The man dressed as the Grim Reaper and holding a sign reading “THE WAGES OF SIN IS DEATH” had been to Drag Storytime (formerly Drag Queen Storytime) before. On a Saturday earlier this month, he was vocally disparaging LGBT people outside the Z.J. Loussac Public Library in Anchorage, Alaska.
David Grisham, an evangelical street preacher and leader of the hate group Last Frontier Evangelism-Repent Alaska known for disparaging Jews, Muslims and Catholics crashed the second installment of Drag Storytime last June, during Anchorage’s PrideFest. Grisham was booed then, and swiftly escorted out.
At the fourth Drag Storytime event – which features performers in drag reading stories about tolerance, diversity and families to children – on Saturday, Feb. 9, Grisham stood outside the library wearing his bleak costume alongside a couple of fellow protesters, shouting: “You’re sick, you’re perverted, you need to get right with God today… You hate children. Stop hating children. Stop brainwashing them.”
But this time Grisham faced about 30 counterprotesters lined up on either side of the library’s entrance who responded with coordinated chants like “2-4-6-8/We are tired of the hate/2-4-6-8/Love is here, it’s just fate,” and “Don’t be a drag/Just be a queen.”
The scene marked the debut of the Queen’s Guard of Alaska, whose stated mission is “to counteract negative and hostile protests with positive, peaceful, non-engaging rebuttals.”
The Queen’s Guard is a grassroots collective of activists who plan “to be at events where we know or suspect anti-LGBT organizations or people are planning to be at,” said founder Vincent Feuilles, the 46-year-old transgender man who organized the group. “Our purpose is to respond to their hate with accuracy, and love and support for LGBT people going to or performing at the event at that time.”
The idea Feuilles and his fellow activists are pursuing is emerging in other locales as well, particularly as Drag Queen Storytime events, endorsed by the American Library Association, increase in popularity. A similar scene played out in a Detroit suburb in January, and in Anchorage, the Queen’s Guard plans on being at all future Drag Storytime events as well as other LGBT happenings around the state.
Drag Queen Storytimes around the country have also drawn protests from anti-LGBT hate groups. At the Drag Queen Storytime in Huntington Woods, a suburb of Detroit, the Michigan chapter of anti-LGBT hate group MassResistance joined with other anti-LGBT activists, including a Tennessee-based anti-LGBT hate group called Warriors for Christ (formerly of West Virginia), which travels to protest drag queen events at libraries, and the extreme-right Catholic online media outlet Church Militant, an anti-LGBT hate group. MassResistance has also protested similar events at libraries in Windsor, Colorado, and Riverside, California.
Now a nationwide phenomenon, Drag Queen Story Hour was established in San Francisco in 2015. The national Drag Queen Story Hour organization lists two dozen cities with events, but independent permutations like the one in Anchorage are widespread in locales large and small.
The first Drag Storytime in Anchorage “went swimmingly,” organizer Brooks Banker said, but the second, held in June during the annual PrideFest celebration, attracted Grisham, who interrupted the performance before being escorted out.
But it was after the third event, which took place in October, that anti-LGBT forces really took note. On Oct. 26, Arthur Schaper, organization director of hate group MassResistance, sent an email and flyer to library director Mary Jo Torgeson and all of the members of the Anchorage Assembly, decrying the “subversive introduction of an agenda which promotes homosexuality, transgenderism, transvestism, and other paraphilias.”
MassResistance is known for fighting bans against the discredited practice of so-called conversion therapy and rallying against “the homosexual agenda” in public schools. MassResistance paints transgender people as predators, and links homosexuality to bestiality and pedophilia.
A few days later, Jim Minnery, the head of the Alaska Family Council and its lobbying group Alaska Family Action, which leads anti-LGBT efforts in the state, contacted Torgeson and asked about the event “before I send an alert out to our constituents.” She told Minnery the events would continue, replying in part: “The story time is not meant to endorse a lifestyle, it is about accepting differences in one another. … As a public entity, what we strive for is equal access, tolerance and respect for everyone.”
On Nov. 2, Minnery posted an alert on Alaska Family Action’s Facebook page, stating: “There is a reason to believe that with organized opposition, some of these attacks on kids, families and faith can be stopped. Libraries in some communities have been reticent to host these events – forcing organizers to look for other sites.”
“I follow [Minnery’s] page on Facebook and he was putting out the call for all the good people to come and cast aside this sin,” said Queen’s Guard founder Feuilles. “I was looking at all the misinformation and everything that was incorrect about it, how he was riling people up, and I thought, it’s almost like we need a Queen’s Guard to go guard the drag queens. That was the start.”
In January 2019, a transgender woman in Anchorage, Andrea “Drea” Redeker, committed suicide, further spurring Feuilles to action. “It was very much a result of all of the aggression she faced everyday,” he said. “I thought if maybe there was more support at things like Drag Storytime, where people saw not just the bad side, which is what Dave Grisham and his group do, and they got there and there was a group of people who were there drowning out that message of hate with love and acceptance, maybe it would stop somebody else.”
The idea of countering anti-LGBT protesters goes as far back as the 1998 murder in Laramie, Wyoming, of Matthew Shepard, who was killed for being gay. After Westboro Baptist Church members had picketed Shepard’s memorial service, LGBT activists, fearing Westboro would also appear at the trial of his killers, showed up wearing angel wings seven feet tall and 10 feet across and surrounded the protesters, effectively hiding them. The operation was called Angel Action.
“The thing I remember most about [Angel Action] is they were there kind of just to quiet and hide [the anti-LGBT protesters],” said Feuilles. “We do not want to hide the opposition. I want people to see and hear what they are saying too, because there are some people who don’t realize that there are groups like this out there.”
Feuilles rallied LGBT activists and the Queen’s Guard of Alaska made its debut at Drag Storytime on Saturday, Feb. 9. They numbered about 30, compared to Grisham’s handful of protesters across the plaza. As Grisham arrived in his Grim Reaper outfit, the Queen’s Guard amassed on each side of the library’s entrance, forcing Grisham to stand away from the doors. “He had to stand across from us – you can’t block the doors,” explained Feuilles.
Anchorage Assemblyman Christopher Constant was in attendance and estimated the crowd for the early performance, aimed at younger children, at nearly 300, with about 150 at the later performance for older children. “What I hear from library staff is that it’s the single most popular event in the calendar year for the library,” he said.
Besides countering Grisham’s hate speech with chants, the Queen’s Guard escorted the performers into the auditorium to cheers from the audience. “I thought it was remarkable,” said Banker, the Drag Storytime organizer. “It was really inspiring and actually very necessary for the emotional, mental and even physical safety of our volunteer drag storytellers, as well as all attendees. You can attend Drag Storytime and show support that way, but to have a whole other side of support is really important too. We’re covered, we feel protected.”
The Queen’s Guard of Alaska also plans to be at the next Drag Storytime, yet to be scheduled, and will be out in force supporting attendees of the Trans Alaska Summit, to be held March 8 – 10.
Photo credit Luka Kondratyeva