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Clintonville school refuses to cancel drag-themed holiday event despite Proud Boys protest

Lil Miss Hot Mess reads to children during a Drag Queen Story Hour in Brooklyn, N.Y. The event is held in libraries across the country, including, in the past, at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.
Mary Altaffer
/
AP
Lil Miss Hot Mess reads to children during a Drag Queen Story Hour in Brooklyn, N.Y. The event is held in libraries across the country, including, in the past, at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.

A fundraiser for a local, independent community school has drawn the attention of a group known for hateful rhetoric against the LGBTQ community, but the school’s leadership said they won’t be bullied into canceling Saturday’s family-friendly story hour featuring performances from drag queens.

This won’t be the first time Red Oak Community School hosted a holiday-themed event featuring local drag queens Mikayla Denise, Bianca Debonair and Ava Aurora Foxx.

“We did it last year, successfully. Outside and with little fanfare, and a lot of fun,” said Cheryl Ryan, the manager of the school which is run by its own board of directors, partially made up of the parents of students.

This time around, the event garnered some extra attention from a group with a presence in Central Ohio that’s classified as extremist by the FBI and as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Known as the Proud Boys, the group made a post on social media indicating they’d be at the event.

“They are saying they're coming. It's one of those things where I, where we, can't control that. For us, we're really just focused on putting on a fun, safe event,” Ryan said.

Ryan said she prefers not to detail security plans, but arrangements are being made to keep it safe for participants.

More than 500 people have bought in-person or live-streaming tickets to the event at the First Unitarian Universalist Church in Clintonville.

“Even though there's some of that noise going on around, the LGBTQ community knows this noise, lives with this noise and goes about our business anyway, like we normally do,” she said.

The Proud Boys post states they expect the Saturday event to be “wild.” Columbus police indicate they’ll have a presence there.

Factions of the group have showed up at similar events in other areas, often appearing armed in videos of the interactions.

“It's had a whole entire community on edge since they posted that,” said Erin Upchurch, the executive director of Kaleidoscope Youth Center in Columbus.

She said there’s often a veil of anti-LQBTQ rhetoric and violence in the U.S. and lately, it’s like the volume’s been turned up.

“It feels really loud right now,” Upchurch said.

She said the social media post and the attitude displayed by the group toward the community is a form of violence.

“And it's really disgusting. And it's really gross. It's mean, for lack of a more sophisticated word, it's a form of bullying,” Upchurch said.

The event requires the purchase of a ticket and is being held as a fundraiser, not as something the school kids have to attend. Any children in attendance would be there with a guardian, likely with a parent’s consent.

Upchurch said she doesn’t understand the pushback.

“It would make sense if we were showing kids things that were just wholly inappropriate that we just know, across the board, we all agree is not appropriate, or was violent or in some way harming other people. And it just, it doesn't make any sense. I don't know what there is to fear,” Upchurch said.

Ryan equates different types of drag with the different types of ratings for films in the movie industry.

“Drag is the same way. Drag is a lot of things to a lot of people. But around here, our story times are pretty G-rated,” Ryan said.

Just as parents wouldn’t let their elementary school-aged child tune into something rated R, Ryan says drag performers don’t use racy, adult themes in child-oriented events like story times.

To keep the atmosphere safe for kids, Ryan is urging people who agree with her to watch it stream from home Saturday and resist the urge to counter protest the group.

Upchurch said many people who harbor hate often don’t have personal experience with an LGBTQ person. She said some fear exposure to LGBTQ people will turn their kid gay, queer or trans.

“I cannot overstate enough, you cannot make somebody be something they're not. If somebody is not oriented towards queerness, transness, or non-binary, no one can make them be that,” she said.

Upchurch said the kids have fun and get a chance to marvel at the holiday-themed pageantry, eccentric hairstyles, wigs, makeup and costumes. Last year, one of the queens dressed as a Christmas tree.

“It's no different than taking our young people to something in the arts. But then, what it also provides is a broader community, it is bringing people together, it is that sense of belonging that gets created whenever you're in a collective space,” she said.

Ryan said Red Oak Community School is on a mission to educate children with inclusivity and acceptance and the fundraiser is just one of the ways it can fulfill the vision, by offering something to families and allies in the LGBTQ spectrum.

Renee Fox is a reporter for 89.7 NPR News.