Panda Dulce was just about to begin her Drag Queen Story Hour on Saturday in San Lorenzo, Calif., when a group of eight to 10 men marched into the library yelling homophobic and transphobic slurs. 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. But the incident left the LGBT community in San Lorenzo shaken. It was not alone.
At least 11 different LGBTQ Pride events across the United States have been disrupted by right-wing protesters or delayed due to threats of violence in the past two months, according to research by TIME and the progressive media watchdog group Media Matters. 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.
While thousands of cities across the U.S. have held Pride events this month without incident, some advocates say this year feels 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.”
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One reason for this uptick is that anti-LGBTQ rhetoric, for a time largely relegated to rightwing groups, is now widely used among mainstream conservatives, says Lawrence Rosenthal, the chair of the Berkeley Center for Right-Wing Studies. “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.”
In the past two years, conservative state lawmakers have introduced a wave of anti-LGBTQ legislation, including roughly 240 anti-LGBTQ bills in 2022 alone, per NBC News. 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 also showed up at that 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 itself has drawn criticism from the right for celebrating 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.”
For decades, LGBTQ events have been protested and threatened. 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 have also long had to contend with violence, as protesters in the 1960s and 70s navigated the threat of police brutality. Most contemporary Pride organizers have had safety measures in place for years to prepare for all types of disruptions. Equality Texas says it plans to send a “Pride Safety Kit” to every Texas Pride celebration in its network this year.
But there have been more disruptions of Pride events recent, experts say. 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. Research by Media Matters also found anti-LGBTQ protesters reportedly disrupted an adults-only drag brunch on June 12 in Arlington, Tex., and a drag Pride event in Palm Beach, Fla., was reportedly canceled after a mass shooting threat 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.
Drag Queen Story Hours have faced particularly intense threats. 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 eventually safely happened on June 9.) Hamilt tells TIME that during that same week, two Drag Queen Story Hour performers at a separate drag show not affiliated with Story Hour were shot with a pellet gun. 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. Florida State Rep. Anthony Sabatini told Axis Tampa Bay he plans to propose legislation to make bringing a child to a drag show a felony, and a Texas lawmaker announced June 6 he would propose legislation to ban minors from attending a show.
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.”