Touring south of the border, drag queen Scarlett BoBo now avoids red states, taking precautions everywhere else she travels. Before shows and story-time events, the 33-year-old performer and her team will scan online for anti-drag protests, discuss extra security and notifying police, and map out venues: Is the event in a gay neighbourhood, or isolated beyond it?
“I spent most of my 20s living fearlessly. It’s concerning that I have to look over my shoulder again,” said BoBo, who became active in Ottawa’s drag scene more than a decade ago, emerged as a Canada’s Drag Race finalist and now lives in Los Angeles.
Performers like her witnessed drag morph from a radical art form to big-business entertainment, thanks largely to RuPaul’s Drag Race, the popular reality-television competition. The mainstreaming of drag spawned lucrative corporate sponsorships but also increased visibility in community spaces such as libraries and bookstores, where drag queens volunteer at story-time reading events intended to foster acceptance of others in children.
The pendulum has since swung backward, with drag performers increasingly facing harassment, death threats, physical attacks and, in the United States, proliferating anti-LGBTQ legislation, including prohibitions on health care for transgender people and bills designed to criminalize drag performers in public spaces. Stoking fear and hatred, anti-LGBTQ protesters are falsely characterizing drag artists and transgender people as pedophiles and abusive groomers of children – a discriminatory trope that goes back decades.
“People calling me ‘pedophile’ and threatening me – it’s tough to read that, to hear that, to see your friends and your family go through that,” said BoBo. “They take away our humanity.”
At least 30 drag events were threatened with violence across Canada last year, with six cancelling after intimidation, according to Sarah Worthman, a St. John’s-based researcher who studies queer history and tracks these attacks. In Brockville, Ont., an arsonist tried to burn down a library hosting a drag story-time event. In Sarnia, Ont., a group of men in balaclavas surrounded a bookstore during its drag story hour. And in Victoria, a café hosting a drag show faced an anonymous caller threatening to “shoot up the place and everyone in it.”
Hate crimes motivated by sexual orientation (and reported to police) surged by 64 per cent from 258 incidents in 2020 to 423 a year later, according to Statistics Canada.
“We imagine this is not a thing that can happen in Canada,” said Fae Johnstone, executive director of Wisdom2Action, which focuses on strengthening LGBTQ inclusion. “We like to pretend that there’s something different about ourselves. But I’ve never seen Pride organizations, from small towns to big cities like Toronto, terrified they’re going to face an act of physical violence.”
With their sense of safety and livelihoods eroded, some drag artists are feeling fearful and burned out, others more defiant than ever this Pride.
Priyanka, a 32-year-old Toronto drag queen and winner on Canada’s Drag Race, frequently tours the United States. Her security questions are mounting. “I always talk to the promoters about safety. Are people getting pat downs for guns and bombs? What is the safety plan if someone comes in here with a gun? What’s the escape route? That’s when things get too real.”
In March, Priyanka was the only drag queen on the bill at the South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Tex., where Republican lawmakers last month passed a sexual-conduct bill that drag artists fear will criminalize their shows. “I’ll never stop performing in those spaces because from the beginning, drag has always been a political movement,” said Priyanka, recalling that her Texas show was exciting but also nerve-wracking.
BoBo, too, uses her shows to encourage audiences to engage politically: “It’s not just queer people fighting for our rights … there are so many straight allies coming to our defence.”
She and other advocates are pushing a private member’s bill in Ontario put forward by Toronto NDP MPP Kristyn Wong-Tam to create 100-metre safety zones at LGBTQ artists’ events, to protect them from harassment.
“We saw how effective this was in protecting hospital workers from anti-vaxxers during the pandemic and in protecting abortion clinics, where people have the right to choose what they want to do with their bodies,” said Sherwin Modeste, executive director of Pride Toronto, which brings an estimated 2.4 million visitors into the city over the month of June.
As a sign of resistance, drag queens and kings will feature on every stage at Pride Toronto this year, Modeste said. At the same time, many sponsors have been keen for assurances about safety and security for their employees, family and friends attending marches, Modeste said.
Unprecedented security costs have hit Pride organizations financially, with many finding themselves ill-equipped. For Pride Toronto, estimates for paid duty police officers providing security have risen astronomically: “Last year, we had a quote for just over $60,000. This year, we got a quote for $180,000-plus,” Modeste said.
Police officials said the costs reflect the festival’s expanding footprint in the city. Modeste called on federal and provincial governments to help pay for security to keep festival-goers from all over the world safe. “We’re expected to pay, as the queer community, to protect ourselves,” he said. “We need the support.”
On Monday, the federal government announced it would give Pride organizations $1.5-million to strengthen security measures at events across the country this year.
At Vancouver Pride, organizers have had to hire more private security and volunteers who understand the particular threats posed to this community. A traffic-management plan is in place to manoeuvre around anti-LGBTQ protesters, and licensed pop-up events will be cordoned off in opaque fencing.
Allison Dunne, Vancouver Pride co-executive director, said online hate is fuelling emboldened acts in person: “It’s incredibly threatening and dangerous.” Pointing to unfounded “groomer” accusations hurled at drag artists and transgender people, Dunne argued, “It’s a way to deflate the momentum of our movements. We’re looking for – as we’ve always been looking for – respect and autonomy. Why is that so threatening to people it doesn’t affect at all?”
The attacks brewing in Canada mirror a conservative playbook from the United States, Johnstone said.
“It starts by demonizing trans people, targeting events like drag story hours, and then moving on toward legislative attacks on trans and gender-diverse people. It’s what we just saw with Maxime Bernier and the People’s Party of Canada announcement that he would repeal conversion therapy bans and repeal trans rights legislation.”
Alongside more than 100 civil society organizations, Wisdom2Action is calling on the federal government to develop a fund to support local organizations that combat rising hate and misinformation.
“This isn’t just a question of our rights,” Johnstone said. “It’s a question of who we are as a society and who we want to be as a country.”