EXCLUSIVE: Mayo Pride responds to far-right protest at Drag Storytime event

Despite being targeted by the group, Mayo Pride organisers said "We will not be intimidated. We intend to run a full line-up of events next year."

Annie Queeries outside the Mayo Pride Drag Storytime event.
Image: Mayo Pride

On Saturday, July 2, a Drag Storytime event hosted by Mayo Pride and Tetulia Bookstore was targetted by a group of far-right protesters, leaving attendees, including young teenagers, highly distressed. Shaun Lavelle, who is the Public Relations Officer for the LGBTQ+ organisation, wrote about the incident exclusively for GCN, with his account commencing below.

The final committee meeting before Pride usually involves boring formalities: ticket sales, sound checks, and a timetable run-through. But this last week was anything but usual for Mayo Pride.

We’d just been contacted by an activist who had warned us of threats by far-right groups to disrupt our Drag Queen Storytime event. We loved the idea of Drag Storytime, which originated in San Francisco in 2015. Author and activist Michelle Tea thought up the idea to “inspire a love of reading while teaching deeper lessons on diversity and self-love”.

Those far-right groups must have missed that memo. So instead, on a wet Wednesday evening, the Zoom conversation went: How would we keep ourselves and participants safe? Were the Guards on standby? What was the backup plan in case things got violent?

One chilling threat came from the Irish chapter of the Proud Boys, the U.S. neo-fascist group currently being investigated for its role in the riots in the U.S. Capital back in January. “Photograph every parent that brings their child… Tear their life apart,” it said.

Messages in other far-right Telegram and WhatsApp groups asked people to contact the host, Tertulia Bookshop. Others went further, encouraging the “men of Ireland [to] go to this show in Mayo and stop it”.

Despite the threats, and in true resilient queer fashion, we decided: The Storytime Must Go On.

Soon after, Mayo Pride and Tertulia Bookstore started to be contacted directly. I was spending half my time advertising events and the other half deleting online messages that called us “groomers”.

Last Saturday, about a dozen protesters gathered outside the bookstore. There is no evidence these protesters were connected to the groups that had contacted us online.
We’d just finished our parade through Westport. The sun had miraculously been shining as over 400 people marched through the picturesque seaside town to a warm reception by locals.

After a moving speech, the parade Grand Marshal Panti Bliss led participants to the bookstore for a counter-protest. The protesters’ “Why Sexualize Children?” signs were met by rainbow flags and chants of “Trans rights” and “no hate”.

One man asked Panti if she had Garda clearance. A storytime event in a bookshop does not require such clearance because parents are in attendance.

“I’ve got Garda clearance to tell you to go f**k yourself,” Panti replied.

Inside the bookshop was an oasis of calm. Accompanied by Panti Bliss, Candy Warhol and Lavender, Annie Queeries read children’s stories and wrote letters on a typewriter to Michael D. Higgins. The children laughed, luckily oblivious to the sometimes ugly scenes outside.

The protest at Mayo Pride claimed to be about drag storytime, but it was very clearly an attack on the whole LGBTQ+ community. The rhetoric ranged from the ugly (I was personally called a “paedophile pervert”) to pseudo-intellectual anti-Trans arguments about “protecting biological women”.

The protesters had come with a cameraman. The saddest scene was an LGBTQ+ teenager leaving in tears after they asked the video not to be posted online because they weren’t fully out. The response? A firm “no”.

Since the drag storytime incident at the weekend, messages have poured in from many friends in Dublin saying they are sorry to hear that this is still happening down in Mayo. Although they mean well, these messages are based on the assumption that rural areas are behind socially and will eventually catch up with urban ones.

In fact, the opposite is true in this case: protests against drag storytime are at the very forefront of a right-wing backlash against the LGBTQ+ community. As a recent academic paper showed, the controversy has coincided with a broader rise in
hate crimes in the West over the past four years.

Just last week, libraries and drag performers across Canada were inundated with threats. This is just one example out of the many others that have happened recently in the US, the UK and Australia.

Worryingly, the same paper pointed out that online hate speech doesn’t just stay on the internet. It can often translate into “in-person hateful conduct”. So it’s vital that we’re vigilant. Protests like this will most likely be coming to a city near you too.

As the backlash against drag storytime shows, progress does not necessarily run in a straight line. Mayo Pride was targeted partly because we’re a smaller pride. It’s easier to distract us from our goal of making sure that LGBTQ+ can thrive no matter what part of the country they live in.

Thanks to the bravery of the drag queens and the counter-protesters, they didn’t succeed. The people of Mayo and Westport were, without exception, warm and welcoming. We’ll be back next year, bigger and better than ever.

And as for drag storytime? In the words of Annie Queeries: “I believe the children are our future. Teach them well, and let them lead the way.” Can I get an amen?

Mayo Pride does not receive commercial funding and is run completely by volunteers. In order to ensure they can host a full range of events next year, the organisation is looking for support. To donate, please visit their GoFundMe.

© 2022 GCN (Gay Community News). All rights reserved.

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