IT’S A CRISP FALL DAY in North Texas, the sky shining as bright as the high-gloss paint on the ‘62 Corvair in the classic car show staged on Oak Street downtown. The Corvair glows duckling yellow. The sky is robin’s egg blue.
The air, after a fall rain, is a perfect 68 degrees. It’s the kind of day that makes it possible, for a minute, to forget the scorch of the Texas summer, to imagine everything in the world is just right, exactly as it is.
The trees on Oak Street rustle in the breeze as people roam from one end of the street to the other, from north of the water tower to the south, ending at the new City Hall — all 30,000 square feet of it, with its sweeping staircase, clock tower and intricate tilework in the restrooms. The cars are on show, but people are also here for the free food from five restaurants. They’re serving samples so everyone can have a taste and then vote online to pick a winner.
They’re here for the food because Roanoke is all about restaurants. That’s what turned this little city into a place – cemented in 2009 when friendly voices in Austin passed a resolution at the statehouse deeming this little city the “Unique Dining Capital of Texas.”
So the highlight of the veteran’s parade and classic car show today might really be the cookoff, where restaurants serve up little slices of wood-fired or forkfuls of chicken-fried or, at Anderson Distillery, little cups of hot mac and cheese.
Barely a block up from the new City Hall, Jay Anderson is working the door and the cookoff at the same time, and a line is forming as he scoops macaroni shots.
It’s easy to forget that a little more than two months earlier, in the heat of the Texas summer, Jay Anderson and his son, Bailey, opened up their doors for brunch and walked right into the middle of a fight that everybody knew was simmering, but nobody thought would ever explode in this little city of 9,878 people.
But that explosion was very real. And it all happened because, in late August, the Andersons included three words when they posted a new event on the distillery’s social media.
The event was a drag show – the Barrel Babes Drag Brunch. A drag show alone might have been enough to whip up a reaction in Roanoke. But the event posting included three other crucial words that were enough to shove Roanoke into the middle of the controversy that has roiled Texas and further split an already divided America in 2022. Three words:
ALL AGES WELCOME!
To the Andersons, it had seemed simple. There would be brunch. There would be families. And there would be drag performers — starting with Bailey, who had been performing in drag since 2017, while also helping build the family business.
But from the start, things were complicated: The objections from City Hall; the email campaign to shut down Anderson Distillery; the laser-focus of the prolific live-stream protester who travels with an entourage she says is usually armed.
It’s hard to imagine that Bailey had called police departments for miles around and discovered that nobody would help with security. Or that a protest planned for the drag brunch caught the eye of the multi-agency police fusion center in the next county over — the one that’s tasked with watching for criminal activity and terrorism.
And, if all that wasn’t enough, that was before the black-clad leftists showed up to protect Anderson Distillery and its clients, bringing their assault rifles and face masks and body armor to a standoff with conservative protesters.
Before the screaming and the public praying, the shouting about pedophiles and abuse and grooming and puberty blockers and a lot of things that were never really about Anderson’s, or brunch, or even drag, at all.
Before the people from the right-wing websites and YouTube channels showed up, before the false stories on Twitter and the outraged interviews on Fox News.
Before the Andersons’ landlord had them sign a promise they would never do this again, before they had to pin up the map they call the Wall of Hate just to keep track of all the abusive phone calls.
The Andersons know all that now. But there’s something else they don’t know yet.
On this November day at the cookoff, the Andersons don’t know that in just two weeks, another person in another state will walk into another bar that is hosting another drag show. That this person will be carrying an assault rifle and open fire. And that this time, there will be no armed leftists in body armor to stop what happens. Just patrons inside to do the tackling after the shooting begins.
They don’t know, now — nobody knows it, yet, but everybody will soon — that five people will be slaughtered at that drag show, at that bar, in Colorado. That a performer from the drag show will be shot and killed. That it will happen on a Saturday night in a bar that is setting up to host an all-ages drag brunch on Sunday morning, a few hours after the attack.
What they know right now in Roanoke is that it’s the cookoff today.
Jay Anderson is sweating and breathless, rushing to fill more free samples as people appear at the door to await a table.
“I’ll be right there to seat you,” he says. Then he makes a sharp right to the mac and cheese station, and starts scooping a little faster.
All-ages drag shows have become the front line in America’s culture wars.
Drag performances – classically, a show in which men dress in women’s clothing and perform under a female persona – are about as old as performance itself. History is filled with examples of men performing as women, from Shakespeare to Billy Wilder movies from the golden era of Hollywood.
Drag performance for adults was often something akin to burlesque. But in the era of reality TV, drag also went mainstream. Performer RuPaul’s 1992 radio hit about supermodels had kids across America singing the earworm “You better work.” His hit show, “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” burst onto television in 2009.
