Drag storytelling in Wadsworth, Ohio evolves into a fight against extremists
Amid the national showdown over drag performances and transgender rights, a storytelling event in a northern Ohio city park became the latest flashpoint, fueled by protesters waving swastika flags and shouting “Seig heil” before a melee that erupted led to two arrests.
Hundreds of protesters, including armed white supremacists, members of several extremist groups and supporters of the LGBTQ community, descended on Wadsworth, Ohio, a small town outside of Akron, for a drag queen storytelling show that had been relocated from a private venue.
White racist protesters chanted “Heil Hitler” and saluted outside the event, while pro-LGBTQ counter-protesters chanted, confronted far-right agitators and carried rainbow-colored umbrellas as a kind of shield for attendees.
Towards the end of Saturday’s four-hour event, two people were arrested after a series of fights with pepper spray, the use of a flagpole as a weapon and a protester who, according to a witness and video posted to social media, allegedly pulled a gun twice.
Wadsworth Police Chief Dan Chafin said Sunday he was aware of footage of the alleged handgun but could not comment further pending an investigation.
The duel fits into a larger national pattern of rhetoric and threats surrounding drag events. They begin with baseless or unproven allegations that drag shows are “nursing” children for sexual abuse and have led to escalating violence and community clashes across the country.
Extremist far-right groups like the Proud Boys, Patriot Front, White Lives Matter, and other white supremacists have devoted themselves to the anti-drag cause in recent years. A number of these groups were represented at the Ohio event over the weekend.
Supporters of so-called all-ages drag shows say they are important in helping LGBTQ youth realize they are not alone in their communities, noting that transgender youth are at much higher risk of being dragged through dying suicide.
But experts say a combination of right-wing media outrage and local social media activism has prompted more groups to confront each other at these events.
“It ties into these more conspiratorial ‘they’re here for your kids’ narratives and is used to fuel outrage and hatred towards the LGBT community in general,” Jared Holt, a senior researcher at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, told USA TODAY a special report in December.
special report:How the fight for all ages drag shows is tearing America apart
A drag event splits the city
Plans for an event titled “Rock-n-Roll Humanist Drag Queen Story Hour” had the small town in turmoil even before Saturday’s clash.
A Wadsworth resident promoted the event and secured city approval to use the public park, he said, after a private venue in the city refused to host it. Aaron Reed said the planned clothing and music would be suitable for children, with some songs edited with profanity.
That’s consistent with all-ages drag shows across the country, where performers typically wear age-appropriate clothing and say they carefully select music that’s appropriate for children.
The City of Wadsworth said in a public statement ahead of the event that “after much discussion and legal review, we have no choice but to let the event go ahead”.
But City Council President Bob Thurber called the event inappropriate and said he will ask the council to pass legislation banning future events. Despite the public approval, Wadsworth Public Safety Director Matt Hiscock and Chief Chafin had sent a letter to local residents advising “to avoid you, your family and those you know, during the time of Event to be in the park if possible”.
Chafin said police lost track of the number of people with around 200 people.
Police said officers or paramedics from city, county and state agencies across the region were helping to patrol the event.
At the protest
Chafin said the event went as planned. But the situation remained volatile from start to finish, as neo-Nazis shouted racial slurs from behind metal barricades and attendees, including parents and children, were chased in and out of the event by protesters.
The protesters against the event far outnumbered the supporters.
Far-right groups seen in videos of the crowd appear to have included the Patriot Front, a white supremacist organization headquartered in Texas, members of the Proud Boys and a neo-Nazi group known to extremism researchers.
White supremacists shouted racial and homophobic slurs at viewers and others. A group shouted “Sieg Heil” captured on video.
Masked protesters, who stood with a banner calling for “Weimar Solutions,” discussed their support for historical accounts of early Nazi attacks on transgender people.
“The same thing is happening today,” one told a video documentarian.
“What would that actually look like?” asked the documentary filmmaker. The protester replied: “That.”
Some demonstrators shouted “Nazis, go home” or mocked them.
An Akron Beacon Journal reporter who is black, left, for his own safety after he was repeatedly called a racial slur by protesters.
A video of the event, posted by attendees and a documentary filmmaker, shows a bald white man waving a black flag with a white swastika. Members of the neo-Nazi group point out the few black people at the event.
“How does it feel to be a pedophile?” says a man in the white supremacist group.
“There is gay (racist) profanity,” replies another man in the video that was viewed millions of times on Twitter.
The protesters carried signs that read “White Lives Matter” and “Mothers against Grooming”.
“Grooming” has become a common refrain for opponents of all-ages drag shows who, without evidence, accuse the events of being smoke screens to protect against child abuse.
A supporter who attended the event said the goal was “not to make kids gay, but to keep gay kids alive.”
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White supremacists are disrupting drag storytelling nationwide
Drag performers, the companies that host them, and pro-LGBTQ groups say drag shows for all ages help break down stigma and serve as a vital lifeline for children experiencing confusion about their gender identity.
The aim of these shows is to express camaraderie: to give an overt show of solidarity by showing up in person in the neighborhoods where these children live, these groups say.
White supremacists and white nationalist groups have raided and disrupted Drag Queen Story Hour events from Boston to California. In December, extremist groups and white supremacists celebrated the cancellation of a performance at a public library in Columbus with neo-Nazi slogans and gestures.
Parasol Patrol, a non-profit organization that travels in support of progressive events, came to Wadsworth from Colorado with their rainbow umbrellas to protect parents and children from protesters. Locals who attended in support of the LGBTQ community followed the group’s instructions.
Parasol Patrol co-founder Eli Bazan, who said he is a firearms and hand-to-hand combat instructor in the Marine Corps., claimed that someone drew a small .22 caliber handgun and pulled the trigger twice, but the gun did not fire.
“It looked like he shot someone right past me. But it would have pierced my umbrella,” Bazan said.
The man was later arrested for fighting with a supporter.
More:Colorado attack comes as no surprise to extremism experts who saw a decades-old pattern of looming threat
No one was injured as a result of the violence at the event, Chafin said. One person twisted his knee and another had a seizure. Paramedics treated both.
Chafin said two people were arrested, one in support of the event and another who was there to protest. Footage of the arrests was posted to social media by a freelancer documentary filmmaker
Kristopher Anderson, an Akron Republican who has run for local and state office, said he and others organized a protest at the event that would urge that drag queen storytelling be restricted to adults only.
“By midday, out of complete shock, we had the white supremacists and white Nazi groups emerge,” Anderson said. He said his group has not contacted anyone who holds racist views.
“We sang ‘Don’t Nurture Your Children,’ and all these other things,” said Anderson, who described some groups’ overtly racist messages as “a distraction more than anything.”
“We weren’t all on one side,” Anderson said of the many groups protesting the event. “They were like factions against a problem.”