I’ll admit that before it happened, I never felt like LGBTQ+ Pride was for me. Growing up in San Francisco, I quickly lost my zest for the roaring, drunken parties and corporate floats that now characterize Pride month. To me, the pageant rhetoric commemorating Pride’s brave and radical beginnings always seemed so comically at odds with the fact that most Pride-goers appeared to be just… shirtless and wasted out-of-towners. There’s nothing wrong with partying, I thought, but why don’t we just call it what it is?
Piloting Drag Queen Story Hour (DQSH) in 2017 offered me a different way to engage with LGBTQ+ communities. DQSH is a youth literacy program that brings drag performers to bookstores, museums, schools, and public libraries to read children’s books to kids and their families. DQSH empowered me to embody the lifesaving representation that I, and so many other queer and trans adults, yearned for as kids—that so many queer and trans kids still need today. But above all, DQSH expanded queer spaces beyond just nightlife. And I loved it.
So when I was invited to lead a Drag Queen Story Hour at San Lorenzo Public Library last month, I was excited to take it on. But it wasn’t until eight to 10 far-right extremists stormed the event that I realized what LGBTQ+ Pride is truly about.
The extremists marched in single file, clad in the Proud Boys’ black and yellow, cameras outstretched. One man wore a shirt with an assault rifle emblazoned across the front, the bold text under it reading: “KILL YOUR LOCAL PEDOPHILE.”
Another shouted: “So, who brought the tranny?” over a stunned silence. The librarians stood. Security entered. The children panicked at the sudden conflict. My heart hammered in my ears. They couldn’t possibly hurt us at a children’s event, with children present, I thought.
Then I immediately remembered Uvalde.
At that moment, I realized no buffer or legislation protected us from these angry men. We were utterly defenseless, because this was a children’s event and reading books to kids in a library should not require self-defense.
They accused me of grooming and raping children. They accosted the parents for bringing their kids to a “pedophile.” One child buried their head in their parents’ chest. A parent stood to confront them. Frantic, I scanned the extremists’ pockets. Were they armed? With today’s unrelenting wave of gun violence, getting shot felt like an imminent possibility.
So, I did the only thing I could to deescalate the situation. I told Didi the security guard, “I’m leaving.”
Didi escorted me out. The extremists continued shouting, “You aren’t safe here!” One asked: “Where did ‘it’ go? Is ‘it’ still in the building? Let’s go find ‘it’…”
Boarded up in a safe room, my freeze response didn’t abate. I sat in a folding chair with my back pressed to a cubicle wall, taking sharp, quivering breaths. I stared off into a flier on the staff refrigerator, scrambling to wrap my head around what had just happened. Some time later, the librarians informed me that the sheriff had arrived to disperse the extremists, but that they continued to flank the exits, yelling into megaphones, waiting. The librarians joined me in the back room. They asked me what I wanted to do.
My mind swirled with the possibilities of another ambush. But as terrified as I was, I didn’t want the extremists to have the satisfaction of successfully thwarting our reading.
I wanted to finish the book.
Didi took my hand. We ventured out.
Uncomfortably alert, my eyes flitted around the space. Unblocked windows meant I was an open target. I flinched at a man wearing camo cargo shorts, mistaking him for an extremist. He was merely using the Xerox machine. Staying close to the wall, Didi walked me back to the community room, never letting go of my hand. There, the library staff taped construction paper over the windows. I reassumed my seat in front of the kids and their families. Like mine, their eyes flashed, wild and vigilant, as if also trying to piece together what they’d just experienced. I had to say something.
“I’m sorry our Story Hour was interrupted,” I heard myself say. “Sometimes, when you’re different, people are afraid of you. And they’ll project all kinds of things on you. Please don’t let this dissuade you from being yourself.”
The kids were confused. The parents teared up.
I read the Suzanne Lang story, Families, Families, Families! about different permutations of family structures, featuring zoo animals. The parents thanked me and gave me a big hug before leaving.
My partner drove nearly an hour from San Francisco to bring me makeup wipes and “boy” clothes. I wiped off all of my makeup and stuffed my dress, wig, and accessories into a garbage bag.
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My community has been lifesaving; the synergistic force keeping me buoyant since that traumatic day. Through their work, I now understand myself to be one point among a network of queer and trans people protecting fellow queer and trans people, when our systems predictably fail to take swift and sufficient action.
This is a queer tradition with ample historical precedent. Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson founded the STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries) collective to house and support homeless LGBTQ+ youth and sex workers suffering from police harassment in New York City. Lesbian caregivers, friends, and social workers cared for HIV-positive gay men during the AIDS crisis, when few else dared to step up. Queers dressed in drag to skirt laws prohibiting same-sex couples from dancing together, and invented Polari, a code to communicate with one another, defying stringent anti-homosexual laws.
The most radical among us often say “Pride was a riot,” referencing the violent Stonewall riots that historically underpin—and arguably contrast with—today’s corporate-sponsored, police-chaperoned Pride festivities. But Pride is more than just that. It’s also mutual aid, fiercely showing up for one another, and the undying will to keep on keeping on. It’s the dainty mace keychain my friend gifted me. Our encrypted threads on self-defense, peppered with drag race references. Meal trains organized to feed me during my darkest days.
Pride’s radical foundation never disappeared. It lives on, just quieter than the parties, floats and ostentatious rainbow filters. An undercurrent thrumming beneath. It connects us all.
My people are unfathomably creative and resilient. Since time immemorial, our organizing has empowered us to survive state-sanctioned violence and government inaction, sweeping epidemics, and countless hate-fueled atrocities. I am heartened to know that whatever the legal outcome of this particular incident, there is a vast constellation of people who unwaveringly believe in my safety, my humanity, and my right to thrive. Who have my back, and I, theirs. To me, this is our community’s greatest strength.
It’s what LGBTQ+ Pride is truly about.