Retired police officer and army veteran Jim Thomas drove to downtown Helena, the state’s capital, to provide what he considered a community service. On a Saturday in mid-July, he joined a vocal crowd outside a local LGBTQ-owned independent bookstore and began scanning his surroundings.

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Standing 6 feet 4 inches tall and about 200 pounds, with a camouflage baseball hat and scraggly eyebrows, Thomas arrived with a mission: make sure Drag Story Hour, the family-friendly reading event where sparkling drag performers read children’s books to kids and families, went off without a hitch.

“I think it’s incumbent upon us to stand up and help where we can, if we can,” said Thomas, an avid reader and patron of Montana Book Company, the bookstore that hosted the event. “I don’t wear dresses and I’m not gay. But you know what? … I’m here supporting you guys.”

In the days leading up to the annual Pride event, anti-LGBTQ outrage had flared up on social media, with commenters calling the event “inappropriate” and indicative of child abuse. Many had promised to boycott the store.

Some of the social media fervor reached the website Gab, a platform popular among conservatives and the far right, where one self-identified member of the Oath Keepers militia pledged to “shut this demonic preying on children down.” A local human rights group flagged the post for the local police department, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the bookstore owners and the organizers of the town’s Pride celebration.

On Sept. 10, 2022, in Canyon Creek, retired police officer and army veteran Jim Thomas stands for a portrait in his home. Thomas was one of the community members who ensured Drag Story Hour in mid-July at Helena’s Montana Book Co. went off safely and without a hitch. Credit: Janie Osborne / The Guardian

Event planners were concerned about the threat, but were unwilling to be cowed by what Kevin Hamm, the president of Montana Pride, called “childish bigots.” The event would go forward, organizers said — but not without a call to action.

In an Instagram post shared with nearly 4,500 followers, the bookstore asked supporters to show up in solidarity. Owners Chelsia Rice and Charlie Crawford began sending Facebook messages to friends and allies like Thomas, appealing for their time and presence at the store that Saturday. And at two separate events earlier in the week, one of the scheduled drag performers gave Pride-goers explicit marching orders.

“I said, what we really need to do now is we need a colossal showing of support,” said Julie Yard, a member of the Mister Sisters drag trio from Great Falls, who asked to be identified by her stage name to protect her identity. “And [I said that] no matter how many of them show up, I want us to outnumber them 200 to one. And just the whole crowd erupted in cheers.”

The premise of Drag Queen Story Hour is simple: to have drag performers dressed as queens, mermaids, mythical goddesses and other larger-than-life characters hosting children’s story hours to delight young people and their parents. The events have proved so popular, they’ve spread through urban and rural communities like an explosion of glitter.

Drag Queen Story Hour was created in 2015 by queer writer Michelle Tea and RADAR, a Bay Area queer literary arts group. Since then, the original concept has solidified into a nonprofit with more than 50 chapters around the U.S. and abroad. Some drag story hours, like the July event in Helena, are unaffiliated with the organization but produce similar events. The founding organization says the events are perfectly calibrated for young people who are learning about the world around them. Drag Queen Story Hour, the website says, “captures the imagination and play of the gender fluidity of childhood,” while giving kids “glamorous, positive, and unabashedly queer role models.”

“In spaces like this,” the description continues, “kids are able to see people who defy rigid gender restrictions and imagine a world where everyone can be their authentic selves!”

On Sept. 10, 2022, in Helena, Julie Yard reads to a group upstairs at the LGBTQ-owned Montana Book Co. during a pre-arranged story time. Yard is a member of the Mister Sisters drag trio that hosts children’s story hours dressed in drag as larger-than-life characters. Credit: Janie Osborne / The Guardian

The group’s mission has drawn polarized responses. Supporters have welcomed bedazzled performers to libraries, bookstores and schools, celebrating drag performance as an art form and antidote to normative gender roles. Opponents have demonstrated with signs and bullhorns, framing the events as depraved and dangerous for children.

Jonathan Hamilt, executive director of Drag Queen Story Hour and drag performer, said the organization is accustomed to seeing protesters stationed outside venues. But recently, far-right groups have begun disrupting story hours and other LGBTQ Pride events around the country, an escalation fueled in part by the national resurgence in homophobic and transphobic rhetoric smearing drag performers and queer people as child predators.

In June, a story hour in San Lorenzo, California, was thrown into chaos when a group of self-identified Proud Boys stormed the venue, claiming they were there to “protect the kids.” One man wore a shirt depicting a gun and the slogan “kill your local pedophile.” Law enforcement responded and later began investigating the coordinated disruption as a possible hate crime.

