Outside the Carl Perkins Civic Center on a warm October day in Jackson, Tenn., clusters of armed police officers stood watch around the building. Before them, bright rainbow flags shimmied in the breeze.
For the small West Tennessee city, this scene was unusual. The civic center is a sprawling beige-and-brown building, accentuated with floor-to-ceiling windows and orbed light fixtures. It sits in a curve of the 45 Bypass, downtown, and bears the name of the rockabilly superstar around whom a local mythos has developed. It’s the site of concerts, theater productions, ballets, charity functions—all fairly innocuous events. On this night, it was hosting a drag show for the city’s third annual Pride celebration. The organizers, however, never intended for Pride to be held in a private space. Doing so went against their ultimate vision for Pride as a celebration open to anyone and everyone. It forced them to hide, when openness was the point.
Over the last several years, it has felt as if Jackson has been turning a bit of a corner—perhaps along with even more conservative parts of the United States broadly. To be sure, it is still not easy to be anything other than cisgender and heterosexual in the region (and, let’s face it, in America). But more and more young people have felt able to come out in their communities, and overall, LGBTQ+ acceptance has been on the rise nationally.
Of course, progress almost always begets retaliation.
The backlash has not been limited to Jackson. Far from it. A recent report from GLAAD researchers analyzed news reports from all across the country and found that in 2022, there have been at least 124 incidents—protests, threats, acts of violence—that specifically targeted drag events. Of the 50 states, only South Dakota, Rhode Island, West Virginia and Washington, D.C., reported no such incidents, though, as GLAAD says, “it is possible that incidents did occur in those areas but they did not receive media coverage.”
The climate has, of course, become even more frightening in the weeks since a mass shooting at a gay club in Colorado Springs, Colo. killed five people.
Information Reckon obtained via public information requests and other sources shows how a deliberate disinformation campaign fueled outrage that tore this mid-size Southern city apart—and how the same scenarios are playing out in cities across the country, stoking hate that too often results in violence.
When this year’s Pride festivities in Jackson were first announced, it barely registered among the local conservatives and conspiracy theorists. That changed when the organizers announced that the featured entertainment would be a drag show, featuring queens from all over the mid-South.
In the weeks leading up to the celebration, “Did you hear about the drag queens?” was the new “Nice weather we’re having” around town. Everyone had an opinion, and those opinions were expressed in their strongest terms on Facebook and via emails to the mayor’s office. The outrage boiled down to homophobic, transphobic pearl-clutching in the form of: “Think of the children!”
Garry Martin, senior pastor at First Assembly of God, a Pentecostal church in Jackson, put it this way in a public post: “This all day event will expose the neighborhood children to an environment that is not needed. They say this is a ‘family friendly’ event. It is far from it.” Other local churches, such as First Baptist Church, pledged to hold prayer services focusing on “the Bible’s view of homosexuality.” A meme made the rounds that said, “Don’t ask why children need to see drag queens, ask why drag queens crave an audience of children.”
One of the most influential pastors in town, Dr. Adam Dooley, senior pastor at Englewood Baptist Church, was a leader in the community movement to shut down the drag show. In a lengthy Facebook post, Dooley referred to the drag show as “gender appropriation,” drawing a misguided parallel to racial and cultural appropriation and calling the concept of drag “misogynistic.” In an email to Mayor Scott Conger, he continued to make false equivalencies, taking issue with the city’s First Amendment defense of the event and insisting that the application was “insulting to those who understand the law quite well.” Dooley then went on to ask if, on public property, the KKK would be allowed to burn a cross, if female strippers would be allowed to “parade nude,” if pornography could be sold, if confederate monuments had any place therein. The pastor implores the mayor to, “ask yourself if children or unsuspecting citizens should be exposed to something so perverted.”
Reckon sent requests for comment to both Martin and Dooley. Martin confirmed that he stands behind the post. Dooley did not respond.
Amid the backlash, city officials asked the Pride organizers to move their celebration because of the drag show, originally to be held at a city park in the middle of town, as it had been for two previous years. At that point, “we began the education process,” says Darin Hollingsworth, a spokesman for Jackson Pride, sounding tired at the recollection. “Drag is part of our culture. It is part of our entertainment. And there would be no reason to celebrate many of the freedoms that we currently have if drag queens hadn’t stood up for themselves and others at Stonewall.”
Still, it’s nearly impossible to combat hate-fueled rhetoric with fact, or reason, or history.
Another important early mouthpiece for the campaign against the drag show was state Rep. Chris Todd, who led the legal fight against the event. “This community has risen up over the drag queen show announcement, and all of the information that’s been shared about what drag queen shows involve,” Todd said in an interview with the Jackson Sun. “And especially the fact that this is touted as a family-friendly event! It’s obvious children will be present—I believe that in itself violates state law.” On Facebook, he pledged to use a bit of state code that prohibits “cabaret performances” within 1,000 feet of a “child care facility, a private, public, or charter school, a public park, family recreation center, a residence, or a place of worship.”
