This story has been updated.

A Tuesday protest planned outside an all-ages Christmas-themed drag show at the Aztec Theatre by a Texas group known for showing up armed will come just a week after a local club canceled its drag events due to online threats of violence.

Supporters of San Antonio’s LGBTQ community are now organizing a counterprotest in response, and at least one organizer has said on social media that “several armed community self-defense groups” would be in attendance “to support the queer and trans communities.”

Local police say they are aware of the potential for violence that the competing protests could bring.

“Public safety for every member of our community is our top priority,” the San Antonio Police Department wrote in a statement released Friday. “We are performing threat assessments to prepare appropriately.” 

The department said it wants to assure the public and “specifically the LBGTQ+ community that we are committed to honoring our unwavering commitment to public safety while protecting everyone’s constitutionally protected rights to free speech.”

The protest is an extension of the groundswell of conservative talking points and policies that have led to an increase in harassment, threats and attacks against LGBTQ Americans across the United States.

The rhetoric includes falsely labeling transgender and queer individuals as pedophiles and “groomers” hosting all-ages drag events.

There have been at least 124 protests of and significant threats made to drag events in the U.S. this year as of late November, according to GLAAD, an LBGTQ advocacy organization.

Drag shows in Texas cities including Dallas, Pflugerville, Arlington, Roanoke, Katy, Houston and Plano have faced protests — or cancellations due to threats — in recent months. San Antonio joined that list this week when The Starlighter canceled its remaining drag shows after a flood of violent online threats.

This Is Texas Freedom Force, a right-wing group whose members and supporters regularly show up armed to rallies and protests, has called for “Texas patriots” to protest the all-ages show, “A Drag Queen Christmas,” at the Aztec Theatre at 8 p.m. Dec. 13.

The group tweeted a video call for supporters that includes an image of armed men silhouetted in black.

“Underage kids have no business being allowed inside ‘drag queen events,'” This Is Texas Freedom Force tweeted. “We don’t allow kids inside stripe [sic] joints, comedy clubs or rated R movies, so why are we allowing Texas kids to be subjected to adult content & groomed at these drag queen events?”

It’s unclear if the Aztec or the performance company has received any threats. As of Saturday afternoon, the drag show had not been canceled. Live Nation, which is hosting the event at the Aztec, and Murray & Peter, the show’s owner, did not respond to emails seeking comment.

The LGBTQ advocates organizing the counterprotest say they hope the night will remain peaceful, but the memory of the mass shooting at a Colorado gay club in late November, which left five people dead and 17 wounded, is still fresh, said Robert Salcido, executive director of Pride Center San Antonio.

That Colorado venue, Club Q, had plans for an all-ages drag brunch on the day after the shooting.

“It’s concerning and disheartening at the same time that we are seeing it here in our local community,” Salcido said. “We’re not immune to any of the things that happen around the nation.”

If protesters really are concerned about the safety of children, they should leave their guns at home, he said. “Protesting and armed with an assault rifle … how does that make it a safe environment if that’s what your true concern is?”

The country “remains in a heightened threat environment” for domestic terrorism, according to a Nov. 30 U.S. Department of Homeland Security bulletin.

“Some domestic violent extremists who have conducted attacks have cited previous attacks and attackers as inspiration,” the bulletin reads. “Following the late November shooting at an LGBTQI+ bar in Colorado Springs, Colorado — which remains under investigation — we have observed actors on forums known to post racially or ethnically motivated violent extremist content praising the alleged attacker.” 

Local drag toy drive targeted by activists

This Is Texas Freedom Force announced plans to protest the show at the Aztec more than a week before The Starlighter canceled its drag shows — but the media attention from it might draw larger numbers to both protests.

Tayler Hansen, an activist backed by the Texas Family Project, posted a montage of video footage on Twitter of The Starlighter’s Dec. 2 toy drive and drag show and claimed, among other things, that a young child was left unattended and disturbed by the performers.

