The deadly attack at an LGBTQ club in Colorado last month — where a shooter turned the venue’s “Drag Divas” night into a massacre — has made an already harrowing year for drag performers worse. Eight of the country’s top drag queens told NBC News that the current environment has subdued their larger-than-life personas, prompting four of them to increase security at their events in recent weeks.
The Nov. 19 shooting at Colorado Springs’ sole LGBTQ nightclub, Club Q, left five people dead and 17 others shot and injured. The 22-year-old suspect is being held without bond on suspicion of murder and hate crimes, though a motive has not been shared by authorities.
This attack comes on the heels of widespread anti-LGBTQ rhetoric, over 100 protests and threats directed at drag events and several pieces of novel legislation seeking to restrict drag shows.
“We’re trying to smile and make people happy for the holidays, and in the back of our heads we’re thinking, ‘I hope I don’t get shot,’” said Jinkx Monsoon, winner of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” season five and “RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars” season seven.
Monsoon, who is set to make her Broadway debut in “Chicago” next year, said that over the past several months, she had been using metal detectors and creating venue escape routes for her U.S. events. Since the Club Q shooting, however, she has hired armed guards and has started to ban re-entry following the start of her performances.
Drag superstar Alaska Thunderf— 5000, winner of “RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars” season two and co-host of the popular drag podcast “Race Chaser,” said that in the days following the Club Q shooting, she sat down with her staff to plot out escape routes for each venue remaining on her current nationwide tour.
At a couple of her gigs this week, police squad cars have been stationed down the block from the venues, she added.
“It’s mortifying that we even have to think about these things for something as joyous and celebratory as a drag show,” Alaska said. “Why do we have to be worried about where the exits are and where a safe route to get to safety is? It’s terrifying, but that’s the reality of it.”
Bigoted rhetoric and violence
The Club Q shooting, while the most high-profile and deadly attack affecting the LGBTQ community this year, followed a string of attacks on the queer community — particularly transgender people and drag performers (many of whom identify as gay men or trans women offstage).
For months, many right-wing lawmakers, media personalities and activists have accused LGBTQ people — and drag performers in particular — of “grooming,” “indoctrinating” and “sexualizing” children.
The word “grooming” has long been associated with mischaracterizing LGBTQ people, particularly gay men and transgender women, as child sex abusers, and advocates have warned recently that its resurgence could lead to real-world violence.
The day after Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, signed the Parental Rights in Education law — or what critics have dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill — the word “grooming” was mentioned on Twitter nearly 8,000 times, compared with just 40 times on the first day of this year, according to Alejandra Caraballo, a clinical instructor at Harvard Law School’s Cyberlaw Clinic.
Even in the days following the Colorado Springs shooting, some right-wing figures doubled down on the rhetoric.
Last week, Fox News host Tucker Carlson was joined by the leader of Gays Against Groomers, a self-described “coalition of gays against the sexualization, indoctrination and medicalization of children,” who said shootings would continue to happen “until we end this evil agenda that is attacking children.” Neither a representative for Fox News nor Gays Against Groomers immediately responded to NBC News’ requests for comment.
Monsoon told NBC News that online trolls have flooded two of her old music videos over the past two weeks with disparaging comments accusing drag queens of sexualizing children. The music videos featured hired teen and child actors, dancing innocently and attending a backyard birthday party.
“Because they can’t call us ‘faggots,’ because we have enough support behind us, they call us ‘groomers’ and ‘pedophiles’ instead,” Monsoon said.
Aside from the surge in trope-laced rhetoric, LGBTQ Americans have also been subjected to threats or acts of violence.
A report released by LGBTQ media advocacy group GLAAD days after the Club Q shooting found that drag events faced at least 124 protests and significant threats in 47 states so far this year. In Tulsa, Oklahoma, for example, a doughnut shop was vandalized and firebombed by a Molotov cocktail in two separate incidents after it hosted a drag event in October, according to KFOR and KJRH, NBC affiliates in Oklahoma.
