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How Drag Queen Story Hour protests became the hard right’s gateway drug

Neo-Nazis, National Conservatives, Ron De Santis: everyone on the hard Right is screaming about drag queens in libraries. But the high pitch belies a pragmatic calculation. 

May 20 2023, 14.42pm

GB News has a dilemma. One of its star performers, Calvin Robinson, is incensed about the growing popularity of Drag Queen Story Hour. It’s “grooming,” he says, in one segment. “And that’s a nice word for it. What we are talking about here is paedophilia … ask not why your children need to spend time with drag queens. Ask why drag queens are so keen to spend time with your children”.

It’s quite an accusation. But where is the evidence? In looking to show footage of this apparent outrage, the channel has landed on a film, where, based on the hand gestures, a drag queen appears to be singing “incy-wincy spider” in a children’s library. 

The weird belief that drag queens are grooming children did not start with GB News. It was nurtured in far-right groups and Telegram channels, where ethno-nationalists have developed a narrative about protecting childhood innocence to push its hate into the mainstream.

Conspiracies about drag queens have leapt from far-right Telegram channels and on to people’s TV screens, even finding their ways into Parliament. From there, the argument that LGBTQ+ people are using drag to groom and sexualise innocent children is screamed on the streets of South London, with neo-Nazis joined by anti-vaxxers, anti-abortion activists and ‘free speech’ advocates in a war against so-called ‘gender ideology.’

The new wave of anti-Drag Queen Story Hour narrative filtered down from the top of US politics.

Bridging the gap between far-right conspiracy and the mainstream at the protests are characters such as Calvin Robinson, former-actor turned hard-right provocateur Laurence Fox, and former lads mag journalist Martin Daubney, as well as the wider GB News network, the Reclaim Party, Conservative MPs, and Turning Point UK – a hard-right group that has organised four anti-Drag Queen Story Hour protests, including in South and Central London. 

But before we can understand how the mainstream right picked up an anti-drag agenda, we first need to realise where it originated, and how associating drag queens with grooming has become a key tactic for a far right determined to win a new supporter base. 

Crossing the pond

The first real attack on Drag Queen Story Hour came from Alex Jones, the far-right conspiracy theorist forced to pay millions in damages after spreading lies about the victims of the Sandy Hook shooting.

Jones is a lynchpin of the modern western far-right, linked to everyone from Donald Trump and Putin ally Konstantin Malofeyev, to British alt-right commentator Paul Joseph Watson. In 2017, he dedicated a section of his Infowars show to a ranting monologue about drag queens using story hour as a route to “have their way with children”. He described the performers as “demons”, linking into the far-right ‘Satanic abuse’ and QAnon conspiracy. 

Following Jones’ lead, Watson picked up the anti-drag baton that same, calling Drag Queen Story Hour “absolutely revolting” on his own YouTube show. 

In 2019, a 100,000-signature strong petition to the American Library Association called on the events to be banned. That same year, Larry Householder, the Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives, sent a letter to the Ohio Library Council stating that libraries “should not be a resource for teenage boys to learn how to dress in drag”. But with the pandemic closing libraries and cancelling events, it was not until 2022 that the US saw another surge in anti-drag action.

According to research by the Centre for Countering Digital Hate, the new wave of anti-Drag Queen Story Hour narrative came from the top of US politics, filtering from the mainstream into hateful actions and the spread of a conspiracist narrative. 

"The incident that triggered a huge spike in the narrative online was when Florida governor Ron DeSantis introduced the 'don't say gay' bill, with his own press secretary tweeting that anyone critical of the bill is 'probably a groomer'," CCDH Head of Research Callum Hood tells The Lead.

"That narrative was then amplified by influential Twitter users including Congresswomen Marjorie Taylor-Greene and Lauren Boebart, as well as activists like James Lindsay and Tim Pool".

At the same time, the Proud Boys, a neo-Nazi group supportive of Trump, took the hate to the streets, disrupting an event last summer by shouting homophobic and transphobic slurs at the event’s organisers. One Proud Boy member wore a shirt that read “Kill your local paedophile”. Social media accounts Libs of Tik-Tok and Gays Against Groomers further amplified disinformation linking drag queens to child abuse.

The UK pipeline

The ways in which anti-drag narratives made the leap from the US to the UK is, argues journalist and author of How to Stop Fascism, Paul Mason, an example of how the modern far-right operates – not as one single movement working under direction of a leader, nor as activists copying one another’s actions, but as a networked group who share an ideology. 

“Much of the far right's activity online is about teaching people reflexes: how to spot an issue that will mobilise fears that traditional, white, Christian society is under threat,” Mason told The Lead. “It's not about convincing people of specific political demands or slogans, but teaching them how to think. So the way anti-drag protests have migrated from the USA to the UK doesn't have to be planned, nor even copied”. 

