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Jen Gerson is a contributing columnist for The Globe and Mail.

Everyone seemed baffled that such an incident could happen in Calgary. In February, several people forcibly removed a local street preacher from a Reading With Royalty event at the Seton library. Video of the event shows a pastor named Derek Reimer being pushed out the door and to the floor; police arrested him shortly afterward and charged him with hate-motivated offences.

Reading With Royalty is Calgary’s iteration of a now-widespread program in which drag queens and kings read to children, events that have become common across North America. But they’ve recently become the subject of intense backlash among those who claim that such events expose children to inappropriate sexual content. That growing outrage is digging an increasingly nasty trench of the culture war, with protests popping up south of the border. Tennessee has even banned drag events where children could be present.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, a vein of that trench has worked its way into Calgary, where preachers such as Mr. Reimer have taken to protesting drag events with such zeal that city council has passed new bylaws to restrict protesting related to human rights within 100 metres of a library or recreation centre.

It’s tempting to fall back on old Alberta stereotypes to explain this. But Mr. Reimer is in league with a subset of well-known local street pastors who have challenged everything from noise bylaws to COVID-19 restrictions in recent years. While these street pastors do offer food and ministry to the poor, they also excel in a form of stunt preaching seemingly designed to evoke publicity, sympathy, and donations. They are a fringe element, even among evangelicals.

However, Kevin Allen, the research lead with the Calgary Gay History project, told me he feels as if the pendulum is beginning to swing against the LGBTQ+ community, and I can’t say I disagree.

“I have a notion that it’s … foreign provocateurs who are radicalizing Canadians into these kinds of crazy, intellectually untenable positions and thought processes,” he said.

In recent years, he added, the meaning and context of drag has changed. Drag shows are no longer the exclusively sexually explicit, risqué performances that were once confined to bars and nightclubs. The massive popularity of mainstream TV shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race has opened gender-bending into an art form that can be age-appropriate, an evolution that Mr. Allen said was driven by the legalization of gay marriage and thus the rise in queer parents.

He says it’s a mystery to him why things have turned for Reading With Royalty, which has been popular for years. That’s where he and I disagree.

That’s not because there’s anything wrong with drag performers reading to kids in libraries; by all accounts, these events are innocuous. Parents who are uncomfortable with exposing their kids to drag in principle have an easy solution: don’t go. There is no good reason for busting down the doors screaming about the saving grace of Jesus.

But these events sit at the nexus of an increasingly fraught nest of local and global issues surrounding transgender rights and accommodation and LGBTQ+ expression – and the ever-sensitive question of how much children ought to be exposed to any of it.

In the same month that Mr. Reimer was arrested, a Calgary parent claimed that a transgender woman had exposed her penis to children in the changing room of the Canyon Meadows Aquatic & Fitness Centre. The Calgary Police Service responded on March 2, noting that officers had investigated the incident and found no cases of indecent exposure. They added that such claims circulating on social media harmed the community.

And indeed they did: concerned parents and religious protesters (and counter-protesters) gathered to demonstrate outside the pool.

Of course, this is all happening against a much broader backdrop. While they appear to be rare, there are examples of all-ages drag shows in the U.S. and the U.K. that do show performers wearing sexually revealing clothing or making lewd and suggestive jokes in front of minors.

There’s no evidence that anything of the sort is or was going on at the Calgary Public Library. However, conservative commentators are quick to amplify the most extreme examples, often using homophobic framing, such as accusing members of the LGBTQ+ community of “grooming” children.

Anyone who watches a drag story hour will quickly see how ridiculous this is. But it takes no great leap to understand where the backlash comes from. Make kids the focus of any kind of activism, no matter how well-intentioned, and the deepest lizard-brain fears of parents can get zapped.

“There is a dramatized and emotionally overwrought narrative about ‘saving our children.’ That’s a common trope in queer history,” said Mr. Allen. “Homosexuals and trans people are always considered bad influences. ‘The corruption of minors’ is a theme that we see over and over again throughout history.”

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