Queer community the latest target of culture wars

Drag performers and other members of the queer community are increasingly under attack by the far right and religious right both here and overseas.

Chaotic scenes at a Monash City Council meeting on Wednesday night, at which a loose coalition of right wing extremists tried to force councillors to cancel a sold-out drag queen story-time event, were the latest salvo in a growing series of attacks against the LGBTIQ+ community.

Wednesday night’s fracas featured protesters who have previously railed against COVID vaccinations, 5G and other conspiracy theories, alongside members of far right groups such as My Place and Reignite Democracy Australia.

Similar extremist protests in the past – including an anti-trans demonstration on the steps of Victoria’s Parliament House in March attended by neo-Nazis – have occurred nationally and globally.

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews has slammed protesters at such events for importing the ‘worst of American politics … into our state‘.

Often, such protests have led to the cancellation of drag events designed to support rainbow families and young LGBTIQA+ people, as was the case in December 2022 when the City of Stonnington cancelled such an event after threats from neo-Nazis and local members of self-described ‘Western chauvinists’ the Proud Boys.

In the case of the City of Monash, however, Council remained firm and the drag story-time event – featuring drag queen Sam Thompson and marking the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia – will go ahead as planned.

Giving drag a voice

The majority of anti-drag protests are focused on claims that drag is a form of adult entertainment – failing to recognise the fact that, like all professional artists, drag artists are adept at pitching their performances to an individual audience depending on where and when they are performing.

Drag king Belial B’Zarr recently planned to run a series of workshops called The Art of Drag at Bunjil Place for the City of Casey, only to have the five-part workshop series cancelled after increasingly aggressive protests.

Belial B’Zarr. Photo: Supplied.

‘I’ve done these workshops for adult groups, I’ve run them in universities, I’ve done them in person and over Zoom for people who are aged 12 to 18, and then 18 to 25. And there are definitely ways to change the content to make it appropriate to whatever group I’m speaking to,’ B’Zarr said.

The City of Casey workshops were planned for two separate groups, each with age-appropriate content.

‘We had one group that was people in the high school age range, and then people who were in the uni age range in the other group. And a lot of the workshops remain the same; you don’t really need to change things for the performance workshop. It’s all about using your body and getting comfortable and knowing how you can communicate,’ B’Zarr said.

‘However, the Intro to Drag [session] changes pretty significantly. So for the kiddos, I do run a section on consent and getting them thinking about it early [for example, saying], “Hey, if you’re in a big fancy costume, that doesn’t mean it’s OK for people to grab you. It doesn’t mean it’s OK for people to ask you weird questions. You can say no.” And then for the older group who can actually like go into bars and clubs, it’s [along the lines of], “All right, this is how you tell someone to bugger off, this is how you keep safe and this is what isn’t appropriate to do as a performer,’ they said.

Read: Reclaiming Australian history one gay at a time

Once publicity for the Art of Drag program was announced, the backlash was immediate.

‘Literally the moment we started posting, within a couple of hours, people were commenting and saying horrendous things,’ B’Zarr told ArtsHub.

As detailed on their Instagram page, the attacks came from both the far right and the religious right.

‘They’re very much the same. They’re certainly both on the same pipeline. Some of them are just a little bit more fashionable than others,’ B’Zarr said.

The personal toll on B’Zarr has been significant, especially given that this is not the first time their events have been targeted by the far right.

‘I had one event, which was a youth fest event in Moonee Ponds, attacked in September [2022]. And they came and they stood around and shouted a lot of slurs in front of children – and these are people who claim they are protecting the children, by yelling slurs at them? Very odd. So it’s gone from that to harassment online to literal threats and people busting into the [City of Casey] Council meeting.’

Fanning the flames of the culture wars

Many commentators believe that the increasing attacks on the qieer community are a direct response to the religious right losing the marriage equality debate in Australia, the US and other countries.