This month, organizers of the Boise Pride festival canceled a scheduled “Drag Kids” event — where young performers planned to dress up in costumes and sing along to pop songs — after far-right groups made threats against the festival and state Republican officials accused sponsors of promoting the “sexualization of children.” Despite multiple event sponsors subsequently withdrawing their funding, the festival carried on. News reports estimated attendees numbered in the thousands.

Hamilt said the increase in threatening language and hateful attacks has been shocking, but not necessarily surprising.

“The idea of queer people being dangerous and being predators has been a narrative since the mid-20th century,” they said. “It’s nothing new. It’s just a new flavor.”

This summer’s drag story hours in Montana ignited similar rhetoric and calls for cancellation. In June, critics in Billings promised to protest against the story hour and boycott the venue, ZooMontana.

Montana’s lone congressperson, Republican Matt Rosendale, amplified the conflict on Twitter, saying he was “appalled” by the zoo’s decision to host the reading and, in his words, “promote child abuse and expose children to inappropriate, sexual content.”

“The idea of queer people being dangerous and being predators has been a narrative since the mid-20th century … It’s nothing new. It’s just a new flavor.”

Jonathan Hamilt, executive director of drag queen story hour

Rosendale reiterated that stance in an interview with Washington Watch, a Christian conservative program of the national Family Research Council. Host Tony Perkins accused drag story hours of “targeting” and “grooming” children, and called on parents to “show up in full force” to protest against the drag story hour events in Billings and elsewhere.

Ultimately, hundreds of people attended the Billings story hour as supporters, far outnumbering the roughly 50 protesters who lined the street outside the zoo with signs saying “drag belongs in a nightclub not in front of children” and “stop sexualizing our kids.” One woman’s poster made a sharper accusation: “We know the ‘+’ in LGBTQ+ means pedophile.”

When drag story hours are targeted with that kind of rhetoric, Hamilt said, the national organization sees no benefit in engaging in debate — anyone who is genuinely curious about the history and culture of drag can do their own research in good faith. The group is forging ahead with new reading curricula for kids and schools, and planning more events that seek to normalize gender and cultural diversity.

“People forget that this is queer programming. This is queer family programming,” Hamilt said. “And under heteropatriarchy, there’s not a lot of room for introspective or creative thinking or complexity … Anything deviant from that is deemed evil.”

Even if the protests and outright attacks continue, Hamilt said, interest in drag story hours is unlikely to be deterred. If anything, Hamilt said, the positive reception of the reading events is growing.

“There’s lots of queer people and a lot of queer families,” they said. “And that’s the reality of the world.”

In the sometimes sleepy government town of Helena, population 32,655, the storefront of the Montana Book Company has for years been turning heads of passersby with colorful posters and cheeky political quips scrawled on a sandwich board outside. In July, Helena’s annual Pride month, the store had a colorful LGBTQ Pride flag fluttering near the front door. A sign in the window said “bodily autonomy is a human right.” Another sign pasted above the doorway called for “solidarity” in yellow script, encircled by a sub-slogan: “We are all we really have.”

Crawford, 49, bespectacled and often wearing a dark baseball hat, and Rice, 44, with coiffed hair and a wide smile, have co-owned the bookstore since 2018. The two former educators’ passion for books and reading was what drove them to buy the local business. As flashpoints erupted in national politics, the couple says the store’s display of progressive politics has only gotten “louder.”

“I feel like we have more people come into the store saying, ‘I follow you on Twitter or I follow you on Instagram. I love what you all stand for. We came here because of that,’” Crawford said. “And then they buy books.”

The bookstore’s bold liberalism stands out in the reserved city of government employees, public school teachers and small-business owners. The city has typically been represented by Democrats in the state Legislature, but is seen as less overtly progressive than Montana’s university towns of Missoula and Bozeman. Residential areas outside Helena city limits, largely to the north and east, have gone red in recent elections. In 2020, former president Donald Trump won Lewis and Clark county, which includes Helena, by four percentage points. Trump won the state in both presidential election cycles with double-digit margins.

Despite its location in Helena’s more progressive-signaling downtown, Crawford and Rice said they have felt increasing blowback against the bookstore’s politics over the past five years. Anti-LGBTQ policies and rhetoric in Montana have become more mainstream since 2020, when Montanans elected socially conservative Republicans to every statewide and federal office on the ballot.