“There are people in the UK who look at trends in the US and see how they can implement them here to gain a following,” says Hood. 

Far-right activists, conspiracy theorists and anti-vaxxers unite to push a “let kids be kids” message

It’s for this reason that in 2019, the rhetoric and ideology shared by US far-right activists started to be shared and spread by UK actors such as Patriotic Alternative’s (PA) Mark Collett and Stephen Yaxley-Lennon – otherwise known by his alias Tommy Robinson.

Collet rose to prominence as a member of the British National Party, before splitting off to create Patriotic Alternative, a white nationalist organisation that believes immigration is replacing white people in the UK – a conspiracy theory known as the Great Replacement. The group organises banner drops and conducts leafleting campaigns, as well as an annual conference that invites international speakers. 

Homophobia and transphobia is embedded in Great Replacement conspiracy theory, as is anti-feminism, with women’s and LGBTQ+ rights seen as complicit in ‘repressing’ the white birth rate and aiding replacement. 

The group first started sharing anti-drag disinformation in 2019, and by April 2021 Collett had posted a screenshot on his Telegram channel of an article about the “Jewish billionaires who are bankrolling Drag Queen Story Hour for your children”, a clearly antisemitic statement.

But as in the US, it was in 2022 when the far-right became more active on the issue, in part because venues hosting Drag Queen Story Hour events had started to re-open. 

By May 2022, the issue was a topic of conversation on the far-right online show Tea Time With Sam and Laura, hosted by Patriotic Alternative’s Sam and Laura Trowler. The first post referring to an anti-Drag Queen Story Hour action was posted on Mark Collett’s Telegram a month later, when he shared how the group’s Welsh branch had started leafleting the local area with anti-DQSH information. In July 2022 he invited his followers to “join our campaign – stop drag queen story hour”.

Organising against Drag Queen Story Hour “really struck a chord with the general public.. I don’t necessarily think a lot of these people are nationalists, or even political at all for that matter, but this issue really seems to have angered a lot of people”.

That same month, members in Glasgow used the “freedom march” – a gathering of far-right activists, conspiracy theorists and anti-vaxxers – to push a “let kids be kids” message. At the same time, Patriotic Alternative began to organise counter-protests outside libraries in Crewe, Kent and London – while the flyering campaign amped up. Collet praised the “proud ethno-nationalists taking a stand against the grooming of our children”. 

For Patriotic Alternative, Drag Queen Story Hour had become the opportunity they had been waiting for to attract a more mainstream audience. By weaponising the narrative of grooming, which had proved successful for far-right groups trying to win mainstream support in the past over the Rotherham Grooming Gang scandal, it was able to position itself as protectors of “innocent children” to an audience previously turned off by their racist messaging. 

This was no accident. In July 2022, Collett posted how the protests had “really struck a chord with the general public … I don’t necessarily think a lot of these people are nationalists, or even political at all for that matter, but this issue really seems to have angered a lot of people”.

A month later, in August 2022, Collett celebrated their biggest anti-Drag Queen Story Hour protest yet, in Leeds, which attracted more than 100 people. Alongside thanking “nationalists” and “football lads”, Collett thanked “concerned members of the public who came over and took leaflets and stood alongside us”.

As Patriotic Alternative was organising protests, the far-right Britain First group was accusing Drag Queen Story Hour of being a “stepping stone to the Left’s legalisation of paedophilia”. The group Students Against Tyranny, whose founder James Harvey posts tweets of gallows intended for Bill Gates and cartoons claiming that LGBTQ+ rights are a Trojan horse for paedophilia, started posting the dates of Drag Queen Story Hour events, encouraging protests. 

Harvey has expressed his support for Yaxley-Lennon, and the pair share each other’s posts. 

Like PA, Yaxley-Lennon first engaged with anti-drag content in 2019, mainly focusing on sharing Proud Boys content about drag queens allegedly arrested for child sex offences. By 2022, however, the “groomer” rhetoric had become dominant on his Telegram channel, with posts about “gender theory pedo [sic] bullshit and drag queen nonces” and “queer Marxist degenerates … indoctrinating our children”. People need to stand up “to this cultural Marxist LGBTQIA+ degeneracy TO PROTECT THE INNOCENCE OF CHILDREN”, he wrote. Crucially, Yaxley-Lennon has posted more about the US debate, pointing to transnational engagement. 

In July 2022, as Patriotic Alternative ramped up its activities, Yaxley-Lennon posted “Every time a ‘drag queen story hour’ is arranged in your area. Protest it. Highlight the groomers and the grooming of children. Because it has to stop. Well done to all involved with the protest”. Harvey, meanwhile, shared lists of every planned Drag Queen Story Hour event.

