Sturm und Drag

Neo-Nazis have a real problem with drag queens. Is it misplaced? Historical? Antisemitic? What does the larger “anti-grooming” crowd make of it?
By | May 31, 2023
A man in a rainbow jacket looks at a crowd of men wearing matching red sweatshirts with black ski masks and pants. One makes a Nazi salute, another holds a swastika flag and American flag.

The “Rock-n-Roll Humanist Drag Queen Story Hour,” held March 11 at a public park in Wadsworth, Ohio, almost didn’t happen. Organizer Aaron Reed (the self-proclaimed rock-n-roll humanist) had first arranged to hold the family-themed LGBTQ+ event at a brewery, with plans to raise money for a local charity as well as victims of the Club Q shooting in Colorado Springs. However, the Wadsworth Brewing Co. backed out after receiving violent threats and charges of “grooming,” which has become the buzzword for critics of activities that promote LGBTQ+ positivity, including drag queen story hours (which typically feature men in princess garb, theatrical makeup and colorful wigs reading age-appropriate books and leading dance parties with kids and their parents).

Some Wadsworth residents expressed fear about drag performers, and by proxy trans adults, being out to sexualize and indoctrinate children into an alternative sexual orientation or gender identity, which may have had some bearing on the city’s hesitancy to grant Reed a permit to hold the event at Wadsworth Memorial Park. And while the Wadsworth City Council did allow the event to happen and had a strong police presence on hand, they likely weren’t anticipating that the hundreds of protesters—who far outnumbered participants—would include armed men in riot gear waving Nazi flags, shouting “Heil Hitler!” and participating in Sieg Heil salutes.

A man in dark clothing lifts his phone to videotape a group of people behind a barricade, who are holding rainbow umbrellas. The man holds a yellow sign which says, in part, "Don't 'drag' children into [your] lifestyle."

Anti-drag protesters and Neo-Nazis show up to protest a drag queen storytime event in Wadsworth, OH. Some clashes broke out, and two people were arrested. Photo by Jon Farina.

“Wadsworth, Ohio, was one of the scariest situations we’ve been in,” says Pasha Ripley, cofounder of Colorado-based Parasol Patrol. The nonprofit advocacy group mobilizes members and allies of the LGBTQ+ community to show up at drag queen story hours with a phalanx of brightly colored umbrellas to shield kids and families from protesters. While Christian extremists, “Mothers Against Groomers” and even the QAnon crowd have been familiar faces at drag queen story hours for some time, members of white supremacist organizations and ideologically adjacent groups like the Proud Boys have been a growing presence over the past year. 

Ripley names the Blood Tribe, a neo-Nazi group with chapters in the United States and Canada, as one of the groups that protested the Rock-n-Roll Humanist Drag Queen Story Hour and says she’s seen members of White Lives Matter, Patriot Front, and the Goyim Defense League show up at similar events. As reported by the Anti-Defamation League, all three groups overlap and often connect antisemitic theories to LGBTQ+ attacks. The Goyim Defense League, for example, has distributed flyers purporting to link Jews and members of the LGBTQ+ community with pedophilia. Last June, men identified as members of Patriot Front stood outside a drag bingo event in Katy, Texas, with a large sign that read, “LGBT is Talmud Jew shit.” 

“I tell people, we’re shielding kids from Nazis,” Ripley says matter-of-factly.

In April, the LGBTQ+ media advocacy organization GLAAD (which originally stood for Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation), issued a report in partnership with the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism that documented what it called anti-drag attacks nationwide. They counted 166 such incidents, noting an uptick going into Pride month in June of last year. One of these, which made national news, ended in the arrest of 31 members of the white nationalist Patriot Front near a Pride event in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. “They looked like a little army,” said the town’s police chief.