“Drag Queens are grooming children, there’s no denying it at this point,” tweeted Hansen, who describes himself as an “independent journalist.” He told a podcast host that the venue was “disguising this as a toy drive.” One of the performers was filmed touching the child’s hair.

The child in the video was not unattended, said Brian Hernandez, the leader or “mother” of the House of Eternas, a drag troupe whose members performed that night — and the performer who was braiding the child’s hair was a woman, he noted.

The parent of the child is the food vendor who frequently serves outside the venue, Hernandez said. “She’s always brought her daughter. She trusts The Starlighter, her family, so much. … The LGBTQ+ community is a family. We all trust each other.”

The event kicked off with a screening of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and most people left afterward; about a dozen stayed for the drag show, he said. They collected more than 60 toys to be donated.

House of Eternas is composed of performers of color who often perform to fundraise for local nonprofits.

Similar all-ages shows have been hosted by The Starlighter each month for the past year and there have been “no complaints, everybody has been nothing but supportive,” Hernandez said. “These children, when they see these shows, all they see is just the princesses or they see the mystical, magical people that look glamorous. … The only people sexualizing anything [are certain] adults.”

That night was the first time a few protesters appeared outside the venue, carrying signs that said “No porn 4 our kids” and “Not here! Not our kids.” Hernandez does not think this is a coincidence.

“It’s never been a problem until now when we have those two undercover ‘journalists’ come into our safe space and completely manipulate us,” he said, adding that Hansen and the man with him were smiling and laughing while they filmed the event — they even posed for photos with the performance afterward.

“I really don’t think that things are going to return to normal. … We all have a fear that they’re going to start attacking our 18-and-up shows now,” said Hernandez, who was planning his final performance at The Starlighter after performing for eight years.

That final performance may not come, but the situation has turned Hernandez into a stronger advocate for the drag community, he said.

“We can’t hide,” he said. “[This is] a direct threat, a direct attack, on the LGBT community as a whole.”

Increased anxiety within LGBTQ community

The Pride Center, which provides therapy, education and other services for the LGBTQ community, has seen a recent increase in demand for its services, Salcido said.

“They’re reaching out to us for many different things that are concerning their safety,” he said. “Overall, it’s just folks that are feeling unsafe and just not feeling affirmed, certainly are reaching out to us to utilize our counseling services.”

He said the community also has expressed increased anxiety over the upcoming Texas legislative session, which begins Jan 10.

State Rep. Jared Patterson (R-Frisco), proposed a bill that would classify drag performances as “sexually oriented business,” banning minors from attending. A drag show is broadly defined in the bill as any show in which a performer “exhibits a gender identity that is different than the performer’s gender assigned at birth using clothing, makeup or other physical markers and sings, lip syncs, dances, or otherwise performs before an audience for entertainment.”

Camila Zuniga, 6, holds a Pride flag during the Pride Bigger Than Texas Parade on Saturday.
A youngster holds a Pride flag during the Pride Bigger Than Texas Parade in June. Credit: Nick Wagner / San Antonio Report

“There’s no explicit or inappropriate behavior” at drag shows, Salcido said, such as the nudity that comes with a strip show. “It’s literally a person, whether it’s a male or female impersonator, that is lip-synching and dancing.”

He believes the proposed bill is part of the Republican party’s broader goal to “erase an entire community, including Gov. Greg Abbott’s directive, in February, that ordered state child welfare officials to launch child abuse investigations into families with transgender kids receiving gender-affirming care.

Despite the rise in ugly rhetoric and threats of violence, Salcido encouraged people to show “care and compassion” to others, even if they disagree, and to get engaged with elections.

“At the root of it, we can’t fix those problems until we change the hearts and minds of individuals who don’t know who LGBTQ folks are or who are not familiar with our community,” he said. “We are no different. We are taxpaying citizens that want to provide for our families and want to live a life that is affirmed.”

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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