Rightwing student culture war group Turning Point UK is organising another protest at a “drag queen story time” on Friday. Its last effort at the Honor Oak pub in south London on 25 February saw the group so vastly outnumbered by counter-protesters that it was confined to a street corner hundreds of metres from the venue. The twist this time is that it’s protesting an event that isn’t even taking place.
Turning Point UK (TPUK) appears to have been scouring pub listings for drag shows to protest. A recurring listing for a drag storytime event hosted by Clip Theatre was wrongly posted on the website of the Great Exhibition pub in East Dulwich, south London, so TPUK decided to picket it without bothering to check that the event was actually happening. It wasn’t.
A statement on the pub’s website says that TPUK “appear to be opposing our Drag Storytime event for the under 5s, an event that took place in July 2022 […] There is no event booked at the Great Exhibition next Friday, nor has there ever been.”
Undaunted, TPUK doubled down, calling the pub – a roasts and rugby kind of place owned by a craft brewery – “sneaky lefties”, and saying the protest would go ahead.
The protest will feature GB News presenter Deacon Calvin Robinson and former actor turned culture warrior and GB News presenter Laurence Fox.
Protesting an event that doesn’t exist is the perfect metaphor for how TPUK and other far-right groups are chasing shadows in their bid to find a new outrage. The group use photos taken out of context, or find unrelated examples of performances for adults to suggest that drag artists are giving sexualised performances to young children.
Flick, a drag artist who performs with a luscious red wig and an upturned moustache, says: “It has always been a case of context and content. The stuff that I do is age-appropriate, down from what shoes I’m wearing […] [to] the material that I’m performing.
“It’s very much like an actor doing a children’s show – it’s catered to [children] and adapted to them.
“I think that all of the bigots that are protesting drag story times really should actually try and know what is going on, because they make up some wild accusations and it’s literally just somebody reading a story in fancy dress.”
Chez, a mum of two who has enjoyed events put on by Clip theatre, says it is “so nice to be able to go out and do something together in the middle of the day and still bring the baby and not have to get babysitters. I didn’t have to sit on the floor and sing nursery rhymes, you know – there’s only so much that you can do.”
And her baby? “He loved it”, because there were “amazing lights and sound and the music was constantly changing […] My little one was wholeheartedly entertained as well.”
In the land of panto dames, Lily Savage and Shakespeare, hysteria about drag is a US import.
Allan Jones, a spokesperson from anti-fascist research group Red Flare, says that drag story hours have been a popular target on the American far right, “with groups like the Proud Boys leading protests against it.”
It was imported into the UK in part by Patriotic Alternative, a neo-Nazi group which has “strong links to the US far right”, Jones says.
“The issue has also been popular with the kind of people that would go on anti-Covid lockdown protests, as well as ‘sovereign citizen’ types – conspiracy theorists.
“TPUK latching on to these protests is an example of a supposedly mainstream conservative organisation taking a strategy from fascists, which tells you a lot about the kind of people involved in TPUK.”
While anti-drag activism may be inspired by US groups, it fits neatly with the current cultural climate in the UK, where the media has whipped up a moral panic about gender norms.
Drag artist Carrot, who bills themselves as “the drag vegetable”, says: “The obsession with drag performers is rehashed homophobia and queerphobia. I feel like when you throw in all the panic around trans people […] I would say it’s kind of all mish-mashed into this sort of weird mess of general fear around alternative gender expression.
“Queerness is something that should be celebrated and experienced from all ages, just the same as seeing a straight couple going around any TV programme or any part of mainstream pop culture, or a wedding.”
“The idea that the far right actually care about protecting children is absolute bullshit,” says Jones. “They’re instrumentalising the [supposed] risk to children to push their reactionary views. They see drag story time as an example of sexual deviancy which they disapprove of because it breaks from the idea of the traditional family.”
While the purported reasons for protesting drag story hour may be mythical, the concern it has caused among performers is very real.
Flick has changed their routine: “I now don’t travel in drag face anymore. I used to, but now I don’t because of the very real threat of a hate crime happening.”
Carrot says: “I am finding myself wanting to be more careful about what I share about myself online. The right are scary because they will dox you, they will post your address online, they will find your family and I don’t want to put that on them.”
Clip Theatre used to run a drag queen story time event, but stopped these in 2022 due to the climate of anti-queer hysteria promoted by the rightwing press. It now mostly concentrates on a bring baby drag bingo event, which involves a drag queen singing popular songs while reading bingo numbers for new parents. The company’s safeguarding policy now has a section on “those who would seek to disrupt these events for political, ideological or religious beliefs.”
Ironically, people who turn up to events to “protect” children from drag queens are themselves a potential threat.
Heather Duster is a female drag performer who has been working in London for the last six years, and who has worked professionally with children in and out of drag for a decade. Last year she was doing an end-of-year show for students at an art college. She says that a man came to an event, put his hand up during a question and answer session and called the drag queens “prostitutes”. The man also confused the name of another drag queen at the event, Cornish Pasty, with pasties – a kind of erotic nipple tassel.
“He called what we’re doing ‘woman-face’, which is ironic as I’m an AFAB [assigned female at birth] individual – hilarious.”
“Bearing in mind there are kids in the front row who are happily sitting there having a lovely time. Their parents are there. He comes on his own and obviously has no children […] he was the only person at this event, making it unsafe for children and saying things like this in front of kids.”
Clip Theatre chooses to avoid anything that could be taken out of context or misconstrued as sexualised. “It looks more like Butlins than a drag show,” says Mhairi Grealis, the company’s founder.
She concedes that other operators and venues could improve their safeguarding – partly to protect performers from being put in a difficult position – for instance performing a brunch set aimed at adults, unaware that children would be present.
But she says that more raunchy cabarets for parents where babies are present that have been seized upon by TPUK shouldn’t be looked at with horror.
“Those children are far too young to understand anything, it’s not going to damage them in any way. There’s adult comedy for mums, there are films for mums that are at age 18 where they bring their babies, and they don’t have a single objection about that.”
“But that’s not what TPUK’s protests are about,” she says. “Look at the Royal Mile on any given day at midday at the Edinburgh Festival and you will see women in suspender belts. You will see men with nothing but a pair of pants do a tightrope walk, you will see all sorts of things. Or Carnival where there are people shaking their booties wearing a thong. And no one’s got anything to say about that. This is homophobia. That’s what it is.”
Simon Childs is a commissioning editor and reporter for Novara Media.