You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation
Pride vs. Proud

How to Stop Neo-Nazis From Crashing Pride Month

The far right is mobilizing against LGBTQ events. But activists are getting ready as well.

Children sit, listening to a picture book being read.
Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images
Drag queens Kelly K (left) and Scalene OnixXx read a storybook at Drag Queen Story Hour at Cellar Door Bookstore on April 29 in Riverside, California.

On May 20, members of neo-Nazi groups took up positions outside the Country Bookshelf in Bozeman, Montana—an intimidation tactic meant to disrupt the Drag Story Hour taking place there. Mostly masked, members of groups like White Lives Matter and their associates held a white banner reading, “PEDOPHILES NOT WELCOME.” Another sign read “QUEERS HURT WHITE KIDS.” The Drag Story Hour in Bozeman was the second one the neo-Nazis had hit that day—simultaneously a familiar scene that has played out across the country and an escalation of an already dangerous trend.

Something is different this Pride season. Last year saw a significant increase in far-right violence targeting queer and trans communities, and this year, state legislative sessions have targeted the same communities—with bans on drag introduced in at least 16 states. The neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and other violent groups taking aim at drag events now believe they have the force of the law behind them. But this year, in the face of this undeniable rise in fascist street violence, more of the communities under threat are ready.

Livingston and Bozeman offer an example of this. Based on online chatter, people expected the neo-Nazis to try to intimidate the Drag Story Hour hosted by the Livingston Pride Coalition on May 20. Livingston had prepared, with city manager Grant Gager issuing a statement a few days earlier that the city had received reports from “state and regional law enforcement” that people “displeased with the content of the event” were to be expected, “some possibly armed.” Event organizers asked the community to come out and offer their support to the youth attending story hour. Backed by police, Gager ordered that all protests in Livingston were to be restricted to the parking lot of City Hall. That did not stop the neo-Nazis from gathering in front of Wheatgrass Books in Livingston. In fact, those neo-Nazis then went on to Bozeman to disrupt another Drag Story Hour event—which was a surprise to some in Bozeman.

Inside the Country Bookstore in Bozeman that day, Adria L. Jawort, director of Indigenous Transilience, was preparing to read a story to the kids in attendance for Drag Story Hour. Before this, Jawort had wondered, she wrote, “what’d it’d be like to share art while Nazis and white nationalists were spreading hate just outside a venue—admiring the bravery of drag queens who’d gone right on ahead and combatted such hate by sharing the magic of literature while wearing colorful, fun costumes and attire—now here I was.” She could hear the sound of the white supremacists’ bullhorn outside as the reading began.

The bullhorn did not drone on for long, however. The neo-Nazi groups were soon surrounded and easily outnumbered by Bozeman community members, defusing the intended menace with a dance party. The Drag Story Hour proceeded without interruption, and the neo-Nazis took off—as they had in Livingston, their second defeat of the day—but not before assaulting a passerby who had asked one of them for a flier and, in response, got pepper-sprayed in his left eye.

Given the trend in recent years, it is looking like attacks on Pride and on queer and trans communities may further escalate in 2023. In 2022, there were at least 174 anti-LGBTQ+ incidents in the United States, according to data released this February by the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, or ACLED; as compared to 2021, such mobilizations on the far right had spread to more states, and LGBTQ+ events were increasingly their focus. “Far-right militias and militant social movements like the Proud Boys and Patriot Front have increased their engagement in anti-LGBT+ demonstrations by over three times this year, from 16 events in 2021 to 52 events as of mid-November 2022,” an earlier 2022 ACLED report stated. Extremism experts are concerned these groups’ expansion and intensification of harassment and violence will continue in 2023. “We are seeing just a singular focus on LGBTQ people,” Heidi Bierich, co-founder of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism, told Insider this month. “And I don’t see how we don’t end up having more violence next month.”

Echoing the far-right rhetoric about drag as “grooming” and “sexualizing” children spread at such events, some state lawmakers have demanded that any drag performance that a child might see must be outlawed, some even backing such bans before returning this year to their first legislative sessions after Pride. So far in 2023, drag bans have passed in a number of state legislatures, including in Florida (now subject to a First Amendment challenge in U.S. district court), Tennessee (temporarily blocked by a federal judge, pending a legal challenge), Texas (where a ban is expected to be signed by the governor shortly), Arizona (where a ban is expected to pass, and Governor Katie Hobbs is expected to veto it), and Montana—where a drag ban was signed and went into effect immediately on May 22.

Now Pride events in some states are being denied venues or have been canceled altogether. Sometimes this goes far beyond what supporters of these bans claimed to be banning. Earlier this year, Arkansas passed a law that originally would have banned all drag but was modified and was regarded as safely excluding drag shows. Still, Arkansas venues hosting events during Pride have specifically canceled any drag performances that could be attended by minors, including drag story hours. One venue cited “safety concerns” following “charged nationwide political conversations around drag and minors that many times [result] in divisive and dangerous rhetoric.” Even before Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed a drag ban into law on May 17, some Pride events in the state, in St. Cloud, Tampa, and Port St. Lucie, had in anticipation of the ban canceled altogether.

