Retired police officer and army veteran Jim Thomas drove to downtown Helena, Montana, the state’s capital, to provide what he considered a community service. On a Saturday in mid-July, he joined a vocal crowd outside a local LGBTQ-owned independent bookstore and began scanning his surroundings.
Ultimately, hundreds of people attended the Billings story hour as supporters, far outnumbering the roughly 50 protesters who lined the street outside the zoo with signs saying “drag belongs in a nightclub not in front of children” and “stop sexualizing our kids”. One woman’s poster made a sharper accusation: “We know the ‘+’ in LGBTQ+ means pedophile.” . . .
Jonathan Hamilt, executive director of Drag Queen Story Hour and drag performer, said the organization is used to seeing protesters stationed outside venues. But recently, far-right groups have begun disrupting story hours and other LGBTQ Pride events around the country, an escalation fueled in part by the national resurgence in homophobic and transphobic rhetoric smearing drag performers and queer people as child predators.
In June, a story hour in San Lorenzo, California, was thrown into chaos when a group of self-identified Proud Boys stormed the venue, claiming they were there to “protect the kids”. One man wore a shirt depicting a gun and the slogan “kill your local pedophile”. Law enforcement responded and later began investigating the coordinated disruption as a possible hate crime.
When drag story hours are targeted with that kind of hateful rhetoric, Hamilt said, the national organization sees no benefit in engaging in debate – anyone who is genuinely curious about the history and culture of drag can do their own research in good faith. The group is forging ahead with new reading curricula for kids and schools, and planning more events that seek to normalize gender and cultural diversity.
“People forget that this is queer programming. This is queer family programming,” Hamilt said. “And under heteropatriarchy, there’s not a lot of room for introspective or creative thinking or complexity … Anything deviant from that is deemed evil.”
Even if the protests and outright attacks continue, Hamilt said interest in drag story hours is unlikely to be deterred. If anything, Hamilt said, the positive reception of the reading events is growing.
“There’s lots of queer people and a lot of queer families,” they said. “And that’s the reality of the world.”
In the sometimes sleepy government town of Helena, population 32,655, the storefront of the Montana Book Company has for years been turning heads of passersby with colorful posters and cheeky political quips scrawled on a sandwich board outside.
In July, Helena’s annual Pride month, the store had a colorful LGBTQ Pride flag fluttering near the front door. A sign in the window said “bodily autonomy is a human right”. Another sign pasted above the doorway called for “solidarity” in yellow script, encircled by a sub-slogan: “We are all we really have.”
In an Instagram post shared with nearly 4,500 followers, the bookstore asked supporters to show up in solidarity. Owners Chelsia Rice and Charlie Crawford began sending Facebook messages to friends and allies like Thomas, appealing for their time and presence at the store that Saturday. And at two separate events earlier in the week, one of the scheduled drag performers gave Pride-goers explicit marching orders.
Crawford, 49, bespectacled and often wearing a dark baseball hat, and Rice, 44, with coiffed hair and a wide smile, have co-owned the bookstore since 2018. The two former educators’ passion for books and reading was what drove them to buy the local business. As flashpoints erupted in national politics, the couple says the store’s display of progressive politics has only gotten “louder”.
“I feel like we have more people come into the store saying, ‘I follow you on Twitter or I follow you on Instagram. I love what you all stand for. We came here because of that,’” Crawford said. “And then they buy books.”
The bookstore’s bold liberalism stands out in the reserved city of government employees, public school teachers and small-business owners. The city has typically been represented by Democrats in the state legislature, but is seen as less overtly progressive than Montana’s university towns of Missoula and Bozeman.
Residential areas outside Helena city limits, largely to the north and east, have gone red in recent elections. In 2020, former president Donald Trump won Lewis and Clark county, which includes Helena, by four percentage points. Trump won the state in both presidential election cycles with double-digit margins.
