Proud Boys protest all-ages drag show at Tea Zaanti

It’s not the first time all-ages drag at the Salt Lake City business has dealt with harassment.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Proud Boy members protest an all-ages drag show outside Tea Zaanti, a local wine and tea shop, in Salt Lake City on Friday, Jan. 20, 2023.

Inside Tea Zaanti — a wine and tea shop in Salt Lake City’s Sugar House neighborhood — Friday night, a packed room of about 40 people sang and danced, guided by drag queens performing an all-ages show.

Outside the shop, at 1944 S. 1100 East, five people dressed in black, yellow and camo — identifying themselves as being with the Salt Lake chapter of the Proud Boys — stood on the public sidewalk in the freezing cold. They shouted at people going into Tea Zaanti, called them “groomers,” and said they should be ashamed.

At least one carried a semi-automatic rifle and a 9mm handgun.

Tea Zaanti’s co-owner, Scott Lyttle, called the police, he said, out of concern for performers and for his staff and guests.

Several Salt Lake City police officers responded. Lyttle said police asked demonstrators about their firearms, instructed them to stay on the sidewalk, and told them not to use the megaphone they brought.

The evening remained peaceful, Lyttle said, and it was intense. The tea shop has never had people protesting outside before, he said.

The protester carrying the firearms identified himself to The Salt Lake Tribune as the founder of the Proud Boys’ Salt Lake chapter, which he said he launched in 2016. The man, who wore a face mask, did not give his name, but said he lives in Salt Lake County. He also asked to be identified as Hispanic, to show that not all Proud Boys are white.

He said it was the first time his group had protested at Tea Zaanti but they had attended other events in Utah.

“I believe a lot of things affect children, whether it be a drag show or a scary movie, children are impressionable,” he said. “When we start to blur the lines between good and bad, men and women, it starts to become an issue because then laws start to get passed ... it just gets real messy.”

The demonstrator said the Proud Boys would not have showed up if there weren’t children at the show.

“We’re not here to impede on people’s way of life,” he said.

He then added, “You would never bring a kid to a strip club. Why would this be any different? Sexualized women dancing in front of boys — this is a man dressed as a woman dancing sexually in front of children.”

Through the window of the shop, he said the protesters could see drag queens showing children how to walk like them. The protestors stood out in the cold for all of the show’s three-hour run.

Tea Zaanti has been hosting drag shows for more than a year, Lyttle said.

“We’re not doing anything illegal here,” he said. “It’s good wholesome fun. People have a right to be upset about it, but that’s beyond me.”

This isn’t the first time Tea Zaanti has dealt with harassment for this drag show, called “Bes-Teas.” In September, reviews of the business plummeted on such sites as Yelp and Google, after the social media group Libs of TikTok amplified a video on Tea Zaanti’s Instagram account.

The Proud Boys member said they would protest future drag shows at Tea Zaanti, “whenever there’s children involved.”

Inside Tea Zaanti, a group of seven friends — five of them moms — who attended the show heard protesters call them “groomers.” The friends, who gave only their first names, said they came out to support the queer community.

The protesters looked intimidating, said one named Kelly.

“They were threatening,” she said, adding, “I’m not used to being around people who are trying to scare me out of doing things that aren’t harmful.”

Another mom, Tessa, said that a nonbinary trans family member recently died — and that their 8-year-old child misses them. Watching the drag queens, she said, their “souls are exactly what I want my kids to see.”

Katelyn, who also attended, rejected the “groomer” tag, aiming it back at the protesters. “Hatred, like that,” said Katelyn, pointing over her shoulder out the window, “is bred more by example than anything inherent like sexuality or sexual orientation.”

When the show ended, Lyttle walked a family with three children safely back to their car, ignoring the shouts from the remaining protesters — which included four teen boys who had been passing by, and decided to join in the jeering after the Proud Boys explained why they were there. Lyttle walked back into the shop, and turned off the “open” sign.

Tara Lipsyncki, the Utah drag queen who produces the event, said they have made plans to deal with protesters before, but Friday’s demonstration was still nerve-wracking for the adults in the room.

The children inside didn’t look nervous, Lipsyncki said, adding that one mother explained that the group outside had chosen hate while those inside were choosing love.

“The Bes-Teas show here at Tea Zaanti always comes from a place of love, innocence and queer joy,” said Lipsyncki, a longtime advocate of giving queer youth the space to be accepted and loved unconditionally. “There’s nothing inappropriate, it just allows kids and adults to come out as a family and enjoy an art form that’s been around forever.”

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