An ordinary red-brick library in the southern English town of Reading is an unlikely backdrop for the latest front in the battle for equality for the LGBTQ+ community. But last week – in scenes later repeated across the country – Covid-19 conspirators and far-right supporters hurled homophobic and transphobic slurs at parents and children to try to stop children from meeting drag queens.
In footage shared online, anti-vaxxer Michael Chaves is seen berating parents – some of whom are carrying babies – arriving for Drag Queen Story Hour UK, an event at which books promoting compassion and inclusion are read to the children. Chaves goes on to falsely accuse Sab Samuel, who was performing that day as drag queen Aida H Dee, of being a pedophile. CNN contacted Chaves for comment; he did not answer
I told the local newspaper The Reading Chroniclethat he was protesting the tour because it “sexualized children”.
As protesters unfurled a banner reading, “Welcome Groomers” outside the library, two women who had pretended to be attendees interrupted the reading inside the building, calling Samuel an “artist adult” as they terrified parents and children in the process, according to Samuel. At least one mother was seen crying after the incident, Samuel said.
The term “groomer” is a homophobic stereotype used to falsely defame homosexuals and their supporters by labeling them as child molesters.
At the end of the session, Samuel left the library under police protection as protesters hurled abuse.
Recent angry confrontations over events involving drag queens in the UK follow a disturbing precedent from the United States, where far-right groups ambush similar events and where conservative politicians have pledged to criminalize adults taking children to drag shows.
It coincided with a broader movement to curtail bodily autonomy rights, ranging from access to abortion to gender-affirming treatments, punctuated by a wave of anti-LGBTQ bills and Justice Clarence Thomas challenging marriage equality as the United States Supreme Court struck down the federal abortion law in the United States.
“It’s the same hate (as you see in the US) but just in a different context…the same disgust, the same homophobia and the same transphobia,” said Samuel, who founded Drag Queen Story Hour UK, at CNN.
Extremist groups in Britain now feel emboldened by “a broader pushback against existing (queer) identities in public”, according to Tim Squirrell, online extremism expert and director of communications at the think tank Institute for Strategic Dialogue ( ISD).
“Even people who are reasonably progressive in their beliefs and politics have become quite radical[in their opposition to] this thing, which I’m really, really concerned about, especially with regard to the current risk of gay people existing in public, but in the United States we’ve seen it tied to a much broader attempt to roll back rights LGBT,” he told CNN.
The decline of LGBTQ rights United Kingdom has largely affected trans people, campaigners say, where so-called critical gender activists and the sympathetic British press have managed to scale back efforts to make it easier for trans people to change their gender marker.
Britain’s Conservative leadership race has seen hopefuls embrace anti-trans rhetoric and promising policies that would undermine trans rights.
Trans people can potentially be excluded from plans to ban conversion therapy in the UK, while some religious and other anti-trans groups are campaigning against the teaching of what they call “the ideology of gender” or information about the existence of transgender and non-binary identities, at school.
Drag queens have also been targeted by some feminists, who criticize them for what they perceive to be a mocking portrayal of women and for being over-sexualized.
Drag culture has long centered on LGBTQ peoplechallenging traditional expectations and beliefs about how people of all genders and sexual orientations express themselves.
Samuel said it was what inspired him to quit his job in marketing and start Drag Queen Story Hour UK three years ago. He said he wanted to provide children with various role models, which he didn’t have growing up. But he says death threats soon followed, and Samuel said that in 2020 he and his boyfriend moved away because anti-LGBTQ trolls “found out where I live”.
He said last week’s incident pushed him to the brink.
Speaking to CNN, Samuel vehemently denied accusations that children attending his shows were exposed to sexual language. What he does is a public good, he said.
Samuel, who has autism and ADHD, gave an example from the Reading event as to why he considers story hours so important. “Some autistic children and their parents came to see me especially because they knew I had autism,” he said. When some of the young participants realized that his drag queen character, Aida H Dee, was a play on ADHD, a condition they also had, their faces lit up, he said.
“I could see the sparks in the synapses of their brains firing with joy… (they thought) that this person was amazing and just like me,” he continued.
Yet as anti-drag queen protests escalate, analysts are increasingly concerned about the extremist hate speech surrounding them.
Monday’s protest in Reading included anti-vaxxer Chaves as well as members of the anti-government sovereign citizens group Alpha Men Assemble, said Joe Ondrak, head of investigations at threat intelligence organization Logical.
The term sovereign citizens emerged from the United States, according to Hope Not Hate. It is based on the belief that government institutions are fraudulent, so that subscribers do not have to respect them. The FBI noted that sovereign citizens operate in loosely affiliated networks with no established direction.
Alpha Men Assemble is described by anti-extremist advocacy group Hope Not Hate as “attempting to establish a hard core of activists and has attracted the involvement of a number of far-right individuals”.
The group received many average attention in recent months, fearful of becoming an American-style private militia through its alleged recruitment of former veterans and military training sessions. CNN was unable to reach the group for comment as they took to the ground after the media and governmental meticulous examination.
Ondrak fears that conspiracy groups, which have gained large followings during the pandemic, are now turning to LGBTQ targets using groomer stories
“I honestly thought what would happen next (is) some kind of opposition to the transition to green energy, but that kind of issue fell into the public discourse – so unfortunately the queer community became their target” , did he declare.
CNN has seen at least four anti-vax Telegram channels, including one with more than 17,000 subscribers, sharing fliers and posts protesting Drag Queen Story Hour.
When asked why groups that appear to facilitate hate speech are allowed to operate on their platform, a Telegram spokesperson said, “Telegram is a free speech platform where people are invited to express their opinions peacefully, including those with which we do not agree”. The spokesperson added that “messages that glorify or encourage violence or its perpetrators are explicitly prohibited by Telegram’s terms of service and are removed by our moderators.”
As for the white nationalist groups present at the protests, such as Patriotic Alternative, ISD’s Squirrell described them as “deeply homophobic”.
They believe that “whites are being systematically replaced by non-whites in Western countries,” he said. They say a “dark cabal of Jews” is encouraging white people to adopt queer identities as a means of lowering the white birth rate – views rooted in neo-Nazi ideology – Squirrell added.
In response to CNN’s request for comment, a spokeswoman for Patriotic Alternative said, “Drag queens are often caricatures of highly sexualized women and we believe that children should be able to enjoy their childhoods and should not be subjected to LGBT indoctrination.”
Two days after the events in Reading, in the northern English town of Crewe, members of Patriotic Alternative picketed outside a library which was hosting a Drag Queen Storytime event in the UK. The leader of the group then promised further protests against Samuel’s summer tour at dozens of libraries across the country.
The protests continued last Thursday, when Samuel visited libraries in Bristol, a city in south-west England known for its liberal attitudes.
Rosie, a local parent who asked CNN not to use her last name out of concern for her safety, told CNN she decided to bring her young daughter to the event because she thought he was important to learn about inclusivity and different communities.
“I love drag queens, I think it’s fun, it’s art, it’s a laugh and something different that involves books and stories,” she said.
But Rosie said she was unprepared for the vitriol she encountered at the library, where protesters waved signs reading ‘Stop grooming children’ and a line of police ushered parents into the building. At least one mother wept inside as protesters played the theme song for British TV show ‘Jim’ll Fix It’, whose late host was a notorious child sex offenderon loudspeakers outside the library.
“It was just awful. I expected it to be a joyful thing, considering it was Pride a few weeks ago in Bristol. Instead, she said the harassment of protesters was “very backward and (I feel) naive to think there has been progress”.