On Sept. 10, 2022, in Helena, Montana Book Co. co-owner Charlie Crawford writes a message, “Trans folks belong in Montana,” on the sandwich board outside the LGBTQ-owned bookstore. Credit: Janie Osborne / The Guardian

Last year, the first-term Republican governor, Greg Gianforte, signed three laws opposed by LGBTQ civil rights groups, including a ban on transgender women and girls playing on school sports teams that align with their gender identity. (That law was recently judged unconstitutional and permanently enjoined by a district court judge in Bozeman.) Another law made it much harder for trans people to update the sex listed on their birth certificate. After the policy was blocked by a district court judge in April, the state health department leapfrogged the court order to create an even more restrictive rule arguing that sex is a biological fact that can’t be changed. (That rule is currently temporarily blocked while litigation continues.)

The political turmoil of the 2021 legislative session made an indelible impact on many members of Montana’s LGBTQ+ community, and created a sense of foreboding about what may happen when lawmakers return to Helena in January.

Crawford and Rice’s bookstore has become a sort of beacon for queer joy and resilience within the tense political landscape, but their outspoken signs and social media posts have also made it a lightning rod for antagonism. The owners recount stories about some Helena residents coming inside the store to disagree with their political slogans. The debates range from civil disagreements to vocal hostility. Other times, the opposition comes in the form of hate mail.

In June, the negative response took a new form: A man came into the bookstore with a pistol strapped to his chest. Crawford and Rice say he repeatedly ignored requests to leave the store when Crawford informed him that guns weren’t allowed on the premises. Rice dialed 911. The man left before police arrived but made an unsettling impression on the owners, who described his actions as intentionally intimidating.

The couple had twice hosted Drag Queen Story Hour during Helena’s Pride week, in 2019 and 2021 (the 2020 event was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic). Until this year, they said, there had never been any opposition or threats of disruption. But after the chaos in San Lorenzo, the man with a gun in their store, and weeks of publicized outrage around the Billings event, Crawford and Rice were on edge when anger about Helena’s drag story hour unfurled on social media.

“Not many people realize they’re so much more than a bookstore. They are a safe haven for a lot of young people … It’s a safe place for so many folks.”

Kai bauer, bookstore patron

In the leadup to Pride, they gathered their employees to prepare for the event. “We sat down to talk about who would be forward in store [near the entrance], what we would do if somebody tried to attack us,” Rice said. “We bought everybody mace and talked about how we preferred them to use it if necessary. We strategized because the national threat is there.”

Publicly, Rice and Crawford were wary of stoking fear among families and kids who were planning to attend. They were honest when customers asked about the threats, but always ended with an encouraging message to show up and have a good time. Internally, both owners were riding a wave of anxiety.

“Look, I’m kind of a pessimist. And I don’t have the greatest faith in humanity,” Crawford said. “I mean, the Oath Keepers and these Patriot Front people and these Proud Boys … they’re dangerous. They’re armed. And I don’t think they want to go to prison, so maybe they’ll try and keep doing the right thing. But I don’t trust them at all.”

For Crawford and Rice, the motivation to host Drag Story Hour isn’t about selling more merchandise or attracting new customers during Pride. As former teachers, the couple has tried to make their store as welcoming to young people and parents as possible. They don’t ask rowdy teenagers to leave, even if they never buy anything. They take notice when they haven’t seen a struggling kid in a few weeks: the next time their parents or friends come through, Crawford or Rice will ask how they’re doing.

Drag Story Hour, the owners say, is another way to make the store a safe and celebratory environment for queer and questioning people and their families.

“My experience growing up as a teenager in a town much like Helena was that I didn’t know anybody in my downtown and I didn’t feel comfortable staying in any of the stores, even if I had money to spend,” Rice said. “But I know these kids and I know their parents … It is truly a place where I think we try to surround young people with community that knows who they are and welcomes them.”

In light of that guiding mission, the idea that their bookstore could become a place of fear or trauma is one of their worst fears.

To make the event as safe as possible, Rice began reaching out to friends, including Thomas, to ask them to come down to the store that Saturday. Another veteran and patron of the bookstore, Kai Bauer, said he had no hesitation in agreeing, because of the special role Montana Book Company plays in the community.

“Not many people realize they’re so much more than a bookstore,” Bauer said. “They are a safe haven for a lot of young people … It’s a safe place for so many folks.”