So far in 2023, GLAAD has flagged at least seven events at which known extremist groups have protested, including Wadsworth and an incident two weeks later when one of the Wadsworth protesters, 20-year-old Aimenn Penny, tried to burn down a church in Chesterland, Ohio, that was scheduled to host two drag show events. Penny was charged with a federal hate crime and other felonies and faces 5-20 years in prison. The church was able to host the April 1 shows without further issue.

The ADL Center on Extremism published its own analysis in January on the convergence of antisemitism and anti-LGBTQ+ hate, and how the blend manifests in conspiracy theories that allege, for example,  an overarching plot by Jewish people to promote the so-called gay agenda by paying for minors to undergo gender reassignment surgery. An image that appears at the top of the ADL report shows two masked men outside a drag brunch at Hamburger Mary’s Bar & Grill in Jacksonville, Florida, last June. Identified later in the report as associated with the neo-Nazi group NatSoc Florida (short for National Socialist), they’re holding a white sheet stretched between two poles with the message spray painted in large letters: “Judaism Allows Child Rape!” with smaller lawn signs warning of “grooming in progress.” The report is replete with other examples of antisemitic conspiracy theories about Jews and children that are promoted by extremist groups.

“The grooming charges are an echo of the Nazi view that gays are made, not born,” says Peter Hayes, the Theodore Zev Weiss Holocaust Educational Foundation Professor at Northwestern University. “That is, they’re supposedly recruited and corrupted as young people, which implies that they can be fixed later, which was Heinrich Himmler’s view.” Hayes characterizes this position as a fantasy not supported by science but that activates parental fears and pressures. “It functions, I’d go so far to say, like the blood libel that antisemites historically launched against Jews: the claim that they kidnap and torture or bleed non-Jewish children for ritual purposes.”

Both the charge of “grooming” and that of preying on Christian children, he says, vilify outsiders as “not just different, but as evil and beyond the pale of human sympathy. That’s the point. It makes marginalizing and ultimately extirpating them easier.” 

According to Ripley, members of the Blood Tribe who were at the Wadsworth event were chanting, among other things, “Weimar conditions, Weimar solutions!” “A lot of people at the Wadsworth drag queen story hour didn’t understand what they meant,” says Ripley. Mark Pitcavage, a historian and analyst who works with the ADL, posits the slogan is a way of saying that a Nazi takeover of the United States would be justified.  

The El Dorado club in Berlin, 1932. Credit: German Federal Archives via Wikimedia (CC BY 3.0)

In this context “Weimar conditions” refers to the progressive attitude toward homosexuality, toward what was called “cross-dressing” and the vibrant cabaret subculture centered around Berlin in the pre-Nazi 1920s era known as the Weimar Republic. It was a community that embraced men who dressed in women’s clothing, or vice-versa, for drag performances or in their day-to-day lives—and who today would likely identify as transgender. While the German criminal code’s Paragraph 175 had outlawed sex between men since 1871, it wasn’t widely enforced in the Weimar era. Nor was the lesser-known Paragraph 183, which outlawed cross-dressing and was associated with individuals who identified as transvestites.

According to University of Washington History Professor Laurie Marhoefer, while considered pejorative today, “transvestite” was a term of positive self-identification during the Weimar Republic, “encompassing gender nonconformity as well as people who transitioned away from an unchosen birth-assigned sex to their authentic sex.” In a 2019 lecture at Oregon State University on “Transgender Identities and the Police in Nazi Germany,” Marhoefer describes the tolerance of the Weimar era in examples such as DerTransvestit magazine, the Institute for Sexual Science in Berlin and the famous El Dorado Club, also in Berlin, whose façade featured large cut-outs of smiling men dressed as women with the slogan, “Hier Ists Richtig!” (“It’s Proper Here!”). Noting that Europe did also have a history of people cross-dressing to commit crime or espionage, Marhoefer describes a 1922 press conference held by the Berlin police to assure the public that transvestites weren’t criminals, spies, or prostitutes but simply dressed in the manner that was natural for them. 

All this changed with the Nazi regime. In 1935, enforcement of Paragraph 175 was expanded; an estimated 50,000-100,000 gay men were imprisoned and thousands were sent to concentration camps.

