This article has been updated.

A showdown between protesters of an all-ages Christmas drag show at the Aztec Theatre and members of the pro-LGBTQ community was largely peaceful Tuesday night, as both groups mostly stuck to their side of St. Mary’s Street in downtown San Antonio

The crowd of LGBTQ community members and their allies grew to more than 150 people as the evening progressed, playing music, dancing and chanting to drown out those who massed across the street to protest the show about to go on inside.

Police on the scene kept the entrance of the theater clear, so patrons could freely enter the venue.

A handful of armed people, dressed in all black with their faces mostly covered, stood on the pro-LGBTQ community side of St. Mary’s Street, rainbow scarves tied to their tactical gear. Most didn’t respond to a reporter, but one confirmed that members of the John Brown Gun Club, a leftist gun rights group, were in attendance.

About 40 protesters, some with the group This is Texas Freedom Force, which the FBI labeled “an extremist militia group” after the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, stood across St. Mary’s from the theater. Fewer than five appeared to be armed. They have said they came to protest the all-ages drag show because it is inappropriate for children.

On Tuesday night some protesters could be heard shouting “pedophile!” and “groomer!” at the colorful crowd of counterprotesters and patrons lined up to go inside the theater.

Shouts came from the other side: “The groomers are in your churches!”

Monica Gonzales, 49, waited in line for the doors to open for the show with her best friend and her daughter, while the sounds of the protests down the street grew louder. The daughter, who appeared to be an older teen, declined an interview.

Gonzales said she’d heard about protests at drag shows around the country “but I wasn’t expecting it here.”

A protester yelling through a megaphone said the counterprotesters had likely all been vaccinated and the vaccine was coming out of their pores and he didn’t want to catch “it.” Credit: Bria Woods / San Antonio Report

The crowds on both sides remained mostly calm, although police did step in to stop minor disturbances. Some members on the pro-LGBTQ community side of the street helped with crowd control, keeping people from spilling into the street. Many cars honked; some waved signs in support of the LGBTQ community. Some passengers flipped off protesters.

Police eventually closed off Crockett Street, which runs along the river and dead-ends into St. Mary’s Street as the pro-LGBTQ community group swelled across the bridge. As tensions escalated and a small group attempted to cross the street, Kimiya Factory, president of the advocacy group Black Freedom Factory, stepped in alongside police to calm the crowd and move it back toward the sidewalk.

“Please stay on this side of the street, I’m begging you,” Factory said, noting that the police were ready to arrest people who instigated violence. As of 10 p.m., there were no arrests made related to the protests and the combined crowds on the street had dwindled to under 60 people.

City Councilman Jalen McKee-Rodriguez (D2) and Councilwoman Teri Castillo (D5) turned up to support the pro-LGBTQ group. Earlier in the day, McKee-Rodriguez, the first openly gay Black man to win a City Council seat, told the San Antonio Report that counterprotesters should “focus on [what we] hope to say in a protest — and it’s that we are equally as deserving to be in this space as anybody else. And you can’t intimidate us away from that.”

Police Chief William McManus told the San Antonio Report earlier Tuesday that the department had spoken with a representative of This Is Texas Freedom Force.

“They have committed that … we won’t have any problems from them,” he said.

Other conservative groups, including the San Antonio Family Association and the Log Cabin Republicans of San Antonio, rallied their supporters to attend the protest.

McManus said he was not aware of any direct contact SAPD had with organizers of the counterprotest, which was not coordinated by a single group.

“Our policy is that when there are protests or demonstrations, unless there’s issues, we should stay off and monitor from a distance.”

City Manager Erik Walsh, who stopped by to observe the demonstrations, said having the roadway and traffic between the two parties appears to have helped de-escalate tensions.

“It’s been vocal, but both sides have maintained distance, which is important,” Walsh said. “People have the freedom to express their opinion … as long as it’s safe, and doesn’t become, you know, antagonistic or violent.”

Armed counter-protesters said they came out to defend the rights and safety of the LGBTQ community Tuesday night.
Armed counterprotesters said they came out to defend the rights and safety of the LGBTQ community Tuesday night. Credit: Bria Woods / San Antonio Report

The show, “A Drag Queen Christmas,” features at least one reference to alcohol, but does not include any nudity or sexually explicit acts, according to promotional material and videos of previous performances posted online. Performers sing, lip-sync and dance on extravagant sets wearing lavish costumes — not unlike other drag shows that have taken place in San Antonio and other cities for decades, to little protest.

But a surge of right wing rhetoric and policies has led to an increase in harassment, threats and attacks against LGBTQ people across the United States.

There have been at least 10 protests of and significant threats made to drag events in Texas this year through November, according to GLAAD, an LBGTQ advocacy organization, out of 124 the group has identified nationwide. And as they have across the country, Republican lawmakers in Texas have set their sights on trans rights and drag shows.

Last week in San Antonio, the Starlighter venue was forced to cancel its remaining drag shows this year amid threats of violence.

An expression of identity and culture

Drag shows are an expression and celebration of queer identity and culture, said Dr. Alejandra Elenes, chair of the University of Texas at San Antonio’s Department of Race, Ethnicity, Gender and Sexuality Studies.

The protesters seem to conflate drag queens with transgender individuals, Elenes told the San Antonio Report. People of any gender identity can be a drag queen.

“It’s performance, it’s fun,” she said. “It is [often] a critique of society … but some other [drag groups] say: we’re not even political, we’re just performing notions of femininity.”

Christian nationalists, who believe the United States should be governed according to the tenets of Christianity, see challenges to the patriarchy and traditional gender roles as a threat and extremists turn to intimidation and violence, Elenes said.

“We are witnessing … a very vocal and powerful minority that is using many tools, from social media, to the courts to … the legislative process, school boards, public libraries — a lot of institutions that are the basis of a democracy — to forward an agenda,” she said.

And one of the most powerful tools is violence or the threat of violence.

“When that threat comes your way, you have to believe that it is true, because [shootings] are happening … it’s not hypothetical, it’s real,” she said.

In late November, the mass shooting at a Colorado gay club that left five people dead and 17 wounded, joined the growing list of violence against the LGBTQ community.

“Communities of color have always been terrorized in the United States, so this is not new,” Elenes said, but the targets and venues may have expanded.

“We are not safe in the places where we should be safe: in churches, in schools, and supermarkets, in movie theaters … [and] entertainment places,” she said. “We need to stop accepting that violence is a solution.”

Avatar photo

Iris Dimmick

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and workforce development. Contact her at iris@sareport.org