“Drag brunches,” where performers mingle with a mimosa-vibed crowd, could be found in most of America’s big cities.
Drag performers and experts say drag is about freedom of expression, about joy, about feeling glamorous and beautiful and outrageous.
But they will also tell you it can be about something more than entertainment.
For some people, drag is a proxy for LGBTQ pride, and a form of acceptance. To some, a drag show, particularly, is a vibrant demonstration for people who feel different, one that tells them: It’s OK for you to be different, too.
But somewhere in the midst of all that pop-culture acceptance, something got polarized in America. And while it wasn’t exactly all about drag performance, it was, people said, all about children.
To some people, it seemed more children than ever were questioning their gender, their own identity. And as the nation grappled with difficult questions about transgender rights, medical care for children questioning their gender and their parents’ right to help them, all-ages drag shows became a proxy battleground for these complex debates.
Because drag shows have traditionally featured risqué content, crude language and even nudity or partial nudity, many Americans questioned why all-ages drag shows even exist. Fed by conservative media, conspiracy theories erupted about these events: They aimed to expose children to sexual activity, opponents claimed. Or to make them transgender. Or lure them into the hands of sexually abusive drag queens.
As summer 2022 boiled on, drag performances — especially all-ages drag shows — triggered organized protest movements, raucous demonstrations and sporadic violence across the country. Faceoffs and protests happened in Denton, Texas, and Katy, Texas. Woodland, California and Eugene, Oregon. Iowa City, Iowa and Memphis, Tennessee.
Soon, videos captured at some of these events became features on Fox News prime time and conspiracy theory websites. Snippets of video showed performers using dirty words, or zoomed in on faces of children who appeared uncomfortable. Outraged commentators filled in the gaps.
Like other targets that preceded them in polarized America — Critical Race Theory, COVID vaccine mandates, the idea of white privilege — all-ages drag events became a new moral battleground.
Some conservatives, joined by extremists from the far-right including white supremacists and members of the street gang the Proud Boys, claim they are stepping in to, quite literally, stop abusers and pedophiles from preying on innocent children.
On the other side, drag performers, the businesses who host them, and pro-LGBTQ groups say all-ages drag shows help break down stigmas, and serve as a vital lifeline to children experiencing doubt and confusion about their gender identity. The goal with these shows is to express camaraderie: to make an overt display of solidarity by appearing, in person, in the neighborhoods where those children live, those groups say.
Children experiencing gender dysphoria — distress based on the difference between the gender they experience and the gender they were assigned at birth — are far more likely to harm themselves or die of suicide, said Sam Ames, director of advocacy and government affairs at the Trevor Project, a mental health organization for LGBTQ young people.
“When we’re normalizing and de-stigmatizing things like drag shows, we’re helping to create supportive environments,” Ames said. That acceptance means measurably lower rates of suicide, he said.
And while drag shows may help transgender children, they’re not the only ones who can benefit, said Will Beischel, a researcher with a doctorate in LGBTQ psychology who studies gender and sexual diversity.
“Adolescent girls have eating disorders, or are slut-shamed, or are told their only worth is in their appearance. Boys are told they can’t cry, and they have to be stoic,” Beischel said. Drag shows can send the same message to children as to adults: It’s OK to be different.
Experts like Beischel will tell you that while gender roles can be taught (think: “men don’t cry”), gender identity is almost always consistent from a young age.
The whole controversy perplexes drag performers, who find themselves at risk of physical attack for shows they claim are intentionally tamed-down for family audiences — and have been going on for years.
And that might be the way to start in understanding what happened in Roanoke, what happened in the suburbs and small towns all across America that summer: It starts because everybody says they’re doing it to protect the kids.
Anderson Distillery and Grill was forged in friendship. And spice rub.
Jay Anderson and his friend Andrew Frank had known each other since their sons were Boy Scouts together, when they cooked food for the other parents using Frank’s old cowboy recipe for spice rub infused with coffee. Anderson was impressed.
The two began to experiment and the spice blend “Joe Rub” was born. By 2013, the pair was selling the mixture in farmers’ markets. Eventually they wanted something bigger — a food truck, a restaurant, something.
But the right ingredient came along when a friend gave Jay a small pot still to make his own liquor. Anderson and Frank took classes in distilling. They experimented again: Bourbon. Vodka. Whiskey. Rum. It was time for a new venture.
Oak Street was already packed with more than a dozen restaurants, cafes and bakeries: Japanese, Mexican, barbecue, Cajun, Italian, Thai. A bakery that sells apricot almond tarts. A candy store with chocolate covered Oreos.
Anderson and Frank picked their spot: a brand new building where Oak Street runs up to the doorstep of the new City Hall. The unfinished space needed everything – floors, walls, air conditioning, plumbing, a ceiling, a kitchen and, of course, a distillery.
