It wasn’t the first time that Old Nick’s Pub in Eugene hosted its Drag Queen Storytime event. Even so, news of the event on Oct. 23 drew hundreds of people to protest outside.
A couple hundred counterprotesters formed a wall to protect the pub that morning, as about 50 people across the street grimaced back, brandishing guns and hateful protest signs.
Meanwhile, inside the pub, an 11-year-old girl, who goes by Vanellope, sat on a couch next to her mom, tearful.
“We’ll make sure you’re so safe,” an event organizer reassured her. “We’ve got all these people here to make sure you’re so safe.”
Vanellope is a cis-gendered girl who, for years, has been dressing in femme drag — big, glittery gowns, fake eyelashes, and wigs. Because of her age and for safety reasons, we’re not disclosing her full name.
Vanellope was listed as one of the guests of Drag Queen Storytime, during which people read stories to children while wearing drag. Several venues, libraries and schools host similar events across the country, including in Oregon.
Related: How drag queen performances got pulled into politics
But this one grabbed the attention of an online mob, who falsely claimed that children were being sexualized and that the event was put on by pedophiles. Event organizers said they were overwhelmed with hateful and threatening messages leading up to the event, so they considered canceling. But Vanellope didn’t want to give in.
“I thought to myself that, if that little girl can stand up for what’s right, then we can too,” said bar owner Emily Chappell.
Chappell said they’ve hosted drag events for a long time, but this is the first one that sparked a protest. She and other organizers think the online harassment and subsequent protest has a lot to do with political agendas.
“There is a targeted offense by right-wing media groups right now to target us because they want to push through anti-LGBTQ legislation,” Chappell said.
Drag Queen Storytime organizer Jammie Roberts agreed. They said they’ve hosted similar storytime events in Eugene and Southern Oregon for years.
“The fact that it’s blowing up now shows that there’s a narrative where they’re trying to vilify the queer community and drag people to fit their narrative for politics,” Roberts said.
One piece of legislation Roberts and others are tracking is the so-called “don’t say gay” bill, which proposes a federal ban on any instruction that mentions gender identity to students between kindergarten and third grade. It mirrors a similar law that recently passed in Florida.
There’s also an effort in Idaho to ban all drag performances in public venues.
Roberts said bills like this and protests like the one in Eugene stir up hate toward queer people, and it’s scary.
“Yes, it’s scary, but we have to show that we’re not weak and they can’t defeat us,” Roberts said.
That’s why Roberts and other organizers decided in the end to push forward with the event. Old Nick’s Pub hired private security, and Eugene police had officers stationed around the area. Everyone who came into the pub, including children, was scanned with metal detectors for weapons. And before the event started, they were advised as to where the evacuation route would be.
“Who’s feeling good?” Roberts asked the crowd, and got a loud applause in response.
“I love that energy, because we want to be as loud as we can be to show them that they won’t stop us,” Roberts said. “We’re going to be here, we’re going to be loud, and you can’t keep us down.”
“No! You cannot,” a child in the crowd responded.
Roberts wore a long sparkling gown with a bright orange wig. They read “Unicorn Club” by Suzy Senior to a group of children sitting by the stage. In between readings, performers took to the stage, dancing to Disney hits and weaving through the venue as children waved.
Vanellope didn’t get her moment on stage for safety reasons, but she did get to read a book. She read “No, David!” by David Shannon. And over time, the yelling and protesting outside slowly quieted, and the readings inside the pub carried on.