drag story hour Helena Montana Pride 2022
Drag performers welcome the audience for Drag Story Hour at Montana Book Co. in Helena on Saturday, July 23, 2022. Credit: Mara Silvers / MTFP

Hundreds of people showed up to support a Drag Story Hour in Helena Saturday as part of the annual Montana Pride celebration after online threats to disrupt the event circulated last week. 

More than a hundred audience members packed into downtown’s LGBTQ-owned Montana Book Co. store to listen to three drag performers in colorful costumes and makeup read children’s story books to kids and families. 

Performer Julie Yard asked the crowd to think about what they hoped to gain from attending the event, and to listen for those themes in the readings.

“I hope at the end of the day, that is love, acceptance and community,” Yard said. 

Drag story hours have gained popularity nationwide in recent years to help celebrate reading, learning, gender expression and diversity. The events have come under fire from socially conservative critics who say exposing children to gender fluidity and drag performance is inappropriate. Some critics have equated drag story hours to child abuse. 

A similar Billings event in June was the subject of widespread blowback in June, including online criticism from Montana’s Republican U.S. Rep. Matt Rosendale. That story hour ultimately drew far more supporters than protesters at the ZooMontana venue.

The same was true for Saturday’s event in Helena. After media reports about the threatening comments aimed at the Helena event, which were posted on social media and reported to law enforcement by the Montana Human Rights Network, the owners of Montana Book Co. asked supporters to come to the event in a display of solidarity. In addition to the attendees inside the bookstore, roughly a hundred people lined up outside the storefront holding Pride flags and signs and playing music. 

A crowd of Drag Story Hour supporters and a small group of protesters gather in front of Montana Book Co. in Helena on Saturday, July 23, 2022. Credit: Mara Silvers / MTFP

About 10 protesters stood across the street, staying mostly silent while watching the crowd in front of the bookstore. Only one man had a hand-written sign, accusing the drag performers of sexual perversion toward children, which he carried around and displayed to the crowd. Bookstore supporters mirrored him, with one person twirling a Pride flag in front of him to block the sign.

Later in the afternoon, another protester used a megaphone to communicate his opposition, calling the sexualization of children “morally reprehensible.” He was eventually drowned out with an air horn blasted by one of the bookstore’s owners, Charlie Crawford.

Helena police monitored the group dynamics on the 300 block of Last Chance Gulch throughout the event. One officer told Montana Free Press that while the police would not stop anyone from entering the bookstore, any disruptors inside the event would be asked to leave and escorted out by police if they did not comply. No such disruptions took place.

The small group of protesters eventually left after the story hour concluded. Crawford addressed the crowd that remained, saying the bookstore feels the support of the community “on a daily basis and today was no different.”

“Thank you so much for being here,” Crawford said. “We couldn’t do what we do without you.” 

Montana Pride featured a week’s worth of events that began July 17, including informational talks, happy hours, cabaret shows and a Saturday morning march down Last Chance Gulch that culminated in a midday political rally at Anchor Park. The crowd heard from several local and statewide Democratic officeholders and candidates who promised to protect and bolster LGBTQ civil rights, as well as Democratic congressional hopeful Penny Ronning and her independent opponent Gary Buchanan, both of whom are running against Rosendale to represent Montana’s eastern congressional district.

The largest of the week’s festivities took place on Saturday evening with an hours-long open-air drag show downtown featuring performers hailing from across Montana and the Pacific Northwest. 

Between acts, several performers called for donations from the crowd and donated their own cash tips to support Montana Pride, the nonprofit that produces the Helena event. Those proceeds, they said, will help ensure that Pride can return next summer.

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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.