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'Holi-Drag Storytime' for children canceled because of right-wing protesters

Organizers in Columbus, Ohio, were concerned about safety as Proud Boys members and other demonstrators, some armed, gathered near the venue, a church.
Armed men protest Holi-drag, an event at the Red Oak Community School where local drag queens read story books, on Dec. 3, 2022, in Columbus, Ohio.
Armed men protest "Holi-drag," an event at the Red Oak Community School where local drag queens read story books, on Saturday in Columbus, Ohio.Joseph Scheller / The Columbus Dispatch via USA TODAY Network

The hosts of a "Drag Queen Story Hour"-style event for children in Columbus, Ohio, on Saturday pulled the plug because of what they described as the intimidating presence of right-wing demonstrators.

The scheduled holiday themed "Holi-Drag Storytime" at the First Unitarian Church of Columbus, which runs the K-5 institution behind the event, Red Oak Community School, was canceled at the last-minute Saturday morning following internal discussions, organizers said.

Members of Ohio's Proud Boys organization and other right-wing groups made good on promises to make waves outside the venue Saturday. More than 50 demonstrators, including members of the Proud Boys, gathered near the church Saturday morning and shouted, chanted and held up signs. Some were armed with long guns.

As some Republican lawmakers and state leaders have sought to limit the rights of transgender people and make them a campaign issue, right-wing extremists have mounted parallel campaigns on the streets.

Some have all but denied the existence of nonbinary people, embraced legislation limiting transgender student participation in sports, decried gender-neutral bathrooms, and made unfounded allegations about connections between transgender people and certain types of crime.

The Proud Boys has been described by the FBI as an "extremist group with ties to white nationalism."

Five of its members, including Henry "Enrique" Tarrio, were indicted by a federal grand jury on seditious conspiracy charges in connection with their alleged participation in an effort Jan. 6 to overturn the 2020 presidential election in favor of former President Donald Trump. They pleaded not guilty and are awaiting trial.

Fear in Columbus over the week was great enough that the nonprofit Equality Ohio urged LGBTQ+ people and allies not to counterprotest because the situation outside the venue Saturday could be "potentially volatile and dangerous," according to a statement.

"Drag Queen Story Hour" events in Oregon and California this year have been targeted by right-wing demonstrators who have come armed, thrown items, and shouted transphobic slurs.

Following last month's mass shooting at a Colorado Springs, Colorado LGBTQ+ bar that killed five following a "Drag Divas" performance, some high-profile drag performers have increased their security protocols, such as hiring armed guards.

Saturday morning, speaking on the event's stage, framed by holiday decor that included a Christmas tree in the rainbow colors of the pride flag, Red Oak Community School manager Cheryl Ryan made an emotional video address explaining why "Holi-Drag Storytime" was canceled.

She said that while police acknowledged the event, collaboration was lacking, and some of the participants felt unsafe, despite the planned presence of more than 100 security volunteers who planned to create a human perimeter around the venue.

Ryan blamed local leaders, including law enforcement, for letting members of the Proud Boys and other right-wing demonstrators gather while the audience for "Holi-Drag Storytime" ultimately could not.

"I received hundreds of emails, calls and messages from folks in the community asking, How can I help? What can I do? I’m ready to show up," Ryan said. "I never heard this message form the city’s leadership and those whose job it is to protect us."

She said the event sold nearly 1,000 individual tickets, the vast majority going to supporters who had no intention of attending.

Still, Ryan said, "The world is getting more and more unsafe for the LGBTQ community. We have to do better."

The National Center for Transgender Equality said Saturday's cancelation is another example of right-wing incursions, including violence, on LGBTQ+ rights.

"Some corners of our political landscape have become increasingly hostile toward LGBTQ people," the center's communications director, Leroy Thomas, said by email. "We deserve to be able to express ourselves, share our art, and explore our genders in a safe and welcoming environment that allows us to show up as our whole selves."

In a statement Saturday, Columbus police denied that they had not collaborated with organizers and said they were ready for demonstrations.

"The Columbus Division of Police protects all residents of the city equally," the department said.

It will continue to meet with LGBTQ+ groups to make sure their members "feel supported and protected."

On Nov. 23 the Columbus City Council vowed to ensure the safety of participants, performers, organizers and the audience of "Holi-Drag Storyhour."

"Columbus City Council condemns the far-right extremists who are attempting to intimidate families at an upcoming holiday reading event," it said in a statement. "All families deserve to be safe, and anti-LGBTQ behavior is not welcome in the City of Columbus."

City police, the council said, "will work to ensure the event can occur peacefully."

The first “Holi-Drag Storytime” was took place successfully in Dec. 8, 2021, on the grounds of Columbus' Vanderelli Room art gallery.

“Drag Queen Story Hour” was conceived in San Francisco in 2015 as a way for schoolchildren to learn from LGBTQ+ narratives and while celebrating diverse humanity in all its forms, including gender identity. 

Ava Aurora Fox, one of three drag performers schedule to appear at Saturday's event, expressed sadness that Columbus children couldn't spend their Saturday having fun and learning.

But, she said on Facebook, "We will not be silenced. We will not back down. We will figure this out."