A group of men yelled homophobic and transphobic slurs, held wooden signs with graphic imagery, and shouted “you’re bad parents!” at families walking into a Silver Spring bookstore for a story hour with a drag queen on Saturday, according to Montgomery County Council member Kristin Mink. The men, members of the Proud Boys, also confronted volunteers holding rainbow umbrellas and ushering in children to the program, she said, by shoving and pushing against them.
Montgomery County police officers, who responded to the scene shortly after 1 p.m. at Loyalty Bookstores, will be present at future story hours “in a peacemaker role,” Montgomery County Police Chief Marcus G. Jones said in a statement Monday.
“Officers will be on hand to ensure the safety of attendees and participants,” Jones said. “If protesters are present, we will make sure that there is distance between the two groups, so attendees are able to come and go safely without interference.”
Although Montgomery County police responded to the scene at Loyalty Bookstores on Saturday, Mink said Proud Boys were mostly able to continue approaching those defending the story hour. There were no arrests or official reports of injuries Saturday.
Mink, who said she met with the police chief and requested a more robust response, said she hopes the police department’s approach to future story hours will prevent altercations and allow families and children to hear a drag queen tell stories without fear of intimidation, harassment and violence.
Mink said she, along with other volunteers from a local chapter of Parasol Patrol, a group that protects kids heading into story hours, vastly outnumbered the protesters, who donned clothes and signs with the Proud Boys’ colors, name and logo.
John Zittrauer, 40, a volunteer for Parasol Patrol, said he was injured when the Proud Boys pushed against his group, but he was unsure what, exactly, busted open his nose. Police on scene checked in with him, and he replied that he was okay, he said.
“It’s unacceptable for us to be putting our residents in a place, in a situation that exposes them to violence like this,” Mink said.
Proud Boys showed up in Silver Spring and got violent today, trying to scare away families and children attending Drag Story Hour at Loyalty Books.— Kristin Mink, Montgomery County Council (MD) (@KristinMink_) February 18, 2023
But the community held a wall of 🌈 safety and support. The kids had a great time and were none the wiser. We will never back down. pic.twitter.com/pQlHWvLQNx
Drag Story Hours include books that highlight the values of kindness and being inclusive, said Beth DiGregorio, president of the local Drag Story Hour chapter, who attended the Silver Spring event. DiGregorio hopes the children at the story hours are able to “learn about different types of families, different types of people.”
“That’s very important for everyone, because if you don’t know about these things, then there’s a tendency to be afraid of them or even start to hate them,” she said.
Across the country, Proud Boys and other far-right groups with white-supremacist ideologies have increasingly targeted LGBTQ individuals and events with hateful and violent acts. Less than 1 percent of Proud Boys protests before 2022 were related to drag shows or story hours, according to data from the Crowd Counting Consortium, an academic project tracking and sharing data on protests across the United States. Those numbers have steadily climbed, the data show, reaching 25 percent since the start of 2022 and 36 percent since May 2022.
Republicans and conservative Christian groups have been amplifying false and dangerous claims that gay and transgender people are “preying” on or “grooming” children. At least 26 bills have been introduced in 14 states in the 2023 legislative session by Republican legislators restricting drag events, including some seeking to ban children from the performances. Florida’s novel restrictions ban discussions of gender and sexuality in the classroom.
But that has not been the case in Montgomery County, where council members last year approved legislation requiring gender-inclusive, single-user restrooms in public and government-run facilities, WTOP reported. The county’s public schools also added six LGBTQ-inclusive books that teachers can choose to incorporate into lessons.
“We’re very, very fortunate here,” said Morgan Merriman, the vice-chairperson for the MoCo Pride Center. “The support that we’ve gotten from the overall community in the past few days has been amazing. And I’m really hoping it does deter some future action from the Proud Boys or from other groups that have plans that are not as positive for the children.”
rhetoric has consequences.— Loyalty Bookstores (@Loyaltybooks) February 19, 2023
We love our kiddos and our queer, BIPOC, disabled, local community that makes Loyalty all it is.
-Hannah, Christine + the Loyalty Team 7/7 pic.twitter.com/436MRRswU7
On Telegram, a social media app favored by far-right extremists, members of the Proud Boys’ local chapter celebrated their efforts at the Silver Spring story hour. Yet the group was outnumbered Saturday by those supporting the story hour, and the event continued as scheduled inside the bookstore, according to organizers and volunteers.
While Proud Boys yelled and shoved outside the entrance, the children inside Loyalty Bookstores laughed, did the hokey pokey and danced as drag queen Charlemagne Chateau, dressed as a princess, read stories, they said.
“The kids had a full story time, and they had their full fun, and there is not an amount of hate that was equal to the amount of community,” said Hannah Oliver-Depp, the founder and head buyer for Loyalty Bookstores, a Black-, queer- and Asian-owned local shop that specializes in diverse books.
She credited the successful story time to the Parasol Patrol volunteers who blocked the entrance with rainbow umbrellas, loudly sang “Let It Go” from “Frozen” so children could not hear the protesters, and refused to back down when Proud Boys pushed against them. Oliver-Depp said the bookstore has hosted several story hours before and will continue to do so.