These three drag queens have been targeted by the far-right

These three drag queens have been targeted by the far-right
Nina West Photo: Max Fleury

The news has been rough for drag performers over the last year. They’ve been the objects of an online anti-“groomer” crusade, attacked by Proud Boys at drag queen story hours, and used by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) in his widening culture war against anything queer.

LGBTQ Nation spoke with three drag artists who were each swept up in this unprecedented wave of hate and intimidation to see how they are in the aftermath, what they’ve learned from their experiences, and where they think the LGBTQ+ community goes from here.

All three were performing when the culture war found them.

In Orlando in December, Nina West, 44 — best known as Miss Congeniality on Season 11 of RuPaul’s Drag Race — was hosting a touring production of the variety show A Drag Queen Christmas when a right-wing Twitter troll stood up mid-performance and started shouting that the show was obscene. “It’s not right for kids to be at this thing!” yelled self-described “indy reporter” Chris Nelson while he filmed himself and demanded those responsible be arrested. The audience shouted him down.

Now, DeSantis is stripping the venue and the Orlando Philharmonic Foundation of its liquor license, with accusations that the family-friendly performance exposed “minor children to lewd sexual acts,” an implication that drag queens, on their face, are obscene.

In Youngstown, Ohio, in June, Starrlet O’Hara, 43, director of the LGBTQ+-centered Rust Belt Theater Company, was on stage for an all-ages performance at the town’s Pride celebration when a man screaming over a megaphone rushed out of the crowd. “He called me a ‘pervert.’ He said that I was ‘grooming’ and ‘indoctrinating’ children,” O’Hara wrote on Facebook after the terrifying incident. As the man yelled that O’Hara was “a monster,” also while filming himself, the drag artist launched into a performance of Somewhere Over the Rainbow, and was joined by hundreds of audience members.

courtesy of the artist Starrlet O’Hara

“In the end he ran off,” O’Hara wrote, “pursued not by parents, not by security, but by queer and nonbinary teenagers. They were wearing Pride flags as capes, like the heroes that they are.”

In Salt Lake City in January, local drag artist Tara Lipsyncki, 35, witnessed five Proud Boys armed with a semi-automatic rifle and a handgun intimidating children and parents attending a monthly all-ages drag event she organized. Dressed in black camo and face masks, the Proud Boys stood outside the local wine and tea shop in freezing temperatures for all three hours of the event, calling attendees “groomers,” and allegedly screaming at an 8-year-old. Police, seemingly cozy with the protestors, told them to stop using their megaphone and remain on the sidewalk.

courtesy of the artist Tara Lipsyncki

“We’re not here to impede on people’s way of life,” claimed one anonymous Proud Boy interviewed by The Salt Lake Tribune. “You would never bring a kid to a strip club. Why would this be any different?”

It was only the latest affront in a years-long campaign of menace and misinformation.

For Lipsyncki, the far-right attention started last June, when she was called out by Chaya Raichik on LibsofTikTok as a “Groomer of the Day.”

“I’m a celebrity,” offers Lipsyncki, with a side of irony. “A real A-lister.”

Soon after, a video of a young girl dancing at Lipsyncki’s monthly all-ages event surfaced on Raichik’s site, showing the kid collecting dollar bills from patrons. “The parents were so happy because their daughter has crippling social anxiety,” Lipsyncki recalled. “So they were like, ‘Oh, she’s just so happy to be here!’ And then a bunch of man babies and angry people decided to make it a bad thing.”

Lipsyncki has been on the far-right’s hit list ever since.

When asked about the Proud Boys’ motivation for showing up at her event, Lipsyncki responds emphatically: “These are the results of the Tea Party and Trump, and it’s this generation’s Nazis,” Lipsyncki says. “What they are doing is a play-by-play of the 1930s, when they’re trying to pick off groups one by one.”

First, it was George Floyd and Breanna Taylor, Lipsyncki says. Now, “‘We’re gonna go to the queer community.’ They are not attacking drag queens. No, this is them trying to silence trans people, of taking away children and teenagers’ rights to their own body autonomy, banning books in libraries and everything else — they’re trying to literally kill the next generation. They are trying to eradicate trans and queer youth so we don’t have anything behind us.”

Starrlet O’Hara, whose audience of queer kids ran the megaphone-wielding protester off in Youngstown, says that attack was unprecedented in her career.

“I have never been stopped in the middle of a show by someone like that,” O’Hara says. “I mean, any Pride event will always have protesters or someone standing somewhere with a sign, and I usually go and buy them a sandwich or something. But this — interrupting your performance with a megaphone? — was not something that I ever needed to worry about.”

Also unprecedented is the security O’Hara has enlisted for another annual event, her yearly holiday show, How the Drag Queens Stole Christmas, produced for her local theatre group.

“It’s just interesting,” says O’Hara, “that things are supposed to have gotten better and more progressive, and this is the first year I felt compelled to hire someone to make sure we didn’t have people walking into the venue with a gun.”

