Cameron Smith/Nathan Howard/Patrick T. Fallon/Getty Images; Rachel Mendelson/Insider
- Once a week on average in 2022, Proud Boys joined or led anti-LGBTQ+ protests held across the US.
- Most of their demonstrating targeted drag performances; many involved violence and armed protesters.
- Insider’s interactive map shows what happened each time they joined anti-LGBTQ+ protests last year.
The Proud Boys are on the march against the LGBTQ+ community — and especially against drag performers.
No other militant, far-right group comes close to the Proud Boys’ new-found dedication to public displays of homophobia, alarming new numbers show.
Once a week on average last year, and from coast to coast, the group waved their black flag at “straight pride” and “save our children” rallies or shouted slurs at tense, sometimes violent protests against Pride Month celebrations, queer school curricula, and gender-affirming healthcare for youth.
Drag —an ancient, misunderstood art form — was the Proud Boys’ most common target.
Out of 53 anti-LGBTQ rallies the extremist group led or joined in 2022, 60 percent were attempts to disrupt drag events with baseless taunts of “grooming” and “pedophilia” — efforts equally divided between adult-only performances and family-friendly parties and story hours.
The Proud Boys’ presence fueled a nationwide surge in anti-LGBTQ+ demonstrations last year, according to the latest stats from the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, or ACLED.
Overall, there were at least 174 anti-LGBTQ+ demonstrations across the country in 2022, the most ACLED has seen since it began counting in 2020, Jones said.
“Among the far-right militias and militant social movements that we track, the Proud Boys were the top group involved in anti-LGBT+ incidents in 2022 by a significant margin,” said Sam Jones, who directs communications for ACLED.
ACLED recently shared its raw data with Insider.
It shows alarming trends.
Proud Boys’ LGBTQ+ protests averaged just one or two per month for most of 2022.
Then last fall, their activity climbed. Proud Boys joined in seven anti-LGBTQ+ protests in September, 10 in October and 6 in November. In December, they protested at 13 anti-LGBTQ+ protests, more than in any other month last year, ACLED data shows.
These included demonstrations against the Fresno Drag Festival in California and against five “Drag Queen Christmas” shows — in Santa Rosa California; Grand Prairie, Texas; Knoxville, Tennessee; and in Fort Lauderdale and Clearwater, Florida.
To be clear, drag is not synonymous with LGBTQ+ and one doesn’t need to identify as queer to participate in drag. But the performance art form has become a big, sparkly avatar for the extreme right in their pushback against LGBTQ+ rights.
“There was this really big push in December,” against drag in particular, confirms Emily Kaufman, a researcher for the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism.
The push is strategic, she said.
The Proud Boys are tracking the culture wars in search of media attention and new recruits. As public attention shifts away from their previous mainstays of anti-COVID mandates and “stop the steal” rallies, the group is moving on to the next hot-button issue, she said.
In 2020, only two percent of the group’s marches and protests targeted LGBTQ+ issues or events. In 2021, it was only 8 percent. But last year, anti-LGBTQ+ events comprised 40 percent of their demonstrating.
And the group’s anti-LGBTQ+ push is continuing, said Kaufman, who tracks the Proud Boys’ estimated 119 chapters in 46 states.
Proud Boys are turning up these days at nearly half of all anti-LGBTQ+ activity across the country, she told Insider.
More protests, more weapons
Weapons — including paint guns, mace, pepper spray, fireworks, handguns, and rifles — are also turning up at these protests more often, the data shows.
Firearms were reported at 13 anti-LGBTQ protests in 2022, including in the hands of pro-LGBTQ+ counterprotesters. Nine of these armed protests happened in the last four months of the year.
“The only scary thing about a drag story hour is one of these conservative white men with a gun — it’s not what we’re reading, it’s not what we’re singing, it’s not our arts and crafts projects,” said Jonathan Hamilt, founder of the national Drag Story Hour organization, which supports 50 chapters around the US, bringing readings to public libraries and schools for seven years.
“It’s literally the opposition trying to kill us.”
In another disturbing trend, the Proud Boys — who are considered a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, and the ADL, and who are accused as key players in the January 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol — are building alliances with other extremist groups, ACLED data suggests.
Neo-Nazis accompanied Proud Boys at nine anti-LGBTQ+ events, in Texas, Oregon, Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, and — twice — in New York City.
Alliances of hate
One need only look at a single day — December 3, a Saturday — to see Proud Boys attending four anti-LGBTQ+ protests alongside a grab-bag of the most extreme extremist groups, including neo-Nazis, QAnon, and the white nationalist Patriot Front.
