Photo Essay Drag Story Hour Showdown in Ohio

On Saturday, April 1, one day after the International Transgender Day of Visibility, protesters and counter-protesters shouted and jeered at each other in the quaint downtown of Chardon, Ohio.

On one side of the street, protesters shouted insults toward the LGBTQ+ community, reflecting a national backlash that has escalated and become more brazen in recent years. Others protested with more restraint, clasping hands in prayer circles. A third group combined the two approaches — shouting out Bible verses mixed with homophobic slurs through a bullhorn. For a brief period, a white supremacist group called the Patriot Front joined the protestors and barked nationalistic chants. Their members covered their faces with balaclavas, hats and sunglasses.

One Patriot Front member in a Celtic Cross shirt, a Confederate flag hat and duct tape wrapped around his hands and ankles, told me, “They have no idea what’s coming their way if they ruin my way of life. They are waking up a sleeping giant.”

On the other side of the street, counter-protesters gathered in larger numbers. To support and protect a restaurant that was holding an 18-plus Drag Brunch fundraiser for a neighboring community church’s “safe space for kids,” a coterie of clergy in rainbow tunics stood against a police fence outside the restaurant.

A contingent of black-clad anti-fascist activists were also in attendance. Some were armed in expectation of clashes like those that occurred two weeks prior in the neighboring town of Wadsworth, Ohio. There, the Blood Tribe and other armed far-right extremist groups disrupted a drag show by shouting slurs and waving swastika flags.

Throughout the day, police from the neighboring towns of Pepper Pike, South Russell and Orange were stationed in Chardon’s quaint town square. A SWAT team from Cleveland, meanwhile, was distributed across the tops of downtown buildings.

Ten miles away, in Chesterland, Ohio, the police barricaded the perimeter of the Chesterland Community Church, the recipient of the Drag Brunch fundraiser in Chardon. At 9 a.m. that day, law enforcement set up cones and signage on the one-lane country roads, prohibiting parking on the street within a half mile of the church, which was firebombed a week prior. According to Pastor Jess Peacock, the church had received hundreds of threats leading up to its Drag Story Hour on April 1. 

Video dispatch by Michael Nigro.

Attendees of the Drag Story Hour, which began without incident at 4 p.m., entered through a security checkpoint before parking. Their cars were subject to bomb-sniffing dogs and mirror-scanners. About a dozen abortion clinic escorts were on hand to walk families to the church entrance, where they were met with more security guards holding TSA-type body wands.

“‘Social Justice’ is dyed into the wool of who we are in this church,” said Pastor Peacock when asked about the challenges ahead. “If this is the new normal, then we will meet that challenge head-on like we have met every other challenge over the last 30 years.”

During the Drag Story Hour, four drag queens read from various children’s books, including “Just Add Glitter” and “The Very Bad Egg.”

The Proud Boys, a far-right group that had threatened to disrupt the event, posted “April Fools” on their Telegram channel that afternoon and never showed up in Chesterland.

At the close of the event, Cleveland drag artist Veranda L’Ni, who bills herself as “Cleveland’s tallest drag queen,” thanked everyone for coming. Over rousing applause, she said, “This is who we are. This is what we do. And we are going to keep doing it.”

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