Shitstorming the opposition
How the far right weaponized free speech to attack a Drag Story Time event
IIn the late morning hours of Sunday, October 23, Old Nick’s Pub in Eugene, Oregon—a neighborhood Pagan-themed goth-punk venue with an antifascist vibe—became the scene of an intense armed standoff when pub owners decided to host a “Drag Story Time” event, in which a child actor would read a children’s story to other adults and their children. The event was intentionally designed as an all-inclusive, family-friendly event that could, at most, be described as a gender-neutral space for children to perform.
A group of about 50-75 people including Proud Boys, Christian nationalists, “Gays Against Groomers,” QAnon supporters, Three Percenters, and MAGA Republicans came out to protest the event, forming a motley array of blue jean clad warriors that could have been mistaken for a local Jerry’s Home Improvement crowd. But some came from as far as Idaho—at least a six hour drive to Eugene. Some waved the Stars and Stripes while others wore camo fatigues and brandished visible firearms. “Save Our Children” signs were noticeable among some who smiled for photo ops and even brought their own children. One sign read “ANTIFA supports child abuse.” A gigantic sign read “THE WICKED SHALL BE CAST INTO HELL AND ALL THE NATIONS THAT FORGET GOD.” A few people screamed into bullhorns, insisting that Old Nick’s staff were “enabling pedophiles.”
About 200-300 supporters showed up in defense of Old Nick’s Pub, many wearing rainbow Pride flags, some wearing all black. Flamboyant makeup and fishnet stockings were on full display. A wizard with a staff floated among the crowd. Some pub supporters tried to talk to the protesters; others tried to sound-blast their hate speech. Around 11:30 a.m., a line of supporters surrounded the pub. Moments of chaos erupted and scuffles broke out in the street. Around noon, protesters tried to push across the street towards the pub but were driven back by a large crowd of patrons and supporters, who endured a hail of rocks, smoke bombs, paintballs, and bear mace. Police intervened and one injury was reported. No arrests have been made at the time of this writing.
Ultimately, Drag Story Time proceeded as planned, and the unholy alliance of fascist and right-wing protesters was driven away, only to return later in the day and be driven off again. During the second encounter, a Jeep full of armed protesters pulled up in front of the pub, a man emerged from the vehicle with a handgun, and the group began threatening a small crowd of Old Nick’s staff and supporters; but eventually, the vehicle sped away with the gun-wielding protester hanging out of the passenger-side door. This particular group continued to circle the block into the late hours of the night, waving handguns and threatening Old Nick’s staff, who kept armed watch in shifts.
It all started with an online trolling and intimidation campaign led by right-wing Twitter “journalists” Andy Ngo and @HunnyBadgerMom, who is married to a well-known Proud Boy. From there it was picked up by the British media outlet Daily Mail and disseminated to a wider right-wing audience. In the week leading up to the event, phone calls rang in to Old Nick’s Pub from local and distant area codes, rumors of a “sex dungeon” circulated, death threats were made, a bomb threat was called in, negative 1-star reviews featuring puritanical hate speech and apocalyptic messages flooded the pub’s website, its Facebook page exploded into transphobic moral crusades parading under the aegis of “child protection,” and specific staff members were targeted for harassment.
Phrases like “Drag Story Time” and “featuring children” would become hypersexualized tropes for the trolls on the far right, who proceeded to drag semantics through the sludge of the online fascist echo chambers and dissect it in medieval ways until, finally, “Drag Story Time” became synonymous with “pedophilia,” “child indoctrination,” and “grooming.” Underlying this accusation, of course, is the bigoted assumption that “lefty” venues catering to the LGBTQ+ community must have some indoctrinating effect on children, if indeed they are hosting children in makeup in a “bar named after the devil”; ergo, they must exist for the sole purpose of “grooming children” and turning parents into “child groomers.” As if pedophilia were a contagious disease.
Trolling, harassment, and intimidation
The intimidation campaign against Old Nick’s Pub is not unique. It has been replicated around the country and around the globe, using the same tactics of trolling, harassment, and intimidation. With the rise of so-called “digital soldiers” on the far right, local feuds escalate into online hate campaigns with international audiences. At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, we saw much of the same ideological elements show up at hospitals and healthcare clinics to protest mask and vaccine mandates, the rhetoric of the anti-vaxxers overlapping seamlessly with anti-communism/ anti-socialism, xenophobic fears of a “Chinese virus” made in a lab, fascistic fear-mongering about a “Deep State” controlled by pedophiles, and personal attacks on Democratic state officials.