Montana has notoriously gone far beyond drag bans to make gender conformity the law of the land. Not only are minors banned from attending drag performances, including drag story hours at public schools and libraries (Montana was the first state drag ban to explicitly target story hours), but the state has outlawed the provision of gender-affirming health care, such as puberty blockers and hormones, to minors. A “biological gender” law signed in May by Governor Greg Gianforte legally defines a woman as being in possession of XX chromosomes and able to “produce relatively large, relatively immobile gametes, or eggs during her life cycle.” Apart from the drag bans, those laws will go into effect on October 1; the gender-affirming care ban has already been challenged in court, and other lawsuits are sure to follow.

Activists and watchdog groups worry that the Republican establishment’s embrace of anti-LGBTQ policy may also embolden far-right hate groups this year. “It’s clear that the rhetoric at the legislative session, white nationalists are seeing that, hearing this, and it is giving them a permission slip to be more hostile and violent,” said Cherilyn DeVries, communications manager for the Montana Human Rights Network, or MHRN, when we spoke by phone shortly after the White Lives Matter march on drag story hours in Montana. “We’re trying to figure out how we can help communities help themselves in the face of this.”

MHRN has tracked White Lives Matter and similar groups for many years, and has collaborated with other anti-hate groups on guides on how communities can respond. As soon as Wheatgrass Books in Livingston announced their Drag Story Hour, the White Lives Matter group in Montana announced their intent to organize against it, said DeVries. MHRN shared what they knew with the bookstore, she said, and offered what support was asked for—how to write a statement of support, how to talk to the police—because they don’t want to “helicopter in,” as DeVries put it. “They seemed to have it pretty well in hand. We even sent some rainbow umbrellas for people to hold,” to block the neo-Nazis from view. (That the same group hit Bozeman on the same day may have been a matter of convenience, since the two were relatively close by.) To help more groups prepare, said DeVries, “we’re planning to create a checklist for people going into Pride, now that Governor Gianforte has signed the drag ban.” But, she said, based on what they are hearing from groups planning drag events, “everything is going on as planned,” despite the neo-Nazi attempts at intimidation.

As seen in Livingston and Bozeman, effective community defense can require tracking known neo-Nazi groups outside the state. The Stumptown Research Collective, “an antifascist, antiracist, pro-LGBTQIA+ collective of researchers,” has been tracking a number of neo-Nazis in the region, some with histories of violence widely known to law enforcement, and who also appear to still be recruiting. One of them is a neo-Nazi who was convicted in 2016 of a hate crime for stabbing an interracial couple outside a bar in Olympia, Washington, after he saw them kiss and who founded a group called the Evergreen Active Club this year. Such groups, reported David Neiwert for Daily Kos, “are not just fight clubs: They are also fascist gangs who indoctrinate members into neo-Nazi ideology.” In addition to White Lives Matter, who have similarly been recruiting in Montana and Idaho, Evergreen Active Club members were also part of the mobilizations in both Livingston and Bozeman on May 20, according to Stumptown Research Collective. WLM groups and “active clubs” have been involved in a number of white supremacist mobilizations in several other states this year, ACLED has reported, including in Portland, Oregon, and East Palestine, Ohio.

Though the number of queer and trans community events these groups target may be growing, and though these groups are using threats on Pride events as a recruitment tactic, it is unclear that these groups have significantly increased in size. For example, when the group Patriot Front—formed in the wake of the deadly “Unite the Right” events in Charlottesville, Virginia—had its leaked chats published by Unicorn Riot, a nonprofit media organization that often closely reports on the far right, the chats revealed Patriot Front’s issues with retaining members over time, along with inadequate security practices, due to a centralized communications platform that also made it easy for sources to access gigabytes of raw videos and photos of Patriot Front events and audio recordings of their meetings. In Montana, where some leaders of neo-Nazi groups are apparently obsessed with documenting and posting their “masculine” activities, as Stumptown Research Collective has aggregated, the consistent posting to social media also makes them easier to find and track.

Although these groups are deliberately targeting marginalized communities, and are doing so with the threat of violence, it also does not take much, sometimes, to push these groups to retreat. And knowing that these neo-Nazis intend to show up during Pride month, activists hope that their celebratory counterdemonstrations and diversion measures may be enough to deter, humiliate, and push them out, one town at a time. “Pride is our sanctuary. Pride is our protest. Pride is our continuous source of joy,” Montana Representative Zooey Zephyr said on Twitter, responding to the sight of the dance party that erupted around the neo-Nazis in Boseman. “And we will not let hatred take that joy away.”