An annual Drag Story Hour event for children is scheduled to take place as planned in Helena this weekend during one of Montana’s LGBTQ Pride celebrations, even as law enforcement organizations track threats against the event posted online by a self-proclaimed member of the Oath Keepers, a national anti-government militia group.

The story hour events, in which drag performers wearing elaborate costumes and makeup read to children, have been taking place around the country for years, but have recently received an uptick in threats and violent rhetoric as part of broader antagonism toward the LGBTQ community

Another drag story hour event in Billings hosted by the local 406 Pride in June generated an outpouring of criticism, including a Tweet from Montana’s Republican U.S. congressman Matt Rosendale, who equated drag performance with sexually explicit content that is inappropriate for children. Event organizers responded that story hour readings were age-appropriate for children and families and did not involve adult content or performance. The event ultimately took place without disruption with hundreds of supporters in attendance. A smaller group of protesters waving signs stayed outside the gates of the Billings venue, Zoo Montana.

Online criticism of Saturday’s event in Helena, hosted since 2019 by Montana Book Co., began to intensify last week in Facebook feeds and social media comments. In a report sent to local and county law enforcement on Wednesday, the Montana Human Rights Network (MHRN) flagged two posts on July 13 and July 14 on the social media platform Gab by user Aaron J. Leas, whose profile includes the tags #MontanaOathKeepers and #CombatVeteran and identifies him as a resident of East Helena. 

Leas’ posts called the story hour event “pedophile garbage” and told other users to show up and “Shut this demonic preying on children down.”

Montana Pride and Montana Book Co. told Montana Free Press Thursday that the event will proceed as scheduled, though with a higher number of patrol units from the Helena Police Department stationed near the downtown bookstore. The organizers said the county sheriff’s office and the Federal Bureau of Investigation have also been notified.

In the report compiled for MHRN and delivered to law enforcement, the anti-extremist consulting group Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) said its analysts “did not observe direct threats, but due to recent incidents of harassment and armed protests at LGBTQ+ events nationwide, there is an increased risk of harm at this event.” The report linked to a summary of such threats compiled by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks extremist hate groups.

Montana Pride President Kev Hamm described much of the online critique as coming from “childish bigots,” but said his organization is taking the threats seriously. Hamm said he and other Montana Pride organizers have received more death threats in the lead-up to this week’s festivities than in years past. He said Pride events and celebrations of the LGBTQ community aren’t deterred. 

“Yes, it’s going to be safe to go. We expect you to be down there. It’s a credible threat, but that’s what we’ve dealt with before,” Hamm said. 

“To choose to be queer is to choose authenticity over safety,” he continued, paraphrasing a statement that gained traction on Twitter in 2019. “And we do that every day.”

Montana Pride, previously Big Sky Pride, is hosted annually in Helena in July and is widely attended by residents from around the state. Cities and towns around Montana produced more Pride events this summer than in past years, including marches and celebrations in Billings, Livingston, Bozeman and Missoula. 

“Yes, it’s going to be safe to go. We expect you to be down there. It’s a credible threat, but that’s what we’ve dealt with before.”

Montana Pride President Kev Hamm 

Andy Nelson, executive director of the Western Montana LGBTQ+ Community Center, said his organization hired private security to monitor the June Pride events in Missoula, which mostly took place downtown. He said the celebrations took place without protests or direct threats of violent disruption, a fact that he described as lucky and surprising. Roughly a week later, he noted, a truckload of armed white supremacists were stopped by police in Idaho, allegedly en route to disrupt a Pride event in Coeur d’Alene.

“When I saw that article, my heart sank,” Nelson said. “Because I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, what if that happened here.’ And it very well could have.” 

Nelson said he understands that members of the LGBTQ community might be more fearful about attending events this year, and that everyone should take precautions to look out for themselves and others. But at the same time, he said, a strong turnout is impactful. 

“We need to be visible as well,” Nelson said.

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Mara writes about health and human services stories happening in local communities, the Montana statehouse and the court system. She also produces the Shared State podcast in collaboration with MTPR and YPR. Before joining Montana Free Press, Mara worked in podcast and radio production at Slate and WNYC. She was born and raised in Helena, MT and graduated from Seattle University in 2016.