Since April of this year, when Florida governor Ron DeSantis signed the “Don’t Say Gay” law into effect (forbidding classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity for grades K-3), a startling uptick in harassment campaigns led by members of the far right both online and in the mainstream press have begun targeting queer and trans people in particular, especially trans youth. All of this is well-timed for the midterm elections and suggests dark money is pouring into trolling, harassment, and intimidation operations where political gains can be made—for these campaigns are proving to be more effective at shaping legislation than old-school conservative think tanks, which primarily focused on anti-communism and free-market supremacy. There are political gains to be made for the far right at every level of government, such as removing LGBTQ+ literature from local libraries, gagging teachers who dare to speak out about gender fluidity, potentially overturning gay marriage in the Supreme Court, and abolishing the right of trans youth to gender-affirming care.
Anti-LGBTQ+ legislation and harassment campaigns are nothing new, but a choice tactic the far right has adopted in recent years to score points in the culture wars is to brand its political enemies as “pedophiles,” “enablers of pedophilia,” or (a favorite epithet among right wing pundits) “groomers.” It’s a tactic that, by now, has a sordid history behind it—not so much because it works, but because accusations alone are enough to create a “perfect shitstorm.” And that’s kind of the whole point. Such accusations of pedophilia might start in online chat rooms (or anywhere, really) where instigators of violence can remain totally anonymous. Thus a conspiracy gets hatched; then it trickles out onto social media platforms including video-sharing sites like YouTube, where the trolls can still remain fairly anonymous, though they know very well their targets cannot. A right-wing intimidation campaign can now ensue, led by some high-profile troll like Alex Jones, or some mainstream pundit like Tucker Carlson, and the conspiracy theory goes viral.
If the “digital soldiers” on the far right can create a perfect shitstorm on some random Facebook page or Twitter feed—and perhaps get a teacher fired for being too “open” about gender identity—they will try to go a step further: Why not bring the fight out to the street—or directly to the school board, the local library, the city council, etc.—where the trolls and their armed streetfighters can unleash a shitstorm of real-time hate? Why not go for a bloody spectacle that can be live-streamed? The trolls on the far right know all that’s necessary for a perfect shitstorm is for someone like Kyle Rittenhouse to show up, start playing vigilante, and begin shooting people—and later perhaps even claim self-defense in hopes of an acquittal. The trolls know that no matter who suffers real-life consequences, they and their fascist coalition of streetfighters can claim they’re just “exercising free speech”—that is the depth of their vitriolic cynicism, which simultaneously organizes hate crusades and refuses to accept accountability for what is bound to occur as a result.
By now it should be clear that things have moved far beyond “free speech” and the “right to assemble.” Where political violence becomes inevitable, community self-defense becomes necessary and resistance will certainly be organized. This is already happening at Drag Story Hour events around the country, where “Parasol Patrols” have become a necessary means of shutting down fascist intimidation tactics and “diffusing the shitstorm” before it occurs, so to speak. The takeaway here is that, although perhaps nothing can prevent shitstorming in the digital age, some basic preparedness can help to render its effects null and void.
Pizzagate and other conspiracy theories
For historical context, it’s helpful to revisit that absurd spectacle known as “Pizzagate,” whose legacy still haunts the nether-regions of the dark web. The “Pizzagate-effect” offers a textbook case on how far-right trolling operations can create something like a “perfect shitstorm” with potential for real-time violence. During the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, right-wing troll Alex Jones caught wind of a wildly imaginative conspiracy theory, hatched on 4Chan and Reddit, accusing Democrats including Hillary Clinton of running a child sex-trafficking ring out of the basement of a family pizza parlor in Washington, D.C. (The basement of the parlor was alleged to be connected to U.S. Congressional offices by a series of underground tunnels, through which child sex slaves were being trafficked.)
When Jones blasted Pizzagate out on his right-wing talk show Infowars, the conspiracy went viral. The owner of a Washington, D.C. pizza parlor and his employees endured weeks of harassment, including death threats, until on December 4, 2016, the Pizzagate conspiracy made headlines when 28-year-old Edgar Maddison Welch drove across four state lines to “investigate” the matter and fired three shots from an AR-15 into the parlor. His mission: “Save the children.” That slogan would become a favorite hashtag for conspiracy theorists all over the dark web.
Welch was eventually sentenced to four years in prison, and though he later admitted his “intel” may not have been “100 percent,” he never disavowed Pizzagate—which, of course, never had a shred of evidence to support it. The whole matter of a pedophile sex-trafficking ring run by congressional members of a Deep State might have died with the 2016 election of Donald Trump, but instead it mutated and took on a kind of second life, especially with the rise of QAnon in 2017. That was partly owing to the fact that Trump, then entering his presidential role, would follow Welch’s example of refusing to disavow Pizzagate, if only because it scored him political points in his election bid.
