As drag shows in the U.S. are increasingly targeted, the community fears violence

WARNING: This story contains details about threats of sexual violence

The best way Lauren Mathers can describe what happened in her community over the past month is a situation that became “out of control.”

And in describing it that way, she’s being very polite. 

As the executive director of Sandhills PRIDE, an LGBTQ advocacy group based in North Carolina, this was not her first time organizing a drag show. But it was the first time she’d experienced threats of violence, forcing difficult conversations about whether the Dec. 3 event should be cancelled for the safety of everyone involved. 

In the final days leading up to the show, Mathers said the pressure was so intense, “there was a moment where we all had to sit down and say, ‘are we going to do this?'”

The headline drag performer said there were moments when she feared for her life. 

Now, Mathers is getting phone calls from reporters across the U.S. about whether she thinks a targeted attack on the local power grid that left 45,000 customers without electricity the night of the show could be linked to efforts to shut it down. She won’t speculate, and police said they don’t have evidence to make a link, but added they’re not ruling anything out. 

A person in bright makeup and clothing.
Naomi Dix, seen here in a handout photo, is a drag artist based in North Carolina. She was the target of threats of sexual violence and racial slurs in the leadup to a performance Saturday. (Naomi Dix)

While this is one specific story, it also serves as an example of a larger issue causing panic throughout the LGBTQ community in the United States. 

Drag shows have become a target for a mix of right-wing extremists, elected officials including some members of Congress and other fringe agitators. Threats of violence have led to the cancellation of some events. Police and private security have been required to keep others on schedule. 

This year alone, more than 120 events featuring drag performers in 47 different states faced targeted threats, according to a first-of-its kind report by GLAAD, the world’s largest LGBTQ advocacy organization. And the Department of Homeland Security warned, in its latest summary of domestic terror threats, that the LGBTQ community is among several groups that could be targeted. 

Last month, five people were killed and 17 injured when an attacker opened fire in an LGBTQ nightclub in Colorado Springs. The suspect is facing more than 300 charges, including hate crimes offences.

“You have to have a really really thick skin to live in this world right now because it’s much more difficult, I feel, than it was 20 years ago,” Mathers said. 

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Vigils continue as 5 killed in Colorado gay club identified

The five people killed in Saturday’s shooting rampage in a Colorado Springs nightclub have been identified. The 22-year-old suspect is facing five murder charges and five charges of committing a bias-motivated crime causing bodily injury.

Threats started on social media, then escalated

The backlash for the Saturday performance began shortly after ads were published promoting a drag show called Downtown Divas in Southern Pines, a small town about 110 kilometres southwest of Raleigh. 

It was to be a fun night featuring local talent: Naomi Dix, a North Carolina-based drag queen was the headline performer; a Southern Pines singer was also on the bill. 

Mathers said the threats first appeared on social media: posts that included the words “lynch” and “castrate.” Members of the LGBTQ community, and people associated with the show, were called “groomers” and “pedophiles.” 

A woman smiles.
Lauren Mathers, the executive director of Sandhills PRIDE, an LGBTQ advocacy group based in North Carolina. (Lauren Mathers)

This specific language echoes statements made by some prominent Republican politicians, and is echoed in right wing social media sites. 

For example, Lauren Boebert, a Republican representing Colorado’s District 3, has published multiple tweets with inflammatory language — including one where she misgendered and accused the first transgender cabinet secretary of “grooming” transgender children who are seeking gender affirming care. 

Republican Marjorie Taylor Greene, a frequent pusher of conspiracy theories representing Georgia’s 14th District, accused an openly gay member of California’s state senate of being a “communist groomer.” 

Naomi Dix, the headliner of the show, also saw the disturbing content online. CBC News has agreed to only identify her by her stage name due to security concerns.

She said the posts were “painting a picture of us that we are pedophiles and that we are grooming children from some sort of hidden sexual agenda.” 

“Shortly after that, I started receiving some death threats.”

A person in bright makeup is on a computer screen.
Naomi Dix, seen here speaking with CBC News, was the headline performer at a drag show called Downtown Divas in Southern Pines last Saturday. In the leadup to the show, she says she faced death threats. (CBC)

She said the messages described “murdering me, or raping me, or using objects to rape me … they would find out where I live or find out about my family.” Some threats also included racial slurs, she said. 

Then came the phone calls targeting the show’s sponsors. For some businesses, it got to the point  “where they couldn’t even answer their phone without having someone screaming at them,” Mathers said. 

It then escalated to in-person confrontations. 

“One of our sponsors owns a shop,” Mathers explained. “The kids working behind the counter … were getting people coming into the store and yelling at them.” 