ACLED data records Proud Boys members mixing it up with heil-Hitlering members of the neo-Nazi group NSF outside a charity drag performance in Lakeland, Florida. “Drag queens are pedophiles with AIDS,” one sign read at that demonstration.
That same Saturday, some 20 Proud Boys joined an anti-LGBTQ+ “Protect the Children” rally on the beach in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. They were joined by QAnon conspiracy theorists and a group called “Gays Against Groomers.”
Also that day, in New York City, at least three Proud Boys rallied alongside anti-COVID-vaccine groups and still more flag-flying neo-Nazis outside a drag story hour at the Staten Island Children’s Museum.
And at the fourth event that Saturday, more than 50 Proud Boys rallied against a family-friendly holiday drag show outside a Unitarian church in Columbus, Ohio. With them were some 30 Patriot Front members, who handed out propaganda alongside pro-Nazis who heil-Hitlered at passing cars.
At least six people outside that church, including one counter-demonstrator, were armed with long guns, ACLED reported.
“It really makes no sense to say you’re here to protect the children when all you try to do is scare them, bring weapons, shout homophobic and transphobic slurs,” noted Hamilt. “That doesn’t seem like love to me.”
One drag king’s experience
“Oliver H,” a New York City drag king with a self-described, multi-colored “mohawk to the sky,” has read to kids at dozens of Drag Story Hour events, many of which spurred protests.
But he knew he’d better draw some extra flowers when he painted on his beard for his December 29 reading at a public library in Queens.
The local congresswoman, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, had rallied her supporters on Instagram: Go to the reading in force, she urged them, and “Defend Drag Story Hour in NYC!”
The high-profile post caught the attention of protesters and activated a network of what Hamilt calls the story hour “defenders,” including members of the “Parasol Patrol” — counter-demonstrators who deploy giant, rainbow umbrellas and ridiculously loud singing to shield children and parents from homophobic shouting and signage.
“I was like, you know what? This is going to be a crazy day,” Oliver H said he told himself, as he worked to make his makeup especially bright that day.
“I wanted to have a very colorful face the kids could focus on,” the former daycare teacher told Insider, “instead of everything else that was going to be happening.”
Proud Boys protest at a drag story hour in Jackson Heights, Queens, on December 29, 2022.
Yuki Iwamura/AFP via Getty Images
Video of the event shows at least eight men in Proud Boys regalia standing on the sidewalk across from the library. One holds a black flag with the group’s emblem. Others hold signs reading, “If you won’t fight for your kids we will!” and, “Why must they/them sexualize children?”
“Send the groomers home!” shouted a Proud Boy holding a sign reading, “Groom dogs, not kids.”
“They want their signs to be as provocative as possible,” in hopes of provoking a fight, said the ADL’s Kaufman. “As incendiary as possible.”
By ACLED’s count, the Queens protest was the last of 18 times in 2022 that Proud Boys targeted drag story hours, where extravagantly-dressed performers read to young children to promote literacy and tolerance.
Looking down from a library window, Oliver H could see the Proud Boys waving their flag and signs in their black and yellow “colors,” standing out among a crowd of some 100 other story hour protesters.
They were outnumbered by some 300 pro-LGBTQ+ counter-protesters, including rainbow-umbrella-waving Parasol Patrol members.
The counter-protesters beat drums and sang along to amplified Disney songs — intentionally chosen, Oliver H explained, in hopes that images posted online would quickly be taken down “for copyright issues.”
“On one side of the street, I saw signs calling me a groomer,” he remembered recently.
“On the other side of the street, they were singing ‘High School Musical.’ Each side of the street was so different.”
The 50 young children and their adult loved ones who attended the hearing could hear all of the singing, and none of the homophobic slurs.
Drag king Oliver H reads to children at a Drag Story Hour in Queens, NY on December 12, 2022.
“The singing drowned out the shouting,” remembered Oliver H, who performs at adults-only venues under a far more risque name, “Oliver Herface.”
“The kids just thought there was a fun parade.”
He read them a children’s book, “‘Twas the Night Before Pride,” about the Stonewall uprising, the 1969 protest at a Greenwich Village gay bar that catalyzed America’s gay rights movement.
“It felt very meta, reading that story while everything was going on outside,” Oliver H said.
“It kind of made me feel like I was in a storybook myself.”
The protests are only making them stronger, said Hamilt, Drag Story Hour’s founder.
“We’ve had more requests, more people wanting to start chapters, more donations, and more people backing us” as a result, Hamilt said.
“Too many times, the queer community has borne the brunt of, you know, heterosexual, white, patriarchy trauma,” he said of groups like the Proud Boys.
“We’re tired of being the punching bag for these people to figure out their own trauma,” he said, adding with a laugh, “so, we’re just waiting for the healing to start.”