Colorado drag performer Shirley Delta Blow has performed at countless drag queen story times in and around Denver since 2017, and was looking forward to hosting her latest event at the Denver Botanic Gardens during Pride Month. But the event, scheduled for June 18, was abruptly canceled earlier this month, and an online event listing quietly disappeared.
Advocates say the event was called off after hateful comments were posted online and negative emails were sent to the Botanic Gardens, a nonprofit institution that receives about a quarter of its funding from a Denver-area tax district. The Botanic Gardens did not respond to repeated requests for comment about the cancellation.
Delta Blow, who works as a schoolteacher by day, says that she understands when events get canceled because of safety precautions, but worries that canceling can send a “difficult message” to kids.
“I want kids to feel safe, and appreciated, and supported and loved,” Delta Blow said in an interview. “And, when an event gets canceled, I think the message that it sends is, ‘Hey, drag queens and stories, there’s something wrong with that.’”
As a conservative backlash against LGBTQ inclusion grows across the country, Republican lawmakers in Texas, Florida and Arizona are pressing to outlaw children from attending drag queen story times. A format popularized by the San Francisco-based nonprofit Drag Queen Story Hour, founded in 2015, the events are pitched by organizers as an imaginative, inclusive way to educate and entertain children, but have frequently outraged conservative critics and become targets for extremist groups.
While Colorado is known for being a safe and inclusive state for people who identify as LGBTQ, the state hasn’t been immune from the backlash toward drag queen story times and other events. Demonstrators in Highlands Ranch last week protested against a drag comedy night held at a local rec center.
Earlier this month in Kootenai County, Idaho, officers arrested a truck full of men on suspicion of conspiracy to riot at a Pride event. Three of the men arrested are Colorado residents.
Bruce Parker, deputy director of Out Boulder County, an LGBTQ advocacy organization, says there has not been much backlash toward Pride events like drag queen story hours in Colorado this year, but there are still other problems in the state.
“We are a bit ahead of other places in some ways, too. But my fear would be, I wouldn’t want people to think that there’s no problems here,” Parker said.
Parker attributes Colorado’s relative lack of protests at drag queen story times with anti-discrimination laws, the state having the nation’s first openly gay governor and the fact that story times are typically organized in locations where they will be received well.
The events often also have help from Parasol Patrol, a nonprofit organization that shields children from protesters with rainbow umbrellas when they enter events like drag queen story times.
Pasha Ripley, a co-founder of the group, says Colorado has not been exempt from violent attempts to dismantle the family-friendly events. But while protests are still happening, Ripley said online pushback is taking over physical confrontations.
“We know these guys. We know how to handle them. It’s not a big deal. They’re just trolls,” Ripley said. “But we’re afraid of who they may inspire to come by and really hurt someone.”
Ripley said leaders of conservative hate groups have left Colorado for more conservative states, and she believes this has led to a decline in protesters showing up at events. But this has not stopped members of the conservative groups from going online; hateful posts have “skyrocketed,” she said, and she has seen more hate speech online than ever.
“There is definitely a simmering just underneath the surface of a lot of racist, and homophobic and transphobic craziness,” Ripley said. “The bubble could burst at any time.”
Because many Pride Month events have returned to an in-person format this year, Delta Blow said she has been booked for many events, with the exception of some being canceled because of online hate or the expectation of protesters attending. She tries to stay vigilant when performing at story times. When protesters do show up to events that Delta Blow is hosting, she said they typically dress in an intimidating way and carry weapons, which scares the children in attendance.
Delta Blow doesn’t want kids to feel shame around their sexuality, gender expression or exploration. By performing at story times, she feels like she is protesting what those against the events believe.
“This event exists because (protesters) have been trying to silence queer people, trans people, gender nonconforming people, gender fluid people for hundreds, if not thousands of years,” Delta Blow said. “(Protesters) have always been in control of the narrative, and the people who have finally earned a spot at the table deserve to be there, and want to be there and won’t be silenced.”