Via a records request, Reckon obtained emails to the mayor’s office which show the clear structure of an organized disinformation campaign targeting LGBTQ+ people, with particular viciousness directed at trans people. (Drag queens do not largely identify as transgender.) This campaign spread through churches, conservative political groups, and, above all, Facebook.
Multiple references were made linking drag to pedophilia, alongside wildly inappropriate scenarios involving children and drag queens that seem too bizarre to be real. A few times, the idea that children would attend the performance and “stick dollar bills into a drag queen’s G-string” was invoked. This talking point has also been used by conservatives like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who appears to have gotten the impression from a photo that purports to show a child tucking some money into the underwear of a drag queen. However, the underwear in question is not a G-string, it’s a cheeky cut, and the entertainer is not a drag queen, she is a cisgender New Orleans burlesque dancer whose stage name is Bella Blue. The photo was taken in 2019.
Others pointed to a rumored incident in Chattanooga, in which a child allegedly reached out and touched the crotch of a drag performer dressed as Ariel from The Little Mermaid. The person in the costume was, in fact, a cisgender woman who dresses up as Disney princesses for children’s parties. The child simply seemed mesmerized by the sequins in her outfit. The video appears to have gained traction in conservative circles after it was posted by Robby Starbuck, a failed congressional candidate from the Nashville area.
Several others included a link to a column published by the Washington Examiner, a conservative news site, headlined, “Why drag queen performances are not appropriate for children.” The columnist, Dr. Debra Soh, says she “grew up in the gay community with many drag queens as friends,” but she does not point out that drag queens are not strippers, instead relying on false tropes.
“If these were instead women dancing provocatively, giving lap dances, and removing their clothing in front of child onlookers, I’m certain staff and fellow audience members would be disgusted and appalled,” Soh writes. “The dancers would surely be asked to leave, and there is a high probability that Child Protective Services would be called on parents, as well.” Lap dancing and stripping are not traditionally part of drag performances.
In the daylight hours, heavy police presence and metal detector aside, all was quiet—though most people were on alert. They weren’t being paranoid. The weekend prior, a family-friendly drag show that was to be held at a museum in Memphis, an hour-and-a-half west of Jackson, was interrupted by the Proud Boys, a far-right, white nationalist group, who protested outside with guns. The event was shut down as a safety precaution. Indeed, data from the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, a nonprofit that collects data on political violence across the globe, shows that the Proud Boys, along with other far-right militias and militant social movements, have tripled their involvement in anti-LGBTQ+ demonstrations over the last year.
At a coffee shop a few blocks away from the Jackson civic center, a cluster of younger people made plans to head over to Pride together in the afternoon. Everyone was a little on edge—their ears were pricked for the sounds of sirens; they checked their phones dreading terrible news. Some in the community felt it wasn’t worth the safety risk and had made a difficult decision to stay home.
At the Pride celebration, however, all was quiet. Blinking away the spots left across their vision by the bright sunshine, people from all backgrounds stepped into the building, chattering as they handed their bags over to the guards for examination and passed through the metal detector. Darren Lykes stood nearby, beaming and welcoming those who entered, his warmth serving as a stark contrast to the coldness of security.
Lykes, a Black man with chic, tortoise-shell glasses and the sweetest Southern accent, chairs the Jackson Pride committee. The position suits him; Lykes is beloved in Jackson, and he’s the sort of man who knows everyone and has never met a stranger. For him, that Pride was happening at all was a victory, and while the cruel accusations of pedophilia cut deep, he refused to let that pain affect his joy. That joy, on that day, he told me, was sacred. On the bottom floor of the civic center, people wandered among booths and listened to local bands play on the stage where the drag queens would perform later that night. Just outside, there were food trucks, and the mood was festive, if a bit strained in the sprawling civic center that swallowed the modest event.
Lykes’ relief was hard-won. A recording of September 26 closed-door conversations between the Pride committee, city leadership, and religious leaders reveals a baffling mix of disinformation, vile allegations of sexual misconduct, and bizarre interpretations of city ordinances, state law and the First Amendment. Pastors Dooley, Andy Neely of West Jackson Baptist Church, and Sky McCracken of First Methodist-Downtown Jackson were in attendance, as were Rep. Todd and state Sen. Ed Jackson, opposing the event. Two representatives of the West Tennessee Healthcare Foundation also attended, given that the foundation is a fiscal sponsor of the local Pride organization, along with the mayor and representatives from the city. Hollingsworth, Lykes, and two others represented the Jackson Pride organizing committee.
