When a hate group appears in a community, it usually sparks a local debate about the best way to confront it. Lander faced this question last month when white nationalists tried, and failed, to disrupt a drag show celebrating LGBTQ Pride month.
Photos of the anemic protest taken by Wind River Pride showed about 15 men standing on a bridge, hiding their faces, unfurling hateful banners and shouting offensive slogans. Fortunately, these cowardly bullies scurried off in less than 30 minutes without physical violence.
Not all such displays of hatred end peacefully. Five people were killed and 19 wounded in a mass shooting last November at Club Q, an LGBTQ nightclub in Colorado Springs. With that, and countless other examples in our history, it’s no wonder that the sight of a group of angry men anywhere near a drag show makes people uncomfortable.
Of course, that discomfort is precisely what groups like those that showed up in Lander are after: Their goal, among other things, is to keep Americans from exercising their rights to free expression (in this case by canceling a drag show) by sowing fear and intimidation. The far-right — including media like Fox News and Newsmax — has convinced many Americans that our transgender friends, family, neighbors and coworkers are a threat to our ways of life and (here’s the real emotional trigger) a danger to our children.
The premise, borrowed from the KKK’s old canard that Black men are sexual predators coming for your white wife and daughters, is demonstrably false but remarkably effective at inflaming would-be vigilantes. With that warped tenet of hate established, it’s just a hop, skip and jump to the idea that stopping drag shows is in fact, a holy war with protesters the last line of defense protecting children from pedophiles and “groomers” who want to change kids’ gender identity.
Drag performances have not always been demonized. They’ve been around since ancient Greece, when women were banned from the theater, leaving men to play their roles. Drag shows have become a staple of LGBTQ pride events, but doing drag and being transgender are not the same thing at all. Transgender refers to someone whose gender may differ from the one assigned at birth; drag is a performance art. The performers make the act of expressing gender — through their stage name, clothing, makeup, hair, singing and dancing — highly creative, exaggerated and theatrical.
Artists impersonate men or women, typically in a bar or nightclub. Shows can range from burlesque-style, adult-themed acts to all-ages events with sing-alongs and story times. The latter, performed at children’s libraries and all-ages drag brunches, makes the far-right particularly apoplectic.
I understand why many Wyoming residents think the best reaction is to ignore protests like the one in Lander, so hatemongers receive little attention and move on. Sure, the pot is still stirred somewhere, but at least it’s not here.
But I strongly disagree. I can’t think of an instance where simply ignoring hatred and hoping it doesn’t return has been positive for a community. The best way for a town to take the target off its back is by enacting measures that make sure anti-LGBTQ protesters know they aren’t welcome, because the vast majority of residents love, support and will protect their families, friends and neighbors from persecution.
There are lessons to be learned from other communities that have dealt with such intrusions, and some can be adapted by Wyoming towns. But first, let’s consider why neo-Nazis thought they could breeze into Lander and keep a drag show from happening.
I don’t know how hate groups scout their next sites, but if they scour internet websites, it’s possible a Lander City Council session that drew 150 people to discuss an LGBTQ anti-discrimination proclamation might have captured their attention.
Four days before the drag show, a few residents who opposed the proclamation expressed concerns about upholding Christian values, public decency and the impact public LGBTQ events could have on children.
Perhaps that was enough to convince the group its message might resonate with some residents of our “live and let live” state. Last year there were other divisive decisions, including LGBTQ protests when Fremont County School District No. 1 removed gender identity and sexual orientation from its non-discrimination/harassment policy.
Throughout June, white nationalist groups traveled all over the Northwest and Rocky Mountain regions, often targeting small cities like Lander.
Last year the FBI busted 31 radicals for conspiring to riot at a Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, Pride event. GLAAD, the nation’s largest LGBTQ media advocacy organization, documented more than 160 occasions when drag events were targeted since early 2022, including the firebombing of a Tulsa, Oklahoma, donut shop and an armed confrontation in San Antonio, Texas. Scores of events were canceled.
So, how do cities get off the radar of troublemakers? Communities throughout the nation can offer some advice, starting with a classic Wyoming case in 1998, when the notorious Rev. Fred Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas traveled to Casper to hold an ugly protest at the funeral for gay University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard.
Shepard was brutally murdered by two Laramie men who pistol-whipped him, tied him to a buck fence and left him for dead. Found by a bicyclist, Shepard died five days later.
Many Casper residents thought it best to ban Phelps and not give him a platform for his hate. City officials eventually decided to limit his protest to a small fenced area across the street from the church. Mourners turned their backs on him and his followers and sang “Amazing Grace.”
At a trial in Laramie for one of the killers, Phelps returned to try and glom onto the national spotlight. Imagine his surprise when he was again put in a pen, and saw a group of “Angels” dressed in white headed his way. Organized by Shepard’s friend Romaine Patterson, they spread their wings and blocked Phelps from view.
Phelps wasn’t completely silenced by “Angel Action,” but he might as well have been. To my knowledge he sent a few members of his despicable flock to Casper a few years later, but never returned himself before his death in 2014.
In the same spirit, a group of volunteers known as the Parasol Patrol launched in 2019 in northern Colorado. They now travel to drag shows and other Pride events across the country, using rainbow parasols to shield children and families so they can enjoy the events.
“Nothing makes protesters more angry than to simply twirl your umbrella and smile,” co-founder Eli Bazan told ABC News.
Kate Bitz, an organizer with the Western States Center, a social justice nonprofit, told the Spokane Spokesman-Review if communities stand by Pride organizers, they can often deter hate-groups from showing up. That can include businesses displaying Pride flags and police and city officials sending the message hate isn’t welcome.
“It does make a difference,” Bitz said. “We have seen that over and over again in ways that are surprisingly clear.”
Kyle Wheeler of Centralia, Washington, told the Spokane paper neo-Nazis who travel to Pride events like to carry video cameras to record the shocked looks of attendees when they pull up, and use them in propaganda videos.
So when he got a tip that a group of white supremacists were on their way, Wheeler made sure he and other organizers greeted them when they arrived. Instead of shocked looks, the Pride group simply smiled. Nothing to film here!
There was one confrontation, though, and it involved Wheeler, who was handing out rainbow cupcakes in honor of a friend, drag performer Tru Starlet, who was killed in 2019.
One of the protesters asked for a cupcake. “There will be no cupcakes for Nazis at this event,” Wheeler replied. His answer became a rallying cry for a community trying to cope with their fight against extremism, he said.
Angels spreading their wings, rainbow parasols, smiles galore and no cupcakes for Nazis. Sounds like a winning formula for keeping hate away.