As journalists Adam Nagourney and Jeremy W Peters wrote in The New York Times earlier this month:

‘When the Supreme Court declared a constitutional right to same-sex marriage nearly eight years ago, social conservatives were set adrift.

‘The ruling stripped them of an issue they had used to galvanise rank and file supporters and big donors. And it left them searching for a cause that – like opposing gay marriage – would rally the base and raise the movement’s profile on the national stage. “We knew we needed to find an issue that the candidates were comfortable talking about,” said Terry Schilling, the president of American Principles Project, a social conservative advocacy group. “And we threw everything at the wall.”

‘What has stuck, somewhat unexpectedly, is the issue of transgender identity, particularly among young people,’ Nagourney and Peters reported.

Motivating such protests are the suggestion that drag performers are ‘sexualising’ children, a slur that will be familiar to many LGBTIQA+ people who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s.

Read: Is staying in the closet bad for your career?

A similar spurious claim is that children at drag story-time events are being ‘groomed’ by the performers.

Writers Aoife Gallagher and Tim Squirrell explored the origins and impacts of ‘the groomer slur‘ in their well-researched article of the same name, noting that it sprang from a variety of sources, including conspiracy theorists associated with ‘Pizzagate’ and QAnon, dark corners of the web such as 4Chan, and the so-called ‘gender critical’ movement, often also known as ‘trans-exclusionary radical feminists’ (TERFs).

‘The overall effect of this complex web of moral panics, conspiratorial thinking and old-school anti-gay tropes is an atmosphere where the “groomer” narrative has served as justification for harassment, attacks, discrimination, intimidation and the erasure of the LGBTQ+ community,’ argue Gallagher and Squirrell.

More death threats received

Another performer who was recently the focus of death threats from right wing protesters is cabaret artist Dolly Diamond.

Diamond was scheduled to host her popular Dolly Diamond: Story Time event at the Mount Gambier Library on Saturday 25 March in the lead-up to subsequent gigs at Fringe Mount Gambier.

As reported by the ABC, a library staff member received a threatening phone call in response to publicity for the event.

Diamond told ArtsHub she had no fears for her safety until the death threat was received.

‘None at all,’ she said, ‘though I know other artists in Australia and the UK – well, all over the world, I guess – that have gone through this. I always wondered whether I was getting away with it because I didn’t use the word “drag” in it, you know, “drag story time”.’

Dolly Diamond. Photo: Supplied.

In addition to the threat made directly to the library, additional abuse was left on the event’s Facebook page.

‘One of the organisers rang me and said, “Are you all right?” and I said “yes”, and then she elaborated on it, because I didn’t even know about it. And then the ABC ran with it, and then their local newspaper,’ Diamond said.

Media attention seems to have only inflamed the situation in the lead-up to the Story Time event, leading protestors to make wild allegations, whereas the performance Diamond offered was naturally age-appropriate.

‘I have no idea what they expected me to be wearing – probably some sort of S&M outfit, which is just ridiculous,’ she said.

When asked if she was concerned for her safety on the day, Diamond replied, ‘Yes, without a doubt, because it’s the unknown… You have absolutely no idea if someone is going to leap through the crowd, and it almost sounds ridiculous, but if this sort of [moral panic] continues then I think it will happen, unless we find some way to make things calm again. The fact that we’re having to justify [drag] at all is f***ing ridiculous.’

This is the first in a three-part series examining the impact of the culture wars on the LGBTIQA+ community. Read part two here, and part three here.

Richard Watts is ArtsHub's National Performing Arts Editor; he also presents the weekly program SmartArts on Three Triple R FM, and serves as the Chair of La Mama Theatre's volunteer Committee of Management. Richard is a life member of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, and was awarded the status of Melbourne Fringe Living Legend in 2017. In 2020 he was awarded the Sidney Myer Performing Arts Awards' Facilitator's Prize. Most recently, Richard was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Green Room Awards Association in June 2021. Follow him on Twitter: @richardthewatts