Before the music and joy started, 13 drag artists huddled to talk about safety.
The performers at Friday’s “Bes-Teas” all-ages drag show, at the Sugar Space Arts Warehouse in Salt Lake City, listened to instructions about what to do if there was a safety issue during the show — which direction to run, where to gather and what to do next.
It had been seven weeks since the last “Bes-Teas” show, then held at a Salt Lake City tea shop, attracted a group of armed protesters identifying themselves as members of the Proud Boys. The group, led by someone carrying a semi-automatic rifle and a 9mm handgun, showed up outside the show on Jan. 20, shouting at people entering the shop, calling them “groomers” and other insults.
False rhetoric like “groomers,” an Associated Press analysis found, is dangerous. “The term ‘grooming’ in a sexual sense describes how child molesters entrap and abuse their victims,” the AP wrote. “Its use by opponents of drag, as well as by protesters in other realms of LGBTQ opposition, seeks to falsely equate it with pedophilia and other forms of child abuse.”
Tara Lipsyncki, the Utah drag artist who hosts and produces the all-ages shows, took the stage at Sugar Space after the safety huddle, wearing a white dress spray-painted in pink and blue, in support of trans youth. The dress had phrases written around the hem: “All drag is valid” and “Save trans youth.”
Lipsyncki delivered a firm message to the audience, who were seated and standing in Sugar Space’s in-the-round event space. “Let’s show them we aren’t the monsters they portray us as,” Lipsyncki said. “Tonight is about queer joy and youth.”
No protesters were in evidence outside Friday’s show, but there were people on patrol: Members of the Armed Queers of Salt Lake City, which describes itself as “a socialist LGBTQ organization dedicated to self-defense and self-determination of people’s movements.”
The group wore protective gear, including armor plates. Some wore patches; one read “long live drag queens.” A Pride flag ruffled in the strong wind behind them. The group stayed outside, wearing trash bags to ward off the wind and rain, for the entire show.
Armed Queers organizer Ermiya Fanaeian said the 10 people in the group carried around 10 handguns and semi-automatic rifles.
The group, Fanaeian said, has engaged in different political struggles, but this was the first time they have done so with arms. They plan to keep offering their protection for events like this.
“It’s not only our future, but it’s our past and our present as well. Violence against us has always been a reality,” Fanaeian said. “Going forward, it’s only going to become worse unless we fight back.”
Protests and legislation
Nationwide in 2022, protests and threats were logged at 141 drag events in 47 states, according to GLAAD, the LGBTQ+ media advocacy group.
A study from UCLA’s School of Law showed LGBT people are nine times more likely than non-LGBT people to be victims of violent hate crimes. The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project found that in 2022, “far-right militias and militant social movements like the Proud Boys have ramped up their engagement in anti-LGBT+ demonstrations by over three times,” compared to 2021.
Experts in psychology and child development, PolitiFact reported, “said they are not aware of any evidence showing that increased exposure to LGBTQ people or topics makes children more likely to join the LGBTQ community.”
Even so, opposition to drag shows has spilled into legislative action. In Tennessee, Gov. Bill Lee signed a law to restrict “adult cabaret performances” in public or where children might be — with a ban within 1,000 feet of schools, public parks and places of worship. Lawmakers in at least eight other states were considering bills to restrict or criminalize drag shows, NPR reported.
The Utah Legislature, whose session ended on March 3, had considered a bill that would have required organizers of events in a “public entity” to post warnings if the event had an “adult theme.” The bill — prompted by the controversy over an HBO reality show that staged a drag performance in a St. George park last year — passed the House but languished in the Senate.
The “Bes-Teas” shows, which Lipsyncki has been producing for more than a year, had drawn backlash online. Tea Zaanti, the Sugar House wine and tea shop that first hosted the shows, received a flurry of negative online reviews, after a video of one of the shows was amplified by an anti-LGBTQ web platform. After the armed protesters came to the shop in January, Lipsyncki and the shop’s co-owner decided mutually to find a new venue.
Brittany Dew, the owner of Sugar Space at 132 S. 800 West in the Poplar Grove neighborhood, said that “I might get backlash [for] any kind of event I have.” She added that “we’re here for the community, this is a welcoming place” — and that the only groups she wouldn’t welcome are those promoting hate or violence.
‘My art is not a threat, it’s joy’
At Friday’s show, there were 20 or so young children, dancing, laughing and having fun with their families and the performers. During an intermission, many of the kids took to the stage to dance to “We Don’t Talk About Bruno,” from the Disney movie “Encanto.” Among those in the audience was Utah House Minority Leader Angela Romero, a Salt Lake City Democrat.
Besides Lipsyncki, Friday’s show featured 12 performers — many of them who were at the January show that drew armed protesters. One of them was Lavender Couture, age 17, who said they recalled feeling scared that they were going to get killed.
Being able to perform, for the first time ever, was monumental for them. “There’s not many opportunities for young trans folk like myself,” Couture said.
Couture’s performance, a proclamation of their identity, was set to Katy Perry’s song “Firework.” Couture — wearing a sparkly rainbow jumpsuit and a blue wig that kept coming off and was eventually tossed aside — drew cheers when they pointed to themself while singing the lyric “after a hurricane comes a rainbow.” More cheers erupted when Couture held out a trans flag.
Making their second performance, drag artist Proscenium Peculiar said performing is important because it’s an opportunity to be an example to a younger generation.
“I am kind of on the older end” of the drag community, Peculiar said. “For me, it’s freeing, it’s an art, it’s a way to be expressive. To show that to younger kids, [that] we’re safe, loving and kind, that’s so exciting to me.”
The advocacy group The Trevor Project, in their 2022 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health, found that LGBTQ youth listed “going to drag shows” as one of ways they found joy in their live
The show closed with Lipsyncki bringing all the performers to the stage, each carrying a sign with a different saying — such as “I exist and it’s OK” and “My art is not a threat, it’s joy.” It was a celebration of queer joy at a time during which queer rights are under attack.
In her 10 years of being in drag arts, Lipsyncki said, they’ve never been this scared to put on a show before. But at the end of the night, the message she shared with patrons and performers alike was loud and clear.
“We will see you next time,” they told the audience.
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