The Nazis’ issue with homosexuality was about procreation—Aryan Germans who only had sex with other men weren’t doing their part for the Third Reich by fathering children. Moreover, says Hayes, homosexuals were seen as pedophiles who recruited children in order to “produce” more homosexuals, thereby keeping even more young Aryan men from reproducing. And so, the focus in enforcing Paragraph 175 wasn’t on non-German gay men. Of course, the Nazis did portray Jewish men as unnaturally feminized, gender nonconforming and as monstrous predators themselves.

Incidentally, Paragraph 175 didn’t apply to sex between German women. It was assumed, given their inferior status, that they could still be compelled to birth pure German babies. In 1936, however, SS leader Heinrich Himmler formed the Reich Central Office for the Combating of Homosexuality and Abortion to monitor what they saw as activities of men and women that would thwart the growth of a racially pure Aryan nation. That office was very active in enforcing Paragraph 175. Repeat male offenders who were sent to camps were required to wear the pink triangle that identified them as sexually active homosexuals. “The idea was to scare men straight,” says Hayes, “not to wipe them out root and branch (as with Jews).”

The Nazis likewise feared that transvestites were recruiting younger men to their “agenda”—a theory that is alive and well in charges of grooming at drag events today. The Third Reich’s campaign against pollution of the Fatherland by Jews, homosexuals, transvestites, sex research, modern art and so forth mirror the modern extremists’ theory that Jews are mobilizing those same forces in today’s culture war, with the intent to bring about an end to white Christian America.

When asked if she’s observed any shock from parents who are protesting drag queen story hour when men in masks waving swastika flags join them, Ripley of Parasol Patrol says she hasn’t. “What I hear is more like, ‘We don’t want Nazis here, but…we’re glad that somebody is standing up for our kids.’”

Kristopher Anderson, a Republican from Akron who lost a bid last November to represent his district in the Ohio House of Representatives and was at the Wadsworth event said he was “completely shocked.” He came to the protest with a group of about 60 “regular, everyday” people affiliated with an online network called 18+ Gets Rid of Us. Their chants of “Don’t groom your kids!” aligned with his strong belief that children under the age of 18 should not be exposed to any LGBTQ+ event, including Pride parades or drag queen story hours, because the events have sexual components and might “confuse them.” When asked to define what he meant by grooming, Anderson said it was the same as indoctrination. “It’s making a child think they need to see if they’re part of that community.” Did he think taking a kid to a drag queen story hour or a Pride event would turn that kid gay? “Yes,” he said. Anderson says he was extremely bothered by the presence of White Lives Matter, the Proud Boys and the Blood Tribe at the Wadsworth event, describing the reality of sharing common cause with them as “painful.”

According to the independent news site Idavox (named after journalist Ida B. Wells), 18+ Gets Rid of Us takes its name from a motto of another group called Project 171, which started appearing on Telegram and Twitter in early 2023. (“Drag shows aren’t for kids. 18+ gets rid of us.”). In an alphanumeric system similar to extremists who use 88 as code for “Heil Hitler” (‘h’ being the eighth letter of the alphabet), 171 translates to AGA, or “Anti-Groomer Action.” Unaware of this coded meaning, Anderson stressed that 18+ Gets Rid of Us is sincere in its claim that if drag shows are strictly limited to adults, they won’t show up to protest.

“Given that LGBTQ+ people are present in every community, we believe that children deserve to experience these aspects of our shared history and culture in age-appropriate ways,” says Jonathan Hamilt, executive director of Drag Story Hour, a national nonprofit with chapters in 20 states and the District of Columbia. Having partnered with local libraries across the country for eight years, he stresses that “drag is an art form. Forms of art can be tailored to different demographics and ages.” Hamilt asserts that drag story hours are age-appropriate in every respect, “so much so that we get invited back again and again to influential institutions across the country.” 