Southern Pines Police Chief Nick Polidori said officers were aware of  “numerous social media posts related to the event, both in favour of the show and posts opposing the show.” But in an email to CBC News on Tuesday, he said no formal complaints have been registered. 

‘A real level of vehemence’

Mathers said she thinks this show in particular was targeted because it was originally planned as an all-ages event, with a student discount. 

“This brought out a real level of vehemence, anger, and a real strong backlash about the fact that we were exposing children to drag,” she said. 

Much of the right-wing criticism about drag exploded in response to the growing number of events that cater to all ages. Across the U.S. and Canada, some public libraries and community groups have started holding drag queen storytime events. The goal is generally to teach kids about diversity and inclusion. 

WATCH | All-age drag events face threats:

All-age drag events in Canadian libraries facing threats and hateful messages

Alex Saunders, a drag performer who volunteers and hosts a drag storytime with the Saint John Free Public Library, says they have been the target of hateful messages from right-wing groups.

“We assumed a lot of that was from people who didn’t understand the nature of the event,” said Kevin Dietzel, the executive director of Sunrise Theatre, the venue.

In light of the threats, he said the Downtown Divas show was changed to only allow people 16 years of age and older into the venue. Eventually it was turned into an 18-plus event. 

Dix said she uses her platform to create a safe space for the LGBTQ community, where people are free to be themselves. In many ways, she said, her shows are no different from any mainstream musical experience. 

“If you’ve been to a concert for Miranda Lambert, or Carrie Underwood, then you’ve been to a drag show,” she said, comparing the makeup, costumes, wigs and performances. 

A person in bright clothing and makeup stands in a crowd.
A drag queen performs during celebrations for Pride month on June 25 in Raleigh. All-age drag events have faced a lot of backlash by some in the U.S. (Allison Joyce/AFP/Getty Images)

Mathers said the conversations were difficult, but the final decision was, “we are not going to be shut down by hate.”

Extra precautions would be needed. Police closed part of the street to set up designated protest areas. Private security was hired, with guards placed at doors to ensure no one would break in. It took longer than expected to get the more than 300 ticket holders into the venue, but once the show started Saturday evening, Mathers said, it was magical.

“All I saw was a sea of beautiful happy faces,” she said. 

Everything was moving along smoothly, until suddenly, the venue lost power.

‘Forever grateful’

At first, Dix thought it was part of the normal lighting cue, since a dance number was just about to begin. But organizers quickly realized the power was out, and it wasn’t just downtown — the entire county lost service. 

What happened next brought Dix to tears as she described it. She asked everyone in the audience to turn on their phone flashlights, and join her in singing Beyonce’s Halo.

“To be able to feel the energy coming from those lights, and to feel the energy coming from the people … I will be forever grateful for the rest of my life.”

Without power, Dix decided to call off the rest of the show. She encouraged the audience to leave in groups so they would be safe returning to their vehicles. 

A man in a uniform stands at a podium.
Spokesperson for Duke Energy Corporation Jeff Brooks, center, speaks at a news conference at the Moore County Sheriffs office, with North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, right, and Secretary of N.C. Department of Public Safety Eddie M Buffaloe, left, about an attack on critical infrastructure that has caused a power outage to many around Southern Pines. (Karl B DeBlaker/The Associated Press)

The outage was caused by a targeted attack on the electrical grid powering Moore County. Police don’t have a motive, or any suspect information just yet. What they do know is that two separate substations were sprayed with gunfire, causing critical damage to heavy equipment that is still not completely fixed.

In the immediate hours after the power outage, a well known right-wing agitator claimed to have information about what happened. Emily Rainey, a former Army psychological operations officer who quit while being investigated for her links to the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, published vague posts on social media suggesting the outage was linked to the drag show. 

Police spoke with Rainey about the posts, and at a news conference on Sunday they said her claims were false. 

Mathers said she hopes the power system attack is not related to the drag show.

“I don’t want to speculate that someone hates us so much that that’s the course of action they would take to prevent the performance … I mean how can people hate individuals so badly that you would do something like this?” 

Dix said she’s not surprised by the backlash about the drag show itself. Threats and hate are a part of her life, she said, not only as a member of the queer community, but as person of colour existing in the U.S. in 2022. 

“The fight is never going to be over. There’s always a light at the end of the tunnel, but it’s a long tunnel with a very small light.”

Support is available for anyone affected by these reports. You can talk to a mental health professional via Wellness Together Canada by calling 1-866-585-0445 or text WELLNESS to 686868 for youth or 741741 for adults. It is free and confidential. 

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