Despite its location in Helena’s more progressive-signaling downtown, Crawford and Rice said they have felt increasing blowback against the bookstore’s politics over the past five years. Anti-LGBTQ policies and rhetoric in Montana have become more mainstream since 2020, when Montanans elected socially conservative Republicans to every statewide and federal office on the ballot.
Last year, the first-term Republican governor, Greg Gianforte, signed three laws opposed by LGBTQ civil rights groups, including a ban on transgender women and girls playing on school sports teams that align with their gender identity. Another law made it much harder for trans people to update the sex listed on their birth certificate. After the policy was blocked by a district court judge in April, the state health department leapfrogged the court order to create an even more restrictive rule arguing that sex is a biological fact that can’t be changed.
The political turmoil of the 2021 legislative session made an indelible impact on many members of Montana’s LGBTQ+ community, and created a sense of foreboding about what may happen when lawmakers return to Helena in January.
Helena residents coming inside the store to disagree with their political slogans. The debates range from civil disagreements to vocal hostility. Other times, the opposition comes in the form of hate mail.
. . . In June, the negative response took a new form: a man came into the bookstore with a pistol strapped to his chest. Crawford and Rice say he repeatedly ignored requests to leave the store when Crawford informed him that guns weren’t allowed on the premises. Rice dialed 911. The man left before police arrived but made an unsettling impression on the owners, who described his actions as intentionally intimidating.
The couple had twice hosted Drag Story Hour during Helena’s Pride week, in 2019 and 2021 (the 2020 event was cancelled because of the coronavirus pandemic). Until this year, they said, there had never been any opposition or threats of disruption. But after the chaos in San Lorenzo [California], the man with a gun in their store, and weeks of publicized outrage around the Billings event, Crawford and Rice were on edge when anger about Helena’s drag story hour unfurled on social media.
In the leadup to Pride, they gathered their employees to prepare for the event. “We sat down to talk about who would be forward in store [near the entrance], what we would do if somebody tried to attack us,” Rice said. “We bought everybody mace and talked about how we preferred them to use it if necessary. We strategized because the national threat is there.”
Publicly, Rice and Crawford were wary of stoking fear among families and kids who were planning to attend. They were honest when customers asked about the threats, but always ended with an encouraging message to show up and have a good time. Internally, both owners were riding a wave of anxiety.
“Look, I’m kind of a pessimist. And I don’t have the greatest faith in humanity,” Crawford said. “I mean, the Oath Keepers and these Patriot Front people and these Proud Boys … they’re dangerous. They’re armed. And I don’t think they want to go to prison, so maybe they’ll try and keep doing the right thing. But I don’t trust them at all.”
For Crawford and Rice, the motivation to host Drag Story Hour isn’t about selling more merchandise or attracting new customers during Pride. As former teachers, the couple has tried to make their store as welcoming to young people and parents as possible. They don’t ask rowdy teenagers to leave, even if they never buy anything. They take notice when they haven’t seen a struggling kid in a few weeks: the next time their parents or friends come through, Crawford or Rice will ask how they’re doing.
Drag Story Hour, the owners say, is another way to make the store a safe and celebratory environment for queer and questioning people and their families.
“My experience growing up as a teenager in a town much like Helena was that I didn’t know anybody in my downtown and I didn’t feel comfortable staying in any of the stores, even if I had money to spend,” Rice said. “But I know these kids and I know their parents … It is truly a place where I think we try to surround young people with community that knows who they are and welcomes them.”
In light of that guiding mission, the idea that their bookstore could become a place of fear or trauma is one of their worst fears.
To make the event as safe as possible, Rice began reaching out to friends, including Thomas, to ask them to come down to the store that Saturday. Another veteran and patron of the bookstore, Kai Bauer, said he had no hesitation in agreeing, because of the special role Montana Book Company plays in the community.
“Not many people realise they’re so much more than a bookstore,” Bauer said. “They are a safe haven for a lot of young people … It’s a safe place for so many folks.”