“It was two of the most horrible hours of my life,” Hollingsworth said. “It was all about us being the moral unraveling of the fabric of the city and the region and [being] damaging to children, and over and over and over, by the state representative and by a state senator who were there.”
The opponents of Pride quizzed the city and the event representatives on codes regarding alcohol and “adult cabaret” performances. The city was clear: attorneys did not find a legal issue with a drag performance in a public park, where free speech is protected. A representative from the city attorney’s office explained at the top of the meeting that in the city’s code, cabarets are “business establishments” and, further, the definitions of a cabaret performer are based on female anatomy. Rep. Todd argued with the city’s legal analysis, adding that “thousands” of protesters could descend on Jackson if the event was allowed to move forward, significantly burdening law enforcement. A representative from the parks department weighed in, citing the spotless history of the city’s Pride celebration, down to the condition of the park itself the morning after. “It is immaculate,” he said. “I just want to make the record clear that when we talk about issuing permits, I look at the reality of their history.”
Barely 10 minutes in, the conversation devolved. Opponents began citing disinformation about drag events—Rep. Todd referred to the debunked photo of the supposed queen in Chattanooga. Pride organizers tried to explain the cultural significance and the history of drag. Opponents of the event weren’t receptive.
“If you take this into a private location, all of this goes away in a sense,” a man’s voice on the recording says. “And, and look, look, you said earlier that, you know, people pushing their morality, pushing it down your throat, no one has the right to do that. But can you appreciate that it feels like this has been pushed down the throats of people in Jackson... Whether you disagree or not, there are many people who feel that the LGBT agenda is being pushed on the rest of society.”
“That’s why there are laws,” Lykes replies, “and we are abiding by those laws.”
Lykes goes on to invoke his status in the community as a photographer and a consistent presence at charity events, where he and the Pride organization often pitch in. If I’m good enough to do all of that in Jackson, he asks, why am I not good enough for you to take me at my word when I say this will be a G-rated event?
“I believe your intent,” someone replies. “But what I’m saying to you is drag in and of itself, no matter how much you claim that you can police the content, is offensive to many, many people.”
After two hours, the Pride representatives left the meeting, which had become “counterproductive,” Lykes said. “Nothing good was ever going to come out of that.”
“I felt very bullied,” recalls Hollingsworth. “I felt very threatened.” In the end, he felt unable to attend Pride after that meeting. “I cannot be confronted by people with weapons and signs that say, God hates fags,” he said.
Two days before the event was scheduled, Rep. Todd and Sen. Jackson, among others, filed a lawsuit. The complaint asserted that the drag show violated state law regarding “adult cabaret performances.” To support their claims, they cited numerous pieces of disinformation, including the incident in Chattanooga.
In the 36 hours before the Pride celebration was set to begin, the Pride organizers, the city, and the protesters reached a compromise to hold the event in the civic center rather than a public park and to add an 18+ age requirement to the drag show to avoid court proceedings.
Though Rep. Todd and his cohort ultimately won their argument, the state’s war on drag is far from over. In November, Rep. Jack Johnson introduced a bill to criminalize drag performances on public property or anywhere such an event might be spotted by a child. One offense under this proposed law would be a misdemeanor; a second would be a class E felony and could carry a prison sentence from one to six years. The draft uses language similar to that of the lawsuit filed by lawmakers Todd and Jackson to stop the event in October.
By the time the sun set, the street preachers were set up at the edge of the parking lot, using bullhorns to get their message across to anyone who was entering the civic center. Three white men preached of judgment, the devil and hell. “Being proud of a sin, something that’s an abomination of God, is nothing to be proud of,” bellowed Timothy Brown, one of the street preachers, who, according to his Facebook photos, has also protested at Planned Parenthood. Brown was joined by another preacher from West Tennessee, John Wheeler, who said he has traveled across the state protesting Pride events. “We’d like for it to all be abolished, but we definitely don’t want the children to be involved in that. They do some very revolting things.”
“They in the closet now, because no one can see them, that’s good,” half-joked another preacher, Anthony Love, in a video he posted to Facebook (in fact, all the preachers in attendance make multiple posts a day on the platform). “We’ve always said they need to stay in their lane.” Intermittently, people who were entering the civic center shouted back at the men.
Inside, Jason Aldean’s “She’s Country” blasted through speakers while folks bellied up to the bar and began to take their seats for the show. The room was packed with rednecks, punks, working-class folks, Black folks, Brown folks, goth teens, white boys in camouflage. The full range of what it is to live in West Tennessee was represented. The lights dimmed, and a tall, lithe queen named Bella DuBalle appeared in a floor-length, slinky gold gown and began to recall the history of the 1969 Stonewall riots, in which police raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay club in New York City, violently harassing patrons. “We fought back,” DuBalle said, a brilliant grin lighting up her face.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the brick and glass and metal, the preachers continued their roar, and armed police officers shifted their weight.