The weekend of the event, Thomas and Bauer were among a handful of former law enforcement officers and veterans, wearing T-shirts, baseball hats and cowboy boots, who gathered to patrol inside and outside the bookstore. Thanks to the appeals from Crawford, Rice and the drag performers, the unofficial security crew was dwarfed by about a hundred local supporters.

As the event began in the bookstore’s upstairs gallery, a rainbow-clad gaggle gathered outside, where police had blocked off part of the street. Local bartenders, retirees, restaurant workers and marketing professionals joined other Pride-goers to create a buffer around the store’s entrance. Someone started playing music from a mobile speaker, kicking off sporadic dancing under the early afternoon sun.

Inside, more than a hundred other people, including teenagers and parents with young kids, crammed together to listen to the Mister Sisters read queer-friendly story books, including “Prince & Knight” and “The GayBCs.”

On Sept. 10, 2022, in Helena, Julie Yard sits for a portrait session. Yard is a member of the Mister Sisters drag trio that hosts children’s story hours at Montana Book Co. dressed in drag as larger-than-life characters, Credit: Janie Osborne / The Guardian

On the street below, fewer than a dozen protesters, arms crossed and sunglasses on, gathered on the sidewalk opposite the bookstore. A woman took photos of the larger crowd across the street. One man circled between the two sides of the street with a hand-written sign suggesting the drag queens inside were pedophiles. He was often obscured by a bookstore supporter diligently twirling a rainbow Pride flag.

At one point, a protester used a megaphone to tell the crowd that the “sexualization of children” is “morally reprehensible.” Soon after he began speaking, Crawford drowned out his voice with overlapping blasts from a red airhorn they bought from a nearby hardware store that morning.

The standoff was tense, with both groups conspicuously watching the other. But the sizable difference between supporters and protesters seemed to embolden the store’s defenders. More than one person who joined the scene seemed pleasantly surprised when they saw the protesters across the street, wryly asking other supporters, “Are those the people we’re supposed to be afraid of?”

The conflict on the street outside was invisible to the attendees crowded inside. After the reading, Julie Yard asked the audience to talk about the themes of love, acceptance and community they’d heard in the books. Audience members took photos with Yard and the other performers. People mingled and chatted with toddlers on their laps.

After roughly two hours, the protesters packed up their bullhorns and dispersed, trickling into a bar down the block. The sunburnt and tired crowd of supporters began to thin, planning where to go before the day’s next Pride event. The drag queens exited through the back of the store to avoid any encounters with protesters. Julie Yard surreptitiously climbed into her husband’s car. It was only after she left that Yard, who had spent most of the day beaming to her audience, began to cry.

“Let’s have a space that people are proud to call their own.”

Charlie crawford, montana book company co-owner

“I’m not a person who’s going to burst into tears in front of people if I can help it,” she said. Driving away from the bookstore, Yard said, she was “an emotional mess … in the best way possible.”

“Realizing everything that could have gone wrong that didn’t, and just seeing not only the number of folks that were at the event but the number of folks that showed up outside,” Yard said. “That is what got to me.”

She wasn’t the only one who felt overwhelmed by the show of support. After the protesters left, Crawford thanked the remaining attendees grouped outside the store. Rice stood at their side, crying. The owners later reiterated their gratitude in an Instagram post written by Crawford.

“I grew up in Helena,” the post said, “and let me tell you how much this place has changed. I felt truly alone here as a baby gay in the late 80s/early 90s and to see the support, and the number of folks who come to Pride events, the flags, the signs, homes with all of it up … makes me so happy for the young and new members of the queer community. I hope we continue to make sure they are not alone!”

Just as the outpouring of support affirmed Helena’s LGBTQ community, Crawford and Rice acknowledged the turnout also showed how much locals value the bookstore and all it represents — even if recognizing that popularity feels “braggy and icky,” in Crawford’s words.

“It just feels weird to me to accept that,” Crawford laughed. “Let’s have a space that people are proud to call their own … And if people want to come and support that and support us, I’ll take that all day.”

After the day of excitement, and getting his photo taken with Julie Yard, Thomas drove back to his home in Canyon Creek, about half an hour north of Helena. He felt he had done his part, in his own way, to stand up for a group of people being bullied.

“I kind of felt a little proud,” he said. “Like I was on the right side of history. I wasn’t on the cruel, ugly, hateful side. I was on the happy, loving, fun side.”

This story was produced in collaboration with The Guardian, where a version also appears.

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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.