The weekend of the event, Thomas and Bauer were among a handful of former law enforcement officers and veterans, wearing T-shirts, baseball hats and cowboy boots, who gathered to patrol inside and outside the bookstore. Thanks to the appeals from Crawford, Rice and the drag performers, the unofficial security crew was dwarfed by about a hundred local supporters.
As the event began in the bookstore’s upstairs gallery, a rainbow-clad crowd gathered outside, where police had blocked off part of the street. Local bartenders, retirees, restaurant workers and marketing professionals joined other Pride-goers to create a buffer around the store’s entrance. Someone started playing music from a mobile speaker, kicking off sporadic dancing under the early afternoon sun.
Inside, more than a hundred other people, including teenagers and parents with young kids, crammed together to listen to the Mister Sisters read queer-friendly story books, including Prince & Knight and The GayBCs.
On the street below, fewer than a dozen protesters, arms crossed and sunglasses on, gathered on the sidewalk opposite the bookstore. A woman took photos of the larger crowd across the street. One man circled between the two sides of the street with a hand-written sign suggesting the drag queens inside were pedophiles – he was often obscured by a bookstore supporter diligently twirling a rainbow Pride flag.
At one point, a protester used a megaphone to tell the crowd that the “sexualization of children” is “morally reprehensible”. Soon after he began speaking, Crawford drowned out his voice with overlapping blasts from a red airhorn they bought from a nearby hardware store that morning.
The standoff was tense, with both groups conspicuously watching the other. But the sizable difference between supporters and protesters seemed to embolden the store’s defenders. More than one person who joined the scene seemed pleasantly surprised when they saw the protesters across the street, wryly asking other supporters, “Are those the people we’re supposed to be afraid of?”
The conflict on the street outside was invisible to the attenders crowded inside. After the reading, Julie Yard asked the audience to talk about the themes of love, acceptance and community they heard in the books. Audience members took photos with Yard and the other performers. People mingled and chatted with toddlers on their laps.
After roughly two hours, the protesters packed up their bullhorns and dispersed, trickling into a bar down the block. The sunburnt and tired crowd of supporters began to thin, planning where to go before the day’s next Pride event. The drag queens exited through the back of the store to avoid any encounters with protesters. Julie Yard surreptitiously climbed into her husband’s car. It was only after she left that Yard, who had spent most of the day beaming to her audience, began to cry.
“I’m not a person who’s going to burst into tears in front of people if I can help it,” she said. Driving away from the bookstore, Yard said, she was “an emotional mess … in the best way possible”.
“Realizing everything that could have gone wrong that didn’t, and just seeing not only the number of folks that were at the event but the number of folks that showed up outside,” Yard said. “That is what got to me.”
She wasn’t the only one who felt overwhelmed by the show of support. After the protesters left, Crawford thanked the remaining attenders grouped outside the store. Rice stood at their side, crying. Later, the owners reiterated their gratitude in an Instagram post written by Crawford.
“I grew up in Helena,” the post said, “and let me tell you how much this place has changed. I felt truly alone here as a baby gay in the late 80s/early 90s and to see the support, and the number of folks who come to Pride events, the flags, the signs, homes with all of it up … makes me so happy for the young and new members of the queer community. I hope we continue to make sure they are not alone!”
Just as the outpouring of support affirmed Helena’s LGBTQ community, Crawford and Rice acknowledged the turnout also showed how much locals value the bookstore and all it represents – even if recognizing that popularity feels “braggy and icky”, in Crawford’s words.
“It just feels weird to me to accept that,” Crawford laughed. “Let’s have a space that people are proud to call their own … And if people want to come and support that and support us, I’ll take that all day.”
After the day of excitement, and getting his photo taken with Julie Yard, Thomas drove back to his home in Canyon Creek, about a half an hour north of Helena. He felt he had done his part, in his own way, to stand up for a group of people being bullied.
“I kind of felt a little proud,” he said. “Like I was on the right side of history. I wasn’t on the cruel, ugly, hateful side. I was on the happy, loving, fun side.”