed up to protest Corey Williams’ appearance during a holiday concert at St. John’s Church, an event that occurred at the invitation of the pastor and didn’t center on children.

“The whole congregation was so amazing, and everybody was so loving. And then when I stepped out [dressed as Anisa Love], they were shuffling people around, and I looked out the window and there were six guys that turned into 12 guys with flags and guns and all of that craziness,” Williams said. “They don’t want to understand. They want to stir up a frenzy."

While the threat of right-wing violence against drag performers has increasingly metastasized in the real world, much of the targeting originates online, with influential social media accounts run by conservative figures such as Chaya Raichik (@libsoftiktok) and Matt Walsh (@MattWalshBlog) fueling a growing moral panic directed at drag performers and other members of the LGBTQ community.

“They’re using out of context materials … to drive this outrage,” said Alejandra Caraballo, clinical instructor at the Harvard Law School Cyberlaw Clinic, who described the way these accounts will highlight a brief video snippet taken from a longer performance as a way of suggesting something unsavory is happening. “And because they’re hammering the same point over and over and over again, especially around [the term] ‘groomers,’ … it feeds the moral panic even more.”

Grooming actually occurs when an adult takes advantage of a child’s vulnerability to manipulate them into sexual abuse. Increasingly, though, the term has been weaponized by the right wing and inaccurately directed at members of the LGBTQ community and those who stand in support of them, advancing a long-held fallacy that sexual orientation and sexual abuse are somehow linked. 

“I think the use of that term, and that labeling, it’s just a form of manipulation to hide their discrimination, their hatred for something they don’t understand,” Erin Upchurch said. “Growing up in the Christian church and in faith communities, they’ve long used that word (grooming) as a way to assault the LGBTQ community, it’s just being lifted up in a more mainstream way now."

“It’s really important to look at how that term is being used," Upchurch continued. "Looking at the very definition of grooming, that’s not something that’s happening when someone attends an hour-long show of art and theater and music and beautiful makeup and whimsy.”

As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, Columbus artist Kent Grosswiler has grown increasingly infuriated by the way the right wing has cynically and broadly deployed the term “groomer” against drag performers, members of the LGBTQ community and assorted allies. In an early December public Facebook post, Grosswiler detailed how his years in therapy have led to him hearing “hundreds of stories of various peoples’ childhood sexual abuse," stories in which the perpetrator is most often a family member, but also babysitters, priests, coaches and scout leaders. (In 93 percent of childhood sexual abuse cases reported to police, the victim knows the abuser, according to data compiled by RAINN.)

“In these hundreds of stories I’ve heard firsthand, guess who was never on the list,” Grosswiler wrote. “Drag queens.”  

“This false groomer narrative, it’s this complete, utter disrespect for people who have suffered not just childhood sexual abuse, which is what we’re talking about now, but sexual assault of any kind,” said Grosswiler, whose partner recently came out as nonbinary, bringing the issue even closer to home for the artist. “This [narrative] is getting people killed, and it’s putting people I love in danger. ... There’s potential for my person to maybe be hurt or assaulted just for being true to themselves, for trying to be happy."

Anisa Love
Anisa LoveCourtesy the artist

In interviews, members of the Columbus drag community acknowledged the intensity of the current harassment campaign while also sharing that the experience is nothing new. Denise said she has marched in the Stonewall Columbus Pride parade for more than a decade, a time in which she has repeatedly been subjected to the taunts and slurs of protesters. Brent Fabian recalled coming of age in the 1990s, when the HIV/AIDS epidemic reached a deadly apex, driving a prolonged public campaign of fear against the queer community. 

“My generation, we’ve been there and done that,” said Fabian, who first became involved in the drag scene while living in West Virginia 25 years ago, initially drawn in by the theatrical nature of the performance. “I think the gay community, or just the queer community in general, has long been used as a buzzword for [the political right]. We are used as red meat and thrown out to the base to rile them up, and we’re tired of it.”

Growing up in “Clan-land Indiana,” as he described it, Corey Williams said he experienced racism and sexual discrimination from a young age, which he said helped instill within him a sense of fearlessness further burnished by recent events.

“I grew up with hate around me, so this feeling isn’t new. … Some of this is what Black people have been feeling for [decades] living here. So, it’s a hate I’ve experienced before, it just has a little more spice on it,” Williams said. “There is always going to be ignorance coming from people who push their own fears. But I'm not afraid. I'm not afraid of you. I'm not afraid of your gun. I'm not afraid of your rhetoric. … I know what my role is within our community, and I proudly take on the honor of being able to use my voice.”

At the same time, those interviewed said there's a growing understanding that the potential for violence is real, with Fabian describing the 2016 mass shooting at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, and the November shooting in Colorado Springs as horrifying “wake up calls.”

“I’m a person who worked at Pulse. … I know the people who were hiding in the dressing room, and who had to push an air conditioner out of the window in order to escape,” Fabian said. “What I’ve had to do recently, especially since the Colorado shooting, is when I stand onstage and host my shows, I make sure everyone knows where the exits are. … There’s always going to be this fear with these people, especially when they’re standing outside with guns, yelling into a megaphone. But that fear will never, ever outweigh the determination this community has.”

“It’s this conundrum of wanting to stand and be unapologetic and be visible, because we have to be, and then also wondering, ‘Is our home safe? Can we go into this store?’” Upchurch said. “Then, for myself, being a Black, queer woman, when you add race to that, it just ups the ante. … It’s just this awareness that Black and Brown walk around with in general in the world, but then you add that you’re queer or you’re a drag queen or you’re trans or nonbinary – whatever it is that is being targeted across the country – it requires a different kind of armor, and it’s exhausting.”

Mikayla Denise
Mikayla DeniseCourtesy the artist

The drag performers interviewed all shared similar experiences with coming up in the form, describing how they were first drawn in by its creative freedom, which allowed them to step into characters who teased out the louder, more colorful aspects of their personalities. Then, gradually over time, each came to appreciate the political nature of the art – an evolution fueled in part by decades of right-wing political attacks against the LGBTQ community. Brent Fabian traced his evolution to the AIDS era, for instance, while Bianca Debonair recalled coming to understand her political power amid the gay marriage debate of the 2000s. 

For Mikayla Denise, this realization arrived early in her introduction to the business, with a fellow drag performer instructing her on the history of the form and its long connection to advocacy work, accompanying her to board meetings at Stonewall that existed far outside of the world where “you just tried to look cute in a club,” she said.

“There was so much to learn about advocacy, and about standing up in the community and learning to fight for our issues,” Denise continued. “It allowed me to realize that my voice can make a difference.”

The roots of drag can be traced back to historic Greece, and it has gone through countless evolutions in the centuries since, moving from an underground art and into the mainstream with long-running television series “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” the 11th season of which featured Columbus drag icon Nina West as a contestant. Fabian, Denise and Williams all referenced this historical resilience in summarizing why this current targeting campaign will ultimately fail.

“Drag queens have been around for centuries, and we’re not going anywhere,” Williams said. “If their goal is to get rid of these events, to get rid of us, to make us cave and hide, it’s not going to work. We will never, ever go back in the closet.”

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