Drag events in Illinois among the most targeted in the country, report finds

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A recent report by the world’s largest LGBTQ media advocacy organization found Illinois ranked third on a list of states with the highest number of drag events that were targeted and threatened in 2022.

The report released by GLAAD in late November offered a “comprehensive count and analysis of increased threats, protests and violent action against drag events nationwide.” The organization found 141 anti-LGBTQ incidents targeting drag events specifically, eight of which were in Illinois.

GLAAD found news reports in 47 states around the U.S. excluding South Dakota, Rhode Island, West Virginia and the city of Washington, D.C. The states with the highest number of targeted drag events at the time the report was released Nov. 22 were Texas and North Carolina, both with 10, followed by Illinois with eight, Tennessee and California, both with six, and Georgia with five, according to the report.

The majority took place during Pride Month in June and in the fall, with incidents and rhetoric surrounding them becoming increasingly violent as the year went on, according to the report.

Waylon Werner-Bassen, who also goes by Mrs. Yuka as a performer and is co-producer of the Chicago chapter of children’s literacy nonprofit Drag Story Hour, said he believes much of the pushback is rooted in a lack of understanding and people unable to separate gender and sexuality.

In Illinois, drag events advertised for families, such as story times, have been especially targeted by protesters.

“People don’t understand that all it is (is) reading of books and trying to create empathy in these kids, but also showing them the diverse nature of their communities and ensuring that they’re actually then getting diverse books to read,” Werner-Bassen said. “I think sometimes, the unknown scares people, but once they learn we’re more than a stereotype, we get a lot of support.”

Ginger Forest reads “Going Places” at a story time with drag queens during brunch at Jerry's Sandwiches on Sept. 18, 2022, in Lincoln Square in Chicago. Jacob Welch is drag queen Ginger Forest and performed with his daughter Summer, aka Candi Forest. The event is family-friendly.

Ginger Forest reads “Going Places” at a story time with drag queens during brunch at Jerry’s Sandwiches on Sept. 18, 2022, in Lincoln Square in Chicago. Jacob Welch is drag queen Ginger Forest and performed with his daughter Summer, aka Candi Forest. The event is family-friendly. (Erin Hooley / Chicago Tribune)

The nonprofit has faced issues in several states where there is a chapter, he said. Before coming to the Chicago area, he was the founder of the chapter in Nebraska, where he said “specific statements” were made about trying to target every state in which there was a Drag Story Hour chapter.

While several reports happened in smaller cities and towns in the southern and midwestern parts of the U.S., many also took place in areas with large LGBTQ populations and within LGBTQ-inclusive communities, according to the GLAAD report.

TJ Billard is an assistant professor at Northwestern University’s school of communication and executive director of the Center for Applied Transgender Studies, a Chicago-based independent nonprofit research organization. Billard, who uses the pronouns they/them, said a possible explanation why Illinois ranks so high is because of the high concentration of LGBTQ people in the area.

“This is a place where LGBTQ people live to be safe, but that’s also been where they can be found and attacked,” they said. “I think that’s part of what’s going on. On the other hand, I think a lot of it has to do with the degree of polarization between urban and rural communities. Illinois is a blue state by population numbers, but not by geography distribution. When we look at the volume of people, including drag artists, in this state, and then we also look at the urban-rural divide, we end up with this clash.”

In late July, UpRising Bakery and Cafe in suburban Lake in the Hills was vandalized ahead of its highly anticipated drag show set to take place later that same day. The “Starry Night Brunch Drag” at the bakery was sold out and advertised as a family-friendly evening filled with food and entertainment.

Diners arrive for a drag brunch performance at UpRising Bakery and Cafe on Aug. 7, 2022, in Lake in the Hills. The bakery was vandalized ahead of its highly anticipated drag show.

Diners arrive for a drag brunch performance at UpRising Bakery and Cafe on Aug. 7, 2022, in Lake in the Hills. The bakery was vandalized ahead of its highly anticipated drag show. (Brian Cassella / Chicago Tribune)

In September, the Downers Grove Public Library canceled a drag bingo event that was scheduled for October after receiving a threatening letter that included a bullet and the words “more to come.” Library staff also got a number of aggressive emails and threats from residents after the event, a bingo night for young adults featuring drag queen Aurora Divine, was announced.

Lincoln Park Zoo had come under scrutiny for planning a drag story time as part of its Fall Fest programming in early October, according to its social media posts, while drag events as part of Plainfield’s first Pride Fest were also protested in October.

According to the GLAAD report, many of the drag events that were threatened with protests or violence were first targeted by right-leaning groups, media outlets and social media accounts. A number of the incidents in Illinois have, in part, been sparked by social media campaigns from Awake Illinois, a group rooted in the suburbs that formed through the anti-mask, anti-vaccine fervor amid the COVID-19 pandemic and has since been criticized for inflammatory anti-LGBTQ rhetoric.

These entities tended to misrepresent drag events and spin them as “harmful to children,” the report said. Threats and protests would soon follow.

Werner-Bassen said he believes groups like Awake Illinois are born from larger organizations at the national and international level that are trying to push an anti-drag and anti-LGBTQ agenda, with groups like Drag Story Hour being targeted.

He said while some level of opposition happens with all their events, it’s more common in events taking place in the suburbs as opposed to the city. Another trend, he said, is seeing more drag events targeted when the topic comes up in political circles on large platforms with some exchange of anti-LGBTQ rhetoric that then “trickles down and encourages” smaller local groups.

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“Overall, we have felt very safe and our community, especially in the greater Chicagoland, has made us feel very welcomed and we usually have great turnouts with really supportive families,” Werner-Bassen said. “So it is surprising that we’re such a diverse area and we’re high on the list, but I also think it’s because usually the loudest people making noise and planting the seeds aren’t even from our community.”

A reason he believes why Illinois ranks so high on the list could be the “sheer amount of events” in Illinois, which naturally means more opportunities for conflict. Another explanation could be the fact these types of incidents do get a lot of publicity in Illinois and don’t go unreported.

“In the Chicago area and Illinois being a blue state, you’ve got all types of ideologies being tackled everywhere,” he said. “There’s more discussion about what happens here. I think in places like Illinois, it doesn’t get shoved under the rug as much because there are so many people that are supportive of these communities, so they want to talk about it and address it.”

While Billard said the LGBTQ community has come a long way in terms of gaining outward tolerance, acceptance and support, progress is inevitably a “double-edged sword.”

“We’re seeing improvements in life quality and political and social and economic parity, but there are people on the radical right who are fearful of the progress that has been made and try to stop that,” they said. “It can be confusing when it feels like things are getting worse only because they got better. We are at a crucial point in culture and society where either backlash to LGBTQ+ equality will overtake us or we will overcome the wave with continued support and be on our way to a more lasting and stable and equitable future.”

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December 18, 2022 at 10:12AM

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