Editor’s Note: this story contains discussions of violence and suicide. 24-hour support is available through Talk Suicide at 1-833-456-4566, and though Alberta Health Services at 1-877-303-2642.
In what has become an increasingly common theme across North America, anti-drag show protesters were met by far larger numbers of counter-protesters during an all-ages Calgary drag show on Sunday.
The Jan. 15 show at The Rec Room at Deerfoot City was one several drag show and brunch events held at RecRoom locations across the nation, including Burnaby, Edmonton, and Toronto.
As for the show itself, attendee Anna Murphy described it as incredible.
“It was joyous, happy—it was a bunch of all ages drag performers getting to be themselves, and nothing gives both watchers greater joy and also the performers greater joy than just being able to be themselves,” Murphy said.
Outside in The Rec Room parking lot, approximately 40 anti-drag protesters were met by more than 200 counter-protesters.
Adam McLeod said that as an openly gay person, he felt like it was his responsibility to counter the messages of hate towards the LGBTQ2S+ community.
“We gathered some of our friends, and we’re here to show them that Calgary supports love and we support diversity and we support drag for all ages,” McLeod said.
“Sometimes when I hear messages about, paedophilia or some of the other dark stuff, it feels like it harkens back to an older time that we feel like should have been beyond that at this point.”
A similar protest was held in Inglewood in December, after an all ages drag brunch was held at The Attic.
Drag shows represent both art and inclusion: Murphy
Murphy said that what the anti-drag protesters were doing was “very dehumanizing not only for myself, but for those who are just coming here to feel safe and affirmed and welcome.”
“It’s incredible what The Rec Room is doing across Canada with their affirming drag shows, and that’s why it’s important that all of these other folks that are coming out to say ‘you know what, their hate and ignorance has no place here in Calgary,” Murphy said.
She said that all of the counter-protesters would have rather been inside enjoying the show and the brunch, but that because of the protesters they had to show.
The protest itself was personal for Murphy, who organized Calgary’s 2022 Transgender Day of Remembrance.
“You have an individual behind us who has a sign that says ‘dead pedos,’ and they’re directing it towards folks like myself—a transgender woman—they want to debate my existence… and they would be more than happy if I, and many others like me, were to succumb to suicide and not be around. So, it’s disgusting,” Murphy said.
“You have kids in this crowd, you have people who have struggled with their mental health in this crowd, and even yet they still have mustered the courage to come and face this ignorance down.”
Murphy dealt with the shouts from protesters, calling drag show performers and members of the community pedophiles and groomers—a common term used by members of the alt-right and conservative movements as reference to paedophilia.
“Trans people are not pedophiles. We are not child groomers. Those who support affirming policies, whether they are politicians or community organizations, are not putting children in harm’s way,” Murphy said.
Still, said Murphy, the people attending the show couldn’t help but be partially affected by the messages against them.
“You can see it as as kids are walking in, and walking out.. they can they can hear, they can see, and kids are smarter than we give them credit for.”
Inside though she said that during the show they were happy to attend, clapping, smiling, and singling along to classics from Cher and Eurythmics.
“Some of these kiddos, just by that look in their eyes for some, this might be the first time that maybe they’ve seen themselves reflected in spaces that they’ve gone towhether that’s at a restaurant or in entertainment or the arts or whatever—so it is it’s incredibly powerful for these kids.”
Protest part of a growing number of anti-drag, anti-LGBTQ2S+ ones held internationally
The anti-drag protesters saw themselves as protecting the innocence of children, against what they say is unnecessary sexualization of children.
“I’m here because I want to make it clear that children do not need to be involved in that,” said one protester, who identified herself only as Kim.
“The point is that the LGBTQ communities platform and legitimate concerns have been hijacked by people that want to pit people against each other.”
During the protest, Kim, alongside other protesters held up a signs from group Action4Canada, citing Canada’s criminal code, section 163.1. That section refers to the creation and distribution of child pornography, which under the code, refers to material related to explicit sexual activity.
She asked the Canadian government to enforce that law against drag shows, stating “it’s not about hating on anybody, it’s about upholding the law of the land of Canada.”
No sexual activity occurred at The Rec Room drag brunch show, and no laws were broken. One anti-drag protester was briefly detained by police.
Supporters of Action4Canada were joined by fellow frequent anti-government, anti-public health measure protesters regularly seen at protests in the Downtown Core and Inglewood. Other protesters known for making anti-LGBTQ2S+ statements also attended.
“I’m not here to stir up strife. I’m here to represent a large number of people’s concerns around having kids involved in this event, kids being used as pawns in a larger plan,” said Kim.
“What’s happening is children are getting hurt because they’re doing that, they’re making it political, instead of actually talking about the issues at hand.”
Anti-drag messaging recent and political
Murphy said that she had been making calls to be aware of growing anti-trans sentiment following events like Jan. 6 and the occupation of Ottawa.
“People like me, a year ago, were saying that we need to pay attention to what is going on in the United Kingdom, in the United States, because we are not immune to it here in Calgary and now we are seeing that,” she said.
McLeod cited the number of non-drag messages on signs from the anti-drag protesters, and how that made him feel as a member of a minority group.
“You can even see some of the signs are politically motivated against government, and don’t have much to do with LGBTQ+ rights,” he said.
“It is difficult, and kind of feels like it’s common for minority groups to get caught up in that as casualties of the argument.”
Action4Canada, like some other anti-public health measure protest groups, began switching their messages and events away from the topic following the lifting of broad public health measures in 2022.
An archive of that group’s events shows they did not plan any drag show protests until May of 2022.
A spike in protests against the LGBTQ2S+ community occurred in both the United States and Canada during the lead up to summer, following months of lead-up in anti-trans messaging on social media and major media sites like Fox News.
Conservative leaders in the United States have latched onto drag shows as political fodder, making statements and proposing bills to ban the shows. Kim cited many of the same viral videos of drag shows that have been lambasted by those politicians and conservative commentators.
“It’s so easy to find full exposure of prosthetic breasts, dancing, you know, very sexually, in front of children, and there’s one in Texas,” she said.
“I don’t know about this particular show, because I’m not in there, but there are definitely all kinds but just click on it and you’ll see that some of those things are happening.”
LWC was able to identify the video as a drag event that occurred in Austin, Texas in December 2022, and came with the warning “remember this is the naughty tour!”
McLeod flatly rejected the argument that drag is something sexual, just for adults.
“Drag is for everybody. It’s fun, it’s an art form, and it’s an expression of love and entertainment and honouring people who have come before us,” he said.
“Many trans activists and drag activists have paved the way so that we have queer rights today. So it’s our job to make sure that we hold that as their vanguard and show them that we’re here to support them in the strongest possible terms.”