In November, the First Unitarian Universalist Church and Red Oak Community School in Columbus, Ohio, announced a “Holi-Drag Storytime” event where drag queens would read books to children and perform holiday-themed dances. “We value social justice and inclusivity and believe that creating a more equitable world for all people requires us to begin this work at a young age,” wrote the school. “When young children are raised with these values, it prevents bullying, hate and fear of ‘others’ later in life.”
Information on the event quickly made its way to the local chapter of the Proud Boys, an extremist group known for glorifying violence and misogyny. The Proud Boys have increasingly targeted LGBTQ nightclubs, drag shows, and other public activities featuring queer voices this year, routinely calling attendees “pedophiles” and “groomers.” Immediately, the Proud Boys organized their own protest to be held outside the Holi-Drag Storytime, asking hundreds of supporters to show up as a form of intimidation. When protesting queer events, Proud Boys members are often armed. In 2018, the Federal Bureau of Investigation classified the Proud Boys as a white nationalist extremist group. “It’s gonna be wild,” wrote the chapter on Telegram, the messaging service the Columbus Proud Boys use to release information to the public about their plans.
Over Telegram, another Proud Boys member encouraged allies to “have fun” and “curb stomp” those attending the Holi-Drag Storytime event. Facing the potential for violence and attentive to safety concerns expressed by the drag performers, Red Oak Community School canceled the reading on December 2, one day before it was planned to take place. Instead, more than 50 Proud Boys paraded through the streets of suburban Columbus in celebration, joined by members of other far-right organizations, including Patriot Front, another white nationalist group.
According to Cheryl Ryan, the manager of Red Oak, the callousness of the Columbus Division of Police was to blame for the event’s cancellation. “I spent a week calling our police department and leaving voicemails about the reports we had seen,” said Ryan. “I was told we could hire a special duty officer, who may or may not show up because they’re understaffed.” The police department denied these allegations in a press release. “The Columbus Division of Police protects all residents of the city equally.”
On the day of the Proud Boys event, the police presence was minimal. One officer with the Columbus Division of Police, Sergeant Steven Dyer, was recorded high-fiving a member of the far-right organization. “I’m here to support their right to protest,” said Dyer. Chief Elaine Bryant adamantly defended the department’s actions. “The dialogue team plays an important role in protecting the First Amendment rights of all residents and visitors to our city.”
But the comments made by members of the Proud Boys’s Telegram channel tell a different story, suggesting that supporters of the hate group exist within the local police department. “I heard the [commanding officer] is gonna give you guys some extra wiggle room,” wrote one user on the Proud Boys’s Telegram channel underneath a post advertising the rally. The same user repeatedly identified himself as a member of law enforcement. “You guys think she likes cops?” he wrote in a thread dedicated to making sexual remarks about a local queer activist and TikTok creator.
The Columbus Police Department did not respond to requests for comment when informed of these messages. Reached for further inquiry, the Columbus Proud Boys replied with characteristic brusqueness. “Most of your questions could be answered simply by looking at our public Telegram page. Way to put in the work,” wrote the chapter’s president over e-mail.
“Far right groups try to build that cozy relationship with law enforcement,” said Cassie Miller, a senior research analyst for the Southern Poverty Law Center, who authored a 2022 report, “Proud Boys Aid the Right-Wing Assault on the LGBTQ Community and Reproductive Justice.” Miller explained that building rapport with police is vital for right-wing extremist groups. “They and law enforcement have a shared enemy in progressive activists.”
Across the country, several police officers have been found to be affiliated with the Proud Boys and other extremist groups. In Illinois, Officer Robert Baaker was suspended for 120 days by the Chicago Police Department after he was investigated by the FBI for his ties to the group—posting online in support and attending events in person. In California, Officer Rick Fitzgerald was fired from the Fresno Police Department after associating with the Proud Boys for around a year. In May, a statewide audit found that officers within multiple California police departments posted racist and extremist content, with some openly supporting the Proud Boys.
“The LGBTQ community is in a state of emergency,” said Ellen Kahn, senior director of programs and partnerships for the Human Rights Campaign. In 2019, the FBI reported that one in five hate crimes were motivated by anti-LGBTQ violence. Since then, it seems to have only gotten worse. Kahn castigated right-wing commentators, specifically Matt Walsh and Tucker Carlson, for spreading lies and amplifying hateful rhetoric over the past few years.
In November, a shooter killed five people and injured 17 others at Club Q, a gay nightclub in Colorado Springs. Two of the victims were transgender, dying only hours before the Transgender Day of Remembrance. After the shooting, the right didn’t respond with mutterings about “thoughts and prayers,” nor did it quietly drop the panic surrounding drag queen story hours, transphobia, or the false “grooming” accusations. Instead, conservative pundits continued their relentless attack on the queer community. “We shouldn’t tolerate pedophiles grooming kids,” wrote YouTuber Tim Pool. “Club Q had a grooming event.” A few days after the Club Q shooting, Tucker Carlson spoke with Gays Against Groomers founder Jaimee Mitchell during his show on Fox News. “Note to Liberals: Just Leave the Damn Kids Alone,” appeared on the chyron below, with Mitchell warning that such tragedies will continue until conservatives “end this evil agenda.”
As anti-LGBTQ incidents increase in both frequency and severity, organizations like the Elm Fork John Brown Gun Club and other militant groups seek to replace the police as protectors of communities under threat from extremist violence. But according to Denise, the Community Defense Team also failed Red Oak after insisting on being the only security force near the event’s premises—even though the school and the drag performers wanted additional protection. “It felt like we were being bullied into a community team instead of safety measures,” said Mikyla Denise, who originally agreed to host the Holi-Drag event along with Aurora Foxx and Bianca Debonair. “All the queens agreed they wanted CPD involved,” said Denise. But with the police department’s inadequate response to the Proud Boys’ threats, the event was shut down.
Despite what occurred with the Proud Boys, Red Oak intends to organize another gathering next year. “We will put on another drag story time event, in the full light of day, in-person and with transparency,” wrote the school on December 5. “If this happened in one of the best cities in America, we know others are also dealing with similar issues. Let’s be an example of how to get this right.”
“I’m a fearless person, and a fearless individual,” said Denise. “These issues have lasted since I was born.” The performers and the school were inspired by the support that Columbus’s queer community received. “None of us were ready to back down, or willing to back down.” Asked what the queer community should do in response to right-wing extremists, Ellen Kahn, from the Human Rights Campaign, encapsulated that attitude. “Nobody’s scaring anyone back into the closet.”