Yvie Oddly, winner of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” season 11, said her management company sent her and other drag performers an email Tuesday, saying they had requested extra security staff at their shows and will have the security teams check patrons for guns.
“It is unfortunate that the world has come to this, but your safety and that of the communities you visit is the priority,” the email, which Oddly shared with NBC News, says.
On Wednesday, the Department of Homeland Security in a terrorism advisory bulletin raised concerns about potential threats to the LGBTQ, Jewish and migrant communities from violent extremists inside the U.S. The bulletin said some extremists have been inspired by recent attacks, including the Colorado Springs shooting.
An old art form meets new opponents
Drag has been an art form since at least the 16th century, and in its modern form, with individual performers building up their own fan bases, since the early 1900s. However, the art form has only recently been thrust into the center of the latest American culture war.
Latrice Royale, who has appeared on both “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and “RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars,” reasoned that the backlash is due to the greater visibility of drag brought on by the global success of the RuPaul-led competition shows, which have spinoffs in at least 16 other countries. Since it launched in 2009, “RuPaul’s Drag Race” has become a global phenomenon, giving mainstream legitimacy to a nightclub art form and transforming small-town performers into worldwide celebrities.
“Back in the day, before drag was so mainstream and on every television channel and all of the media and daytime, we were underground,” Royale, 50, who has been doing drag for over 30 years, said. “Everything happened at night, at nightclubs, in the wee hours of the morning. It was not accessible to the mainstream of the world.”
Drag’s move from queer nightclubs to prime-time television brought it — and its over-the-top characters and costumes — legions of new fans, including children.
Drag performers who have hosted events that have catered to children, such as Drag Story Hours at public libraries or family-friendly drag brunches, have particularly drawn the ire of conservative protesters.
“I don’t like parents bringing their kids to meet me, because I don’t want to be seen next to a kid, because I don’t want to be labeled a pedophile,” Monsoon said. “You start to mistrust yourself for no other reason than this language is just being put on you constantly. It is dehumanizing. It makes you feel insane to just be yourself.”
So far this year, at least eight bills have been proposed seeking to restrict drag, according to GLAAD. Last month, for example, a bill was introduced in Tennessee that would ban drag queens from performing on public or private property in the presence of a minor. If signed into law, repeat offenders would be charged with a felony and could face up to six years in prison.
At least two members of Congress, Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Lauren Boebert of Colorado, have spoken out against children being at drag performances, with Greene saying, in part, “It should be illegal to take children into Drag Queen shows.” Neither Greene nor Boebert immediately responded to NBC News’ requests for comment.
The eight drag queens who spoke with NBC News all agreed that not every drag performance is appropriate for minors — just like not every television show or movie is meant for children. These performers said when their shows incorporate adult material, they include parental advisory warnings on their tickets and show advertisements. However, they added that because not all drag is appropriate for children does not mean it should be banned entirely or face draconian restrictions.
“People need to look at us like they look at any other profession or art forms,” Oddly said. “There are some things that are not going to be made for the youth, but that does not mean that all of us are out here, like people seem to think we are, trying to ‘convert’ or ‘groom’ or whatever.”
Despite the challenges for the drag industry in recent months, Shea Couleé, who won the fifth season of “RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars,” cautioned young performers not to live in fear.
“You can’t shake a b—- that’s not afraid of you,” Couleé said. “I can get maybe a disapproving glance, but the moment I look them deadass in the eye and make eye contact, who do you think is the one looking down at the ground first? Them.”
BenDeLaCreme, who appeared on the sixth season of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and the third season of “RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars,” shared a similar sentiment.
“Young people, people starting out, need to know that they are a proud part of tradition and lineage that is about visibility and aggressively being oneself despite all odds and despite what you’re being told,” BenDeLaCreme said. “Don’t let any of this push you back into a closet or keep you from being fully who you are.”