Nina West says of her Drag Queen Christmas show confrontation: “I’d done this tour in 2019. And we had one set of protesters and that was in Kansas City and they were Catholics — protesters praying for us. And then to come to this.” Whether or not the show was advertised as all-ages or family-friendly is beside the point, says West. Any children in the audience were accompanied by their parents.

“Parental guidance was suggested,” says West, “but I was not really paying attention to those details. I was more so paying attention to every single night literally walking into the venue and seeing bomb-sniffing dogs. I have never experienced that before, and I’ve been doing drag for 22 years. This climate is truly ridiculous, and it’s fear-mongering.”

For the record, West was talking with a 35-year-old developmentally disabled man when her accuser leaped up from the audience and started screaming that West was abusing children.

“I just stopped and said, ‘Well, wait a minute. You don’t have the facts.’ And of course, this is being made to look like something, and chopped up and edited and pieced together to fill a narrative that fits their conversation.”

That narrative lives on social media among the accounts of LibsofTikTok, Gays Against Groomers, Moms for Liberty, the Daily Caller, and dozens of other far-right trolls, many sponsored by more established right-wing organizations like the Heritage Foundation and the Family Research Council, and all part of an anti-LGBTQ+ ecosystem and echo chamber that includes mainstream media like Fox News and is aimed at, in the end, winning votes and writing legislation.

The political assault could be described as war by other means, but as Lipsyncki wrote on Instagram after the Proud Boys showed up, “Don’t be mistaken, this is a war. There is blood on these Proud Boys’ and MAGA people’s hands.”

Social media has had an adverse effect in other ways, too, says Lipsyncki.

“It’s completely ruined the political form that is drag. Drag is meant to be — and is based in — a political ‘f*ck you’ to the patriarchy. It is meant to be political and revolutionary. And now it has turned into, ‘What’s the pretty outfit and the wig and everything that I could put on to get the social media likes to get on RuPaul’s Drag Race to get a mediocre career.”

I asked Lipsyncki if the popularity of Drag Race has put a target on the backs of drag performers.

“I think it provided the paint for the drag community and the queer community to paint our own targets,” she says. “Because you have a bunch of cis white men controlling the narrative now. RuPaul sold out. Power to her. She makes all the money now, it’s cool. You do you,” Lipsyncki says. “But now it has to be marketable to the straight household in Cincinnati. How do you do that? Now you see the villain edit. They’re the ones that are popular, so now we’re eating ourselves from the inside as a result.”

For her part, O’Hara avoids the darker corners of social.

“It’s a pretty place in my bubble, but I can’t stay in it forever,” she admits.

“I’ve actually been accused by younger people of being a moderate,” says O’Hara, “which I do not take as a compliment. But I understand it, because many of them just put their foot down, and they’re like, ‘Absolutely not!'”

“But I think that now, it’s a very important time to continue going forward with a message of acceptance, because as younger generations grow up, the old ways of thinking kind of go by the wayside,” O’Hara says. “And that’s why doing things like drag queen story time, doing things like drag that is family-friendly, that’s important, because it’s kind of a long game,” she says.

“What happened at that festival last year, it was a group of teenagers that ran that person off. Not the police, not parents, it was teenagers. They weren’t having it. And so I learned from that, and it actually kind of lit a fire under my ass, if I’m being honest. Because I realized that the answer is somewhere in between: not alienating people who are probably your allies, but also taking no shit.”

“When it comes to people’s rights, people’s livelihoods, people’s identity, I don’t consider that to be politics or drama. I consider that to be something that is worth fighting for. And I think that if you don’t think there’s a problem, then maybe that comes from a place of privilege.”

For most of our interview, West was racing a mile a minute through our subject in what felt like a release for the performer.

“I’m no stranger to the trauma, what people are willing to inflict on somebody to get them scared about who they are, scared about the things that they do,” says West. “My experience with social media has been that I was doxxed in 2020, during the pandemic. People showed up at my house, left signs in my yard, blew air horns in my windows.

“I’ve not talked about this experience with anybody publicly, because I don’t know, like, how to talk about it,” she confessed. “But I also feel so strongly that it deserves a voice, to talk about how I really think what is happening is wrong.”

When I shared Lipsyncki’s characterization of this moment as a war and asked if she agreed and how far she was prepared to go in a fight for her rights, the lights flickered, and West came to a stop.

She was in tears.

Seconds went by before she managed to get the words out.

“I’ve been doing this for 22 years. And… I started in 2001, kind of in the midst, still, really heavily dealing with the AIDS epidemic. So drag, to me, is very important. I know the power of it within our community.

“I can’t believe that we’re having this conversation.

“‘Cause I know the good that comes from this. To even hear that, in that context…

“Do I believe it’s a war? I sure as hell hope not. But it does feel like one.”

A few minutes later, West had regained her composure, ready to march out from the wings and back onto the stage.

“The decency of humanity is slipping, and we have got to come back to figure out how we can be better to one another,” West said, rallying. “But in the meantime, I’m going to defend my community. I’m going to defend my art, and this culture that is so vital to our community. I will defend it until the end.”

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