Drag Queen story hour starring Bardada de Barbades at the Grande Bibliothèque in Montreal. Credit: Jennifer Ricard via Wikimedia (CC BY 4.0)

Anti-grooming groups don’t agree, but it’s not just drag queen story hours for kids that have brought out protesters. Adult drag brunches at private venues have also drawn those who insist that anyone attending such an event is out to groom. For example, at a “Drag Me to Brunch” event held in January at Hix Farm Brewery in Cookeville, Tennessee, protesters stood across the street in white face masks waving swastika flags and anti-grooming signs. A month later, Hix Farm announced the owner of the building housing the brewery had rescinded the brewery’s  lease.

But while adult drag events may be suffering from such pressure, it’s the children and teens Pasha Ripley is most concerned about. Citing the Trevor Projects’ 2022 national report on the shockingly high rate of suicidal ideation among transgender and nonbinary youth, she says her message to protesters and all parents is: “We aren’t trying to turn kids gay. We’re trying to keep kids alive.”

Parasol Patrol was formed in 2019 after a series of events at a comic book store in Denver called Mile High Comics. The owner, Charles Rozanski, a longtime staple in the comic book world and one of the largest retailers of comics in the country, came out as gender fluid in his mid-60s and found a side calling performing drag under the name Bettie Pages. After sensing a need for kids and young adults who were questioning their gender or sexual orientation to have a fun and safe space, along with, Ripley adds, “any kids who were into costuming and theater,” Rozanski started hosting all-ages drag events at his Denver megastore. When protesters started showing up with anti-LGBTQ+ signs and shouting hateful things at kids and parents entering the store, Ripley and Parasol Patrol cofounder Eli Bazan came to help as escorts. They soon mobilized a small group to bring large, rainbow-colored umbrellas and noise-canceling earplugs to shows and play loud music, creating a visual and auditory barrier between protesters and the children and young people who were attending. Ripley created a Facebook page, and soon they were getting calls from libraries and city mayors asking if Parasol Patrol could come to their drag queen story hour or drag show. “Next thing you know we had people calling from out of state, so we started chapters here and there across the country.” Today there are fourteen chapters.

One of the most disturbing incidents Ripley remembers was at an event in Texas when a Christian extremist’s son, who she estimated to be around 10, was given the megaphone and yelled to the children entering a drag queen story hour, “Your parents are dragging you to hell! Do you know what happens to your butt in hell?” and then proceeded to describe what he’d presumably been told about gay sex to the children walking by.

A group of Neo Nazis show up to protest a Drag Queen Storytime event in Wadsworth, OH. Photo credit: Jon Farina.

Miriam Schiff is the host of Metro on KGNU, an independent community radio station operating in Boulder and Denver, who has had Ripley and Bazan as guests. She was also part of the Parasol Patrol group helping protect kids attending the shows at Mile High Comics. She credits Parasol Patrol for its success in largely shielding kids from the protesters but acknowledges it’s not always enough. “Some of these kids arrived super happy, super excited to go into the show with their parents,” Schiff recalls. “And then you saw their faces drop and they started to cry. They were scared.” She recommends people have a conversation with their kids before attending a drag event to prepare them for the messages they may encounter.

“It’s intimidating even as an adult” to witness the hate she says is motivating people who show up to protest. And as a Jewish woman, it’s especially jarring. “Anything that’s deviant, they hate,” she says, “but they’re also peddling stereotypes of Jews as controlling everything, of preying on kids. There’s no difference between these people and the ones who marched on Charlottesville.”

Does she feel the Jewish American community has a certain responsibility to stand up to those protesting drag shows and other LGBTQ+ events? “Yes, definitely. Pick an event and show up as a Jew,” she says, noting that the police presence at such events has gotten stronger and has made people feel safer. “We have to show up while we still have a chance to show up.”

Top photo: A coalition of right-wing groups protest outside an all ages drag queen story hour event held in Memorial Park in Wadsworth, Ohio. Credit: Jon Farina.

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