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‘I don’t feel safe’: Ontario drag performers reckon with heightened risk

After a surge in harassment of drag queens — and the mass shooting in Colorado — performers are calling on allies and community members to show support
Written by Luke Ottenhof
Crystal Quartz is a drag performer based in Guelph. (Courtesy of Crystal Quartz)

Guelph-based drag queen Crystal Quartz had just finished an all-ages drag brunch performance on October 30 when a friend reached out with news that made her stomach drop: a social-media group targeting drag queens for harassment had posted a menacing rallying call to attend Quartz’s next show and “give them a show they’ll never forget.”

Over the past six months, Quartz has witnessed an uptick in harassment and threats against drag queens in Canada and the United States, often from groups espousing the queerphobic conspiracy theory that the performers are grooming children. But it was the first time she’d been in their crosshairs in her own community. 

Just four weeks earlier, she had told a reporter how safe she felt doing drag in the area. “That all changed,” she says. “I don’t feel safe. At my shows, I’m checking for people when they come in the doors, if there’s something in their pockets.” 

Especially in the wake of the mass shooting at a queer bar in Colorado, the targeting has made going to work as a drag performer a tense, frightening thing. “I don’t feel like I should have to be looking at where the exits are and how to get out of a place just to simply do my job,” says Quartz.

Quartz, who posted a TikTok on November 24 to draw attention to the surge in harassment of drag queens, is just one of the many drag performers in Ontario facing harassment from hate groups. On November 25, a group of roughly 20 anti-LGBTQ+ protestors gathered outside a Hamilton public library branch to disrupt Hexe Noire, a local drag performer, reading to a group of over 100 children and parents. Noire tells TVO.org that after the event, she received a wave of hateful messages.

“I’ve been told this week that I’m a member of a cult just trying to groom children, death threats, the whole thing,” says Noire, a cisgender woman who dresses as a drag clown for children. “There's definitely a disconnect from reality.”

This month’s protests against drag performers are part of a continuing trend of hate and violence directed toward LGBTQ+ communities. It’s in part attributable to a far-right conspiracy theory that drag queens and the queer community in general are sexually abusing and grooming children. The theory has been mainstreamed by right-wing punditspoliticians, and high-profile social-media accounts. In the wake of the Colorado shooting, some even justified the shooting and blamed the club for hosting “grooming” events.

President Joe Biden issued a warning earlier this year about the rise in violence against LGBTQ+ people and the spike in anti-LGBTQ+ hate, which is also evident across Canada. During Pride Month this year, public-library branches in Pembroke, Orillia, Pickering, and Whitby reported to Xtra Magazine that they had faced harassment for hosting family-friendly drag events.

Harassment has forced venues to cancel Quartz’s shows, resulting in loss of pay for her. While regional police have recently indicated that they will investigate the harassment, Quartz is frustrated at the slow or ineffective responses from local police forces across Ontario. “I feel like I should have the same safety and security as anyone else,” she says. “I’m just going to my job, too.”

Crystal Quartz says tha harassment has forced venues to cancel some of her shows. (Courtesy of Crysal Quartz)

It’s not just threats from the outside. Quartz says that some harassers have suggested buying tickets to drag shows to disrupt them from the inside, which makes it difficult to ensure a safe, welcoming environment for attendees. “Now I’m worried about the people that are there,” says Quartz. “I’m starting to lose my fans because they don’t feel safe.”

Quartz says that, for years, queer people have been “shut up” and hidden in public spaces. “We’re just finally being ourselves now, and people are noticing us,” she says. “We’re not trying to make people queer. We’re just making it so people can feel accepted for whatever they are.”

Anti-LGBTQ+ groups claim that drag shows are inappropriate for children, but Quartz says the idea that all drag performances are unsuitable for children is ridiculous. “It’s just like movies: there are certain movies that you don’t show your kids, but you don’t ban all movies,” she says. “My shows have a loving, fun feel. I do Disney numbers. It’s not this sexualized thing.”

Noire and Quartz say that they need allies and community members to show up to support local drag artists in face of this sort of harassment. Noire notes that all-ages drag events at libraries are especially important to protect.

“It’s important that LGBTQ+ families are able to come together and experience diverse stories together,” says Noire. “As a child, had I been exposed to other children that were like me and different, I would have flourished. So we have to stand together as a community and let them know that love wins, that hate is not going to stop us.”