A charity drag show in Arizona clashed with Proud Boys and Christian nationalists

In Cottonwood, Arizona, a touring drag show attempting to bring LGBTQ+ visibility to small towns was faced with fierce opposition from Christian nationalists and insurrectionists.

Dale Partridge, who has promoted anti-LGBTQ+ views on his podcast “Real Christianity” and is author of the anti-queer children’s book “Jesus and My Gender,” speaks at a Cottonwood city council meeting on Feb. 7, 2023. He cited drag performers do not “honor God,” as a reason to ban a touring drag show.

A rural drag show that raises money for charity was met with outrage among Christian nationalists and far-right protesters this past weekend, including members of Proud Boys and Oathkeepers—groups that were involved in the Jan. 6 insurrection that attempted to overturn the election of President Joe Biden.

The drag event, put on by Arizona Pride Tour, is an annual traveling show in a handful of small cities across the state, including Lake Havasu, Prescott and Payson. The purpose of the tour, according to the show’s creator Christopher Hall, is to build community and engagement among LGBTQ+ people in areas that historically have a lack of resources, such as medical queer outreach groups or social events.

This year’s Arizona Pride Tour follows two previous years of going around the state to tertiary or rural areas and doing drag shows, raising thousands of dollars for various charities, as well as organizing to start queer representation groups in cities they perform.

“We ask people who want to make a lasting impact to go up on stage and kind of say what they want to do,” said Hall. “So it’s not like we just put on a great show and leave, we’re making lasting impact and building community.”

Last year’s show in Payson resulted in the city’s first Pride parade organization, Hall said.

When Hall planned his touring charity shows this year, the purpose was to bring awareness to a long-time art, which has also doubled as a subculture within the LGBTQ+ community to combat for queer civil rights.

But more than anything, he said, the tour was meant to give non-traditional families in rural areas a place to feel welcome, where there would be “laughter in a supportive, non-judgmental zone where everyone can feel safe,” Hall said.

And in a time when the Arizona legislature has passed some of the nation’s most restricting anti-drag and anti-trans bills (though they have been vetoed by the governor), Hall said that the need for drag in small towns was a requirement for LGBTQ+ people in the area.

There had been pushback in the past. In 2022, Hall’s tour aimed to raise money for both Northern and Southern chapters of Arizona’s Girl Scouts of America. The Northern chapter refused to work with the drag show, and so tour had to give the Southern district the full $14,000 raised.

But the pushback in Cottonwood, “was an experience in itself,” Hall said, adding that the vitriol and anger was more than he’s ever seen. When the announcement came that Hall’s performance was coming to Cottonwood, Arizona, a petition from a local church began gathering signatures against the show coming to town. The church gathered more than 1,000 signatures.

“In order to ensure domestic stability, promote the general welfare of its citizens and protect its children, we shudder at the thought of outsiders disturbing our great city with morals and values that we ourselves do not hold, performing a sexually deviant ‘show' that we do not want, and then abandoning our community, placing a blight on our friends, families, and children,” the petition stated.

On Feb. 7, a heated city council meeting heard from dozens of Christian nationalists who likened the performance to child sexual assault, abusive sexual conduct, and moral depravity.

Chris Roach, a Cottonwood resident, said the show was advocating “the sexualization of children by demonic pedophiles. It's just absurd that you would even consider bringing that here.”

Others said the event was not child appropriate, also likening performing in drag to sexual acts.

Only a few spoke in favor of the event, including Misty Knight, a local performer: “I'm here to tell you that this hate and anger towards the drag performers is misguided,” they said. “The art of drag serves no threat to the community drag is about freedom of expression and unity among those who have been cast aside by society.”

Three other city council meeting resulted in a free-for-all for so-called religious freedom advocates, people who are often Christian nationalists and use their religion to espouse anti-LGBTQ+ beliefs. Among them were people who said that LGBTQ+ relationships should be labeled as “twisted,” and another speaker made veiled threats against a city councilman saying they “would not see 2024.”

A few months later, days before the performance, the city council voted to deny a liquor license for the show, citing security concerns.

“ I didn’t feel comfortable allowing alcohol to be served at an event which drew so much controversy and angst and where I knew protesters would gather,” Cottonwood Mayor Tim Elinski said in an email to LOOKOUT. “There was too much uncertainty in my mind and I didn’t want to add an element that could make a bad situation much worse.”

The show sold out, and dozens of people showed up to support the performers and attendees.

But leading up to the show this past Saturday, religious groups also called on each other to come out and “pray” outside the event.

Alongside them were ski-masked Proud Boys, Oathkeepers, and other White and Christian nationalists who screamed and derided people walking into the show. Some appeared to be armed.

No arrests were made at the event, but the protest represents a growing cause of concern for LGBTQ+ people in Arizona, where the state leads the nation in anti-LGBTQ+ hate crimes, according to the FBI.

This is the third known drag show in Arizona that has been met by Proud Boys and other Christian nationalists, who come to events fully armed and masked in order to hide their identities.

In Tempe, a drag show had to be cancelled after a bomb threat was made against children and parents inside a local coffee shop. A drag event at a Phoenix Bookman’s was also forced to cancel their events after threats were issued and Proud Boys threatened to demonstrate. Cottonwood’s event is the third reported show where drag performers and LGBTQ+ people were targeted.

Even though the Cottonwood show may have been marred by the protests, the tour’s creator, Hall, said that the show was worth it, and there will only be more shows to come. When he went up on stage that night to a packed house, he was overwhelmed, he said.

“You know, for a city that doesn’t want us here you sure did show up,” he said.

And he said that for people who have strong feelings for drag shows, he welcomed them to attend an all-ages show to dispel any myths or misconceptions about what they see online versus what happens in real life.

“All those in attendance said that was the most G-rated show they have ever seen,” he said.

There has been speculation, now, that the city is aiming to make all drag events ages 21 and over only.

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