Michael Flynn, Trump’s first appointed national security advisor (an appointment that would last a whopping 22 days), would go on to support Pizzagate in his official role by retweeting links to it with incendiary bylines, like: “New Hillary Emails: Money Laundering, Sex Crimes w Children, etc…MUST READ!”—thus offering a veneer of legitimacy from one of the highest offices in the State department to one of the most baseless conspiracy theories on the internet. Flynn’s tweet and others like it would be met with more stringent, late-in-the-game efforts by Facebook and Twitter to curb the spread of “fake news,” misinformation, and disinformation on their platforms—probably a case of far too little and far too late.
In the lead-up to the 2018 midterm election, newly-minted online forces like QAnon, alongside “boots on the ground” fascist groups like the Proud Boys, would resurrect Pizzagate in ways that framed Donald Trump as an evangelical force for “good” fighting against an “evil” Deep State cabal of Satanic pedophiles (which now included Hollywood celebrities as well as Democrats). By the summer of 2020, #SaveTheChildren and #SaveOurChildren (not to be confused with the charity foundation Save The Children, whose imagery and signage QAnon co-opted) became popular hashtags and bumper stickers for an angry far-right mob of online “digital foot soldiers,” mostly linked to QAnon, who continue to insist that the Biden government is part of a Deep State cabal of pedophiles. #SaveOurChildren is a nod to their hero, Edgar Maddison Welch, who translated online fantasy into real-time, self-guided action.
The general impact of “Pizzagate” marks a point of confluence where fascist outliers and far-right “fringe” elements became ideologically indistinguishable on key questions from the mainstream Republican Party. Having been banned from Twitter and Facebook after Trump’s defeat in 2020, the Pizzagate-effect made its way to new social media platforms like Tik-Tok, where it took on a new polish and eventually found its way into the minds of younger, less politically-affiliated, more anti-establishment social media users. In a more recent incarnation of Pizzagate, codenamed “Frazzledrip,” Hillary Clinton and one of her former aides are alleged (without evidence of course) to have filmed a Satanic blood ritual in which a child slave is fileted alive so that her torturers can harvest adrenochrome, the chemical in the blood which conspiracists believe to be the elixir of life and longevity.
For the record, no such “Frazzledrip” video ever existed; but such conspiracy theories have generated a huge amount of traffic on YouTube, where new details continually emerge to “support” a conspiracy, thus constantly breathing new life into old conspiracies and especially antisemitic tropes. Like social media, YouTube is algorithmically designed to generate an endless stream of content. The overall vileness of that content can sometimes be scaled down into slightly more “acceptable” 2.0 versions, and this seems to be where #SaveOurChildren [from pedophiles] found its traction—mainly on Facebook pages, Instagram, and Twitter, which can link directly to YouTube.
Targeting trans and queer people
Since the passing of DeSantis’s “Don’t Say Gay” law in April, a slew of anti-trans ideology and hate rhetoric has been unleashed on social media accounts such as “Libs of Tik-Tok” (which has since been banned on the platform, but is still active on Instagram) and “Gays Against Groomers” (an Instagram account). “Libs of Tik-Tok” began as an anonymous account from which its owner—who has since been “outed” as Chaya Raichik by Washington Post reporter Taylor Lorenz—would troll the pages of queer and trans people on Tik-Tok, then repost links to them on Twitter with incendiary bylines, like: “[Elliot Page] with Dylan Mulvaney before it became trendy to transition [between genders].” (The original headline intentionally uses Page’s deadname.) Once the links appeared on Twitter, the Tik-Tok “libs” would get “owned” by becoming the target of relentless attacks by anyone and everyone on the right-wing spectrum.
“Libs of Tik-Tok” specifically targets trans and queer people as well as healthcare clinics, doctors, and therapists who support gender-affirming care (which assists minors with things like hormone treatment through transition). Other targets include high school and college sports that support trans athletes. Trans and queer teachers who come out to their students are a favorite target—Raichik brags about getting teachers fired for being too open about gender, alleging this to be a form of sexualizing and indoctrinating students. When “Libs of Tik-Tok” was given a public boost by Joe Rogan on his Spotify podcast in August 2021, the Twitter feeds swarmed with right-wing hate speech targeting queer and trans people—much of it no doubt coming from Rogan’s own audience of hypermasculine, right-wing adrenaline junkies.
