The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A D.C. drag event feared Proud Boy crashers. Residents came to defend it.

About 200 LGBTQ advocates, allies and others lined the street outside Crazy Aunt Helen’s, a Capitol Hill restaurant, to protect the Drag Storytime event happening inside

Hundreds of LGBTQ advocates and allies lined 8th Street SE outside Crazy Aunt Helen’s, a restaurant on Capitol Hill, to fend off a possible Proud Boys demonstration Saturday. (Katie Mettler for The Washington Post)
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She’d made it through the day without any disruption from the extremists who reportedly had plans to protest her Drag Storytime brunch, so as the children around her finished their breakfast and danced with rainbow ribbons, Tara Hoot walked outside with one last book.

Glittering in a colorful ensemble punctuated with statement pearls, the queen of the hour held up the cover to her favorite story, “Be Brave Little One,” and started reading.

“Be brave to stand up and tell what you know,” she said. “Be brave and believe in what you can’t see, for the ups and the downs are all meant to be.”

Before her were nearly 200 people and dozens of police officers who had been lining the street for hours outside Crazy Aunt Helen’s, an LGBTQ-friendly restaurant on Eighth Street SE in the District’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. There had been chatter on social media that the Proud Boys — a far-right group with white-supremacist ideologies — might try to disrupt the restaurant’s bimonthly drag story hour brunch hosted by Hoot, as they had done recently at similar events.

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Advocates, allies and area residents, organized by the group Parasol Patrol, had shown up in droves to ward them off. The Proud Boys’ presence had been almost undetectable — though some on Eighth Street reported seeing people in the vicinity wearing the group’s signature black-and-yellow garb. There were no confrontations.

So through a children’s book about being brave, Hoot was trying to say thanks.

“Be brave to keep going when going is tough,” she read. “Be brave to be still when you’ve had enough. … Be brave to be quiet, be brave to be loud, be brave to achieve and be fully proud.”

Across the country, Proud Boys and other far-right groups have targeted LGBTQ individuals, including at drag shows and story hours like the one at Crazy Aunt Helen’s. Before 2022, less than 1 percent of Proud Boys protests 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. By the start of 2022, those numbers had reached 25 percent and have climbed to 36 percent since May 2022.

For the hundreds of people who showed up Saturday morning in support of the story hour, the lack of conflict felt like a win. They held up rainbow-patterned umbrellas and blasted a playlist packed with Disney songs, including those from “The Lion King,” “Moana,” “Hercules” and “Encanto.”

“It’s a mini Pride parade,” said Erin Reed, a transgender woman living in Maryland who wore the blue, pink and white transgender flag around her shoulders like a cape. “If I were on their side, I wouldn’t want to be here.”

Reed, who has a large social media following where she reports on news and legislation impacting transgender people, said she heard about the demonstration Saturday through friends and other advocates.

“I’m really encouraged by how big of a presence there is here,” she said. “And I hope people see that, you know?”

A week earlier, a much smaller crew of volunteers from the Parasol Patrol, a group that protects children heading into story hours, had been shoved by Proud Boys members outside a drag queen story hour in Silver Spring, Md., just north of the District. The men yelled homophobic and transphobic slurs, and shouted, “You’re bad parents!” at families walking into the bookstore hosting the story hour.

Advocates were concerned that Saturday might be a repeat, and they worked to get as many people as possible to stand outside Crazy Aunt Helen’s just in case. They said they will do the same for another story hour in Olney, Md., planned for Sunday.

“The community shows up for each other,” said John Zittrauer, a Parasol Patrol volunteer who was hit in the face and bloodied during the Silver Spring ambush. “Our sole focus has been safety and positivity, and today it looks like mission accomplished.”

Throughout the morning Saturday, Crazy Aunt Helen’s owner Shane Mayson paced up and down the line of volunteers, thanking them for their help. His restaurant had been open about a year and a half, one of the dozens of new establishments that popped up across the city as pandemic restrictions began to lift, and he had worked hard to make his space inclusive.

Drag Storytime is among drag-related events, including bingo, trivia, burlesque shows, stand-up comedy, open mic nights and even a gospel brunch, that the restaurant hosts. (Mayson is, in his words, “the gay son of a Pentecostal preacher,” so he wanted to create the welcoming church environment he never had as a kid.)

Mayson had experienced no trouble until Monday, when he received an email from the promoters of Drag Story Hour notifying him that Crazy Aunt Helen’s had been put on the Proud Boys’ “protest list.” He contacted an officer with the District police department’s LGBT liaison division, which coordinated a meeting between him and law enforcement officials.

Authorities worked with Mayson to create a plan to keep his customers safe, he said, and the Parasol Patrol volunteers showed up with six times the people he was expecting.

“It’s been a gamut of emotions, but mostly I’m feeling very cared for,” Mayson said. As owner, Mayson has spent most of his time engrossed in the daily obligations of keeping the restaurant running. But this week was an “opportunity,” he said, to take a step back and “see that my community, the neighborhood, the city, it’s taking care of us.”

D.C. police began assembling outside the restaurant early in the morning, and by the time the drag story hour began at 10 a.m., there were dozens of officers blocking off traffic to Eighth Street, monitoring streets surrounding the Eastern Market Metro station and lining the sidewalk outside Crazy Aunt Helen’s.

Inside the restaurant, the 70 or so customers who had bought tickets for the sold-out event enjoyed the morning unencumbered. Hoot flitted about the room, a rainbow-tufted boa trailing behind her as she read about 10 books to the children. Though she’d thought about what to do if she had to escape the restaurant, she said she knew in her gut that the day would work out okay.

Born in Terre Haute, Ind., the inspiration for her drag name, Hoot said she feels grateful to live in a place like the District, which has a vibrant and supportive LGBTQ community.

“It makes me sad that people have this much hate,” she said. “This is what people are afraid of? It’s a fun, fabulous, family-friendly party.”

Ellie Silverman contributed to this report.