Image removed.

The jump to the mainstream

PA declares itself an ethno-nationalist movement. Yaxley-Lennon and Harvey are far-right activists. But GB News’ Calvin Robinson does not consider himself far-right. That does not change the fact he has won extremist fans for taking the anti-Drag Queen Story Hour campaign into the mainstream. Yaxley-Lennon has posted in support of Robinson when it comes to the latter’s diatribes on drag and grooming, giving his approval to those protesting at Turning Point UK events where the GB News presenter has delivered inflammatory speeches. 

This year, Turning Point UK has had numerous “anti-grooming” protests, most recently at Waterstones in Piccadilly, Central London, on 13 May.

Turning Point UK launched to great fanfare in 2019, celebrated by high-profile Conservative MPs including Jacob Rees-Mogg and Priti Patel. Initially headed up by George Farmer – son of leading Tory donor Sir Michael Farmer, and husband to TPUS’ former Communication Director Candace Owens – it advertises itself as a group that believes in 'family, faith, freedom’, while promoting neoliberal, free market economic policy. 

Farmer, who made significant donations to Conservative MP Ben Bradley and to ReformUK (formerly the Brexit Party), has long since moved on to head up Parler. 

Today, the organisation’s current Chief Operating Officer is Jack Ross, who has taken on Drag Queen Story Hour as the group’s latest cause celebre. Ross is a member Conservative think tank the Bow Group and set up Reasoned UK with Brexit activist Darren Grimes to “challenge the pervasive left-wing bias in online content” and promote conservative viewpoints to young people. Ross told GB News that the event “exposes children to adult performers”, which, he argues, presents a “safeguarding issue for kids”. 

“The activities of Turning Point UK are clearly inspired by their US counterparts,” says Mason.

Ross and his colleague Nick Tenconi boast of close ties to Conservative MPs, meeting Robert Jenrick and campaigning with Liam Fox. This has helped them to bring the anti-drag queen message into party politics. Turning Point UK filmed Tory Deputy Chair Lee Anderson MP sharing his view that drag was not appropriate for children and belongs in nightclubs in Blackpool. The group’s President, Conservative MP Marco Longhi, said “drag queens do not belong in schools … Let children be children”.

For its March protest at the Great Exhibition pub in South London, Turning Point UK tweeted that far right groups were not welcome, naming Patriotic Alternative and the National Front. But the entire narrative against Drag Queen Story Hour in the UK is based on the far-right conspiracies and activism.

Little wonder, then, that its protests have become a melting pot of neo-Nazis, anti-vaxxers, and ‘Tommy Robinson’ supporters. 

Standing next to Calvin Robinson, Tenconi and former actor turned alt-right provocateur Laurence Fox at the March protest outside the Great Exhibition pub, was Brian Stovell, a known neo-Nazi with a criminal past. It appears that Patriotic Alternative’s Joe Marsh also took part. Marsh, a known football hooligan, had previously told the BBC that “children do not need to know about this stuff. Drag acts are for nightclubs and adults, not for kids”. 

Other protesters present with links to the extremist far-right were Philip Curson, linked to the BNP and jailed for racist attack, after being on the run for a decade.

Nazarin Veronica, who boasts of ‘exposing’ Bill Gates and Fauci “live on TalkTV”, and who claims the Coronavirus vaccine is “dangerous and killing people which we know it is” was also present, standing next to members of the Students Against Tyranny movement. 

“This came at a time when conspiracist groups in the UK, who had won support with anti-vaxx narratives, were adrift and looking to be relevant again,” says Hood. “You see the same individuals who were at anti-vaxx demos now protesting at Drag Queen Story Hours. Many of them are QAnon adjacent, with Save the Children placards”. 

Two days after the Turning Point UK protest at a London Waterstones, its ideology was shared at the National Conservatism Conference, which had among its speakers Home Secretary Suella Braverman, Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove, and prominent Conservative Party MPs Jacob Rees-Mogg, Miriam Cates, and Sir John Hayes. Speaking to his audience, sociologist and commentator Frank Furedi – the intellectual figurehead of the Sp!ked/Academy of Ideas network – claimed that “Leftist ideology sexualises children”.

“First it's Gamergate, then it's Black Lives Matter, then trans rights and now drag,” explains Mason. “At the same time, you get successive conspiracy theories which then become vehicles for drawing people into these specific controversies”. 

Take Action

You can support Drag Queen Story Hour by visiting their website, finding out about their events, and donating to their charity which champions LGBTQ+ rights and fights back against bullying. Most importantly, you can join the counter-protests at the Royal Oak and elsewhere - follow The Lead's Twitter account for updates.