In June of 2022, a group that calls itself “Gays Against Groomers” formed explicitly for the purpose of harassing LGBTQ+ people and their supporters, especially targeting trans youth. The group describes itself as a nonprofit “coalition of gay people who oppose the recent trend of indoctrinating and sexualizing [or what they refer to as ‘medicalizing’] children under the guise of LGBTQIA+.” Their message is that the liberal establishment is pressuring children to transition, and even to have “gender-corrective surgeries” (which right-wing pundits refer to as “gender mutilation”)—all of which is patently false, even absurd; but anyone who supports trans rights or even acknowledges the existence of gender dysphoria, or who does not toe the line of straightlaced conservatism by insisting on two genders, can be called a “groomer.”
“Gays Against Groomers” tables at conservative events, selling merchandise and distributing transphobic literature. Their videos on Instagram showcase a kind of new-age militancy, especially around the subject of gender transitioning. Some videos try to warn people of the “dangers” of transitioning or try to talk people out of this “fashionable trend.” The coalition is spearheaded by Jaimee Michell, David Leatherwood, and Sasha Leigh; its Instagram page shows about forty “team members” who seem to have made careers out of trolling “libs” and spouting militant anti-trans rhetoric under the guise of tokenism (for they themselves claim to be gay, formerly trans, etc.). Founder Jaimee Michell appeared on Tucker Carlson Tonight in late June, disseminating the “groomer” narrative to the entire Fox News audience.
Favorite targets of “Gays Against Groomers” currently include school boards, public libraries, treatment centers like Boston Children’s Hospital, and Drag Story Hour events.Whereas the disinformation war waged by QAnon (via #SaveOurChildren) attempted to scapegoat its political enemies as pedophiles lurking in the shadows, “Gays Against Groomers” presumes a foul brood of groomers is lurking in broad daylight. The “groomers” and “pedoes” have simply become whatever part of the mainstream establishment those on the Far-Right have always despised. Cemented into the “groomer” epithet is a hatred of liberals in general and of queer and trans people in particular, but also a hatred of “woke culture” and “establishment” folks, such as teachers and college professors, doctors and health care experts, politicians and celebrities on the Left, even drag queens and pub owners—basically anyone who recognizes queer and trans identities as legitimate.
The driving ideological force behind accounts like “Libs of Tik-Tok” and “Gays Against Groomers” seems to be Christian nationalism, which is anti-trans, anti-queer, and anti-Left to the core. But these groups paint themselves as “pro-child” and “pro-parent” in much the same way #SaveTheChildren did when they were duped into existence by QAnon hacks in 2020. This ideology is grounded on a kind of double-edged cynicism: on one hand, it stigmatizes drag queens as child predators worthy of being cast out by legal (legislative) or extralegal means (violence and intimidation) on the pretext of “child safety”; on the other hand, it denies trans and queer people, especially trans youth, the very existence they are demanding recognition for—thus it conveniently erases a significant political bloc who have fought their way into public view, and, only in recent years, gained enough “establishment” recognition to be allowed a political voice.
Why the puritanical shitstorming now?
It’s worth pondering how the U.S. became so culturally and politically polarized, why queer and trans youth became so explicitly targeted, and why so much energy has gone into demonizing an already highly marginalized community. Why all the puritanical shitstorming, and why is it happening with greater frequency now?
The November midterm election hype explains some of it—there is a tidal wave-sized slate of anti-LGBTQ+ bills stewing in state legislatures all across the country. Inflation, high gas and food prices, low wages, high property taxes, unaffordable rent with homeownership out of the question for many, soaring healthcare premiums, evictions, drug addiction, homelessness, crippling debt, outrageous levels of income inequality: for those on the right-wing spectrum generally, all of this translates into perceived losses that may be misguided but are well grounded in economic reality. Trust in public institutions, especially state and federally regulated ones, has been eroding for decades—largely as a result of failed neoliberal policies that have left families everywhere struggling.
In Oregon, those with ties to the logging industry have seen a real economic decline for over half a century now, much of which translates into further deregulation efforts in the harvesting of old growth fir trees for local manufacturers, who still employ a significant labor force throughout the state. A group called Timber Unity, which formed in 2019 in opposition to a cap and trade bill in the Oregon State legislature, quickly became as much of a haven for the far right as the anti-vaxxer protests and anti-mask demonstrations. From its inception, Timber Unity’s tactics of harassment and intimidation overlapped with the extreme tactics of the far right—hence it’s no surprise that Timber Unity eventually attracted a loyal following of Proud Boys, QAnon supporters, Patriot Prayer, Three Percenters, and MAGA Republicans. Timber Unity spokesperson Angelita Sanchez was among the insurrectionists at the Capitol on January 6, and she has helped spearhead efforts to do the same on a smaller scale at the state capitol in Salem, Oregon. At the moment of this writing, Timber Unity seems to be undergoing an ideological schism within its rank and file, some of whom would like to expunge the far right elements who have stirred local violence and fascistized any message there ever was of a “Unity.” But Timber Unity signage is still visible throughout Oregon, especially in the rural districts, and their bumper stickers often appear on the backs of cars and pickup trucks. Anyone who drives the I-5 corridor cannot miss it.
