Why These Drag Artists Are Organizing for Better Protections

Why These Drag Artists Are Organizing for Better Protections

Kelly Estrella has been performing drag in the South for nearly four decades. But it wasn’t until her performance was canceled on June 9 due to a bomb threat at the Brewtorium, a local brewery in Austin, Texas, that she felt her life was at risk. 

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“I’m used to being aware of my surroundings and always being vigilant,” says 54-year-old Estrella, who goes by the stage moniker Kelly Kline. “But this action that happened, it really makes me nervous about other events.”

Local and federal authorities determined that the establishment likely fell victim to a hoax they’ve seen across multiple U.S. cities, especially during Pride, in an effort to force the cancellation of drag events, Brewtorium CEO Whitney Roberts told TIME in a Friday statement. (The Austin Police Department did not respond to requests for comment.) At least three other drag events in Alaska, Massachusetts and New York received bomb threats during that same weekend, and two more events in Arizona and Minnesota reported similar attacks the following weekend. It’s part of an alarming uptick in protests and threats against drag events since Pride season 2022, which performers are hoping to combat through the formation of: Qommittee, a burgeoning coalition of drag artists across the U.S.

The D.C.-based group launched in June with the intention of connecting individual drag artists, especially those living in more isolated places in the country and who hold marginalized identities, with one another. During its first year, the coalition has been focused on recruitment, but leaders aim to eventually provide additional support, such as legal aid, and helping drag artists’ secure compensation for their work.

Blaq Dinamyte, a D.C.-based drag performer and president of Qommittee, says the group also aims to serve as a sort-of liaison between drag artists and law enforcement—a relationship which he says is often strained—to better combat and respond to hate crimes and threats in their line of work. “Just because we have this bad relationship doesn’t mean that they are not still here to protect us; their job is to protect us,” Dinamyte says. 

For now, the organization’s focus is on uniting the people they advocate for: drag artists who have or are experiencing threats of harm. Dinamyte points to the survivors of the Club Q and Pulse Nightclub shootings— two mass shootings targeting LGBTQ+ folks— who stand at the helm of the committee. “A lot of the smaller drag communities don’t necessarily have the resources that we have here in D.C.,” Dinamyte says. “We want to become a central hub for people to get the resources that they need in order to fight.”

Read More: Drag Is an Expression of Queer Existence

As part of its efforts, the coalition published a petition calling on the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to commit to robust monitoring of threats at upcoming pride celebrations, create and maintain a comprehensive publicly-available database tracking all threats to pride and drag events, and issue public statements condemning anti-LGBTQ extremism. The petition currently has more than 14,500 signatures, according to Dinamyte, and the committee has already connected with FBI officials who specialize in hate crimes enforcement. The FBI has already been tracking some threats.

A 2022 FBI crime report showed that anti-LGBTQ+ hate crimes in the U.S. had steadily risen from the year prior, with a near 33% increase in reported hate crimes based on gender identity. In May, the U.S. Department of State also issued a worldwide travel advisory due to a “potential for terrorist attacks, demonstrations, or violent actions against U.S. citizens and interests,” particularly citing increased violence against LGBTQ+ people and pride-related events.

Dinamyte, who has been performing drag for 20 years, has noticed threats of violence toward the LGBTQ+ community increase after the pandemic.“We always had a few things…you know, somebody drives by and says something, and people have their opinions online,” he says. “But I think really, after the pandemic, people were emboldened to be more active in their expression of disliking drag.” Roberts concurs, saying that beyond hateful comments on social media, the Brewtorium had never received a threat before. For an upcoming Austin pride event, Roberts is planning on having a police presence. Qommittee is documenting drag performers’ testimonies related to bomb threats and other threats through an online survey shared with artists.

Read More: How This Drag Queen Is Fostering an Inclusive Outdoor Community

After the bomb threat at Brewtorium, Qommittee reached out to Estrella, offering to connect her to a counselor, and inviting her to have a conversation with other drag performers who have similar values. As an advocate, she says that things have been gradually getting better since she began performing, but the bomb threat showed her how much “hate needs to be faced.”

“I love that they’re trying to make sure that the drag community is taken care of,” Estrella says. “Most people see us as entertainers and they forget we’re actual humans with actual feelings.”

Read More: Here’s the Status of Anti-Drag Bills Across the U.S.

Throughout the last legislative year, drag became a major target of Republican efforts in certain states, especially in Tennessee, Texas, Arizona, Kentucky and Oklahoma. A number of bills entered the legislature, with language attempting to prohibit “adult cabaret performances” in public places where minors could watch. Many of these drag ban attempts met resistance, and those that became law faced significant legal challenges and lawsuits. In 2024 so far, 25 drag bills were in consideration according to the ACLU’s database, and 20 have been defeated. Dinamyte says he’s used to these attempts to make his existence political, though.

“I always say that even outside of drag, my existence tends to be political,” Dinamyte says. “Being a queer person of color is always political so we don’t know any other energy around our own existence.”

Eventually, he hopes that Qommittee can use their widespread support to lobby with their neighbors down the street at the Capitol, and give support to drag artists who can do the same at the state level. First, though, they need to rally the troops, so to speak. 

“I’d rather be on the ground with people, helping in any way that I can,” Dinamyte says.

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