Perceived losses, combined with real economic ones, have fueled cultural, political, and spiritual battles for the heart and soul of America. As queer and trans communities have gained visibility over the years, especially in places like the Pacific Northwest, the ire of the far right has frothed and festered over it, especially online. Reactionaries on the far right perceive the heightened visibility of queer and trans people as a check on their first amendment “right” to “smear the queers,” as well as an assault on their own fascist brand of Christian identity politics. The youthful Christian nationalists on Tik-Tok, for example, are thoroughly convinced that gender-affirming care is an attack on God’s divine creation, thus “transitioning” is tantamount to blasphemy—an assault on God as well as Christian identity itself. It’s all the same wellspring of evangelical hate from which the anti-abortion movement gathers force, like a geyser, rising up at timely intervals (like election seasons). For many multigenerational white Oregonians, Christian identity is further tied to mythopoetic origins as “native pioneers” and “first settlers.”
The ideology of white supremacy runs deep in the blue state of Oregon, and it has deep historical roots. The organized trolling, harassment, and intimidation coming from the far right is thus about much more than just “owning the libs”; it’s very much about body politics, policing “deviant” forms of behavior, restricting access to public space, demonizing the Left, upholding the promise of one land under white supremacy, glorifying cis-hetero patriarchy and Christian nationalism, and using fascist tactics to terrorize the “liberal establishment” into submission. In some sense, it is about the “sexualization of children”—but in an ironic twist of ambidextrous hypocrisy, those on the far right are the ones actually doing it (by turning drag queens into sexual predators and children into victims who need saving).
That is the whole point of these “patriotic” spectacles and moral crusades like the one we saw assembled in front of Old Nick’s Pub, where conspiracy-mongering, anti-LGBTQ+ hate speech, Western chauvinism, white supremacy, Christian nationalism, right-wing gun culture, and even perhaps a dash of anti-environmentalism all came together to stew in one pot, focusing all the combined power of their collective vitriol at a single, vulnerable target. When these elements of the far right show up in an unholy alliance of armed protesters in a place like Eugene, Oregon—a town with a liberal reputation that is rancorous to the far right—it is not to have a dialogue or even stage a protest, but to issue a clear threat.
An ongoing battle
At the time of this writing, Elon Musk has just announced his takeover of Twitter—a move that is currently being celebrated on the far right. As a “free speech absolutist,” Musk has vowed to re-platform Donald Trump, among others who were banned from the platform after the January 6 insurrection for inciting violence. With Musk’s takeover of Twitter, we can expect to see a surge in trolling and intimidation campaigns against LGBTQ+ communities and their allies, perhaps signaling a new era of hate speech that will likely spill over into street-level violence and harassment.
There will continue to be battles online and in the streets over the heart, soul, and gender of the U.S. There will be court battles and legislative battles over access to gender-affirming care, freedom of speech in the classroom, and maybe even Drag Story Hour. For the LGBTQ+ Left and its allies, there will be long conversations around community self-defense, because although love is necessary to combat hate, it won’t stop bullets. The Left will need to find more effective ways to fight back online, at the ballot box, and in the streets, but all is very far from lost. Recently there have been inspiring instances of hope and resistance, especially in the theater of local activism and grassroots community organizing.
The street battle over “Drag Story Time” at Old Nick’s Pub in Eugene is exemplary of a community coming together to fight fascism and resist the fascist-ization of free speech—for the only way to engage it is to confront it. The trolls will not go away until they feel they have made their point—whatever that point was to begin with, or whatever it may become through the online fascist echo chambers which continue to spew repackaged conspiracies, vitriol, hate, and lies. The far right has collaborated with mainstream conservatives to launch a massive, organized, well-funded offensive against LGBTQ+ communities generally and trans youth in particular. There is no option for the Left but to organize and fight back.
Featured Image credit: Photo by WeHoCity via Flikr; modified by Tempest.
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Dean O'Possum View All
Dean O’Possum is a marxist ecologist, an antifascist, and a catholic in the spirit of Saint Francis. He resides in a grove of fir trees in the Pacific Northwest, emerging occasionally to sniff the air and eat ticks.