For 15 months, the pair and their families worked relentlessly. They laid out the design. They went to Kentucky to pick out the right barrels for the liquor. They watched the pink insulation go in, the walls go up, the granite bar laid down, the mirrors and shelves hung.
They created the Birdie, with lemon vodka, lavender syrup and lemonade; the Grasshopper milkshake: mint, chocolate, and house-made creme de cacao; the Lazy Longhorn with vanilla, orange juice and rum (ice cream optional.) They filled the menu with bar food: sliders, fries, and deep-fried mac and cheese bites.
By the time the distillery and restaurant was becoming a reality, the little boys who had been Boy Scouts were grown men. And Bailey Anderson had a calling of his own. Since 2017, he had been performing as a drag queen.
On stage he uses the persona Trisha Delish, who Bailey calls “a slutty housewife” going through a midlife crisis. (It’s the kind of persona that can be raunchy for an adult crowd, or look more like a wink and a nod to adults who recognize a stereotype that kids may not.)
Bailey had been entranced by drag since early middle school after watching — of course — “RuPaul’s Drag Race.”
When he started performing five years ago, his parents would go to see him and wear “Papa Delish” and “Mama Delish” T-shirts.
To Bailey, drag was an art — expression through dance, clothing, makeup and personality. Bailey’s on-stage persona gave him the real-life confidence to speak up and take risks.
In 2018, he won the first season of Queer Off, an elimination-style drag competition in Dallas that puts queens’ costuming, hair and performance skills to the test.
He started his own company as a costume designer. He sewed intricate gowns with beads and lace. He got to know actors and singers and dancers.
So when the Andersons started planning a drag show for the family restaurant, there was no question Bailey could pull in performers — and at least a decent crowd of friends and followers.
Yes, Bailey’s act could be risqué, with sultry dancing and references to sex. But, like all performers, Bailey said, he knew his audience. He could certainly do a clean show. So could his friends on the circuit.
The Andersons tested the waters, running the idea past customers and friends. What would you think of a drag brunch? they asked. Would you come to something like that?
The answer was always yes.
What the Andersons didn’t realize until later was they were calling out into an echo chamber. They were talking to people like them — people who embraced drag shows and had either seen or were intrigued by them.
They weren’t hearing from the rest of Roanoke. But they would soon.
Safe in their blind spot, the Andersons pressed on.
“I am so excited to announce that we will be hosting the first drag show (to my knowledge) ever in Roanoke Texas!” Bailey wrote on his Trisha Delish Facebook Page on Aug. 13. “So without further ado… come to Barrel Babes drag brunch on August 28th at 1 pm!”
Drag performances don’t necessarily have any connection to transgender issues. Many of the performers who dress as women identify as males and treat their drag purely as performance art.
While drag performers may be gay men, they don’t have to be. While some might be transgender, that’s hardly the point. (In an alternate form of drag, women sometimes dress as men.)
But the people who oppose these shows say these issues are all entwined. For them, all-ages drag shows have become a stand-in for the broader political debate raging in many states over the rights of transgender or gender-questioning children.
In Texas — long before what happened in Roanoke — Governor Greg Abbott put a bullseye on the backs of these kids and their families. In February, he ordered the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services to investigate parents who give gender-affirming medical care to their transgender children, something he called child abuse.
Abbott’s campaign staff later called the controversial order a political “winner.”
It was blocked by a judge in March, and the issue has been tangled in court proceedings since then. But that wasn’t the end of the pressure from politicians – or extremists.
Starting around mid-2021, far-right activists and social media influencers intensified their scrutiny of all-ages drag events, said Jared Holt, a senior researcher at the think tank the Institute for Strategic Dialogue and an expert on domestic extremism.
“There’s a whole slice of right-wing media that has essentially devoted itself to throwing fits over all-ages drag brunches,” Holt said.
Perhaps the most notorious example was a Twitter account that posted almost continually about all-ages drag events, eventually gaining more than 1.6 million followers.
Before long, groups of protesters were showing up at drag queen story hours at libraries and all-ages drag brunches across the country. Mainstream pundits noticed. Fox News’ Tucker Carlson devoted whole segments to the protests, praising activists who disrupted the shows.
“This is grotesque — sexualizing children always is,” Carlson opined in June, two months before Roanoke.
The reports ignored the hundreds of hours of drag brunches that didn’t spawn viral videos, instead focusing on snippets of men dressed as women with short skirts dancing around children; children offering drag queens dollar bills as tips; drag queens parading on a stage with children in front of a neon pink sign that reads “It’s not gonna lick itself.”
The short clips were played millions of times on social media and conservative news shows. They quickly spurred a new influx of activists, attention-seekers and agitators.
Key among them in Texas was a 22-year-old straight out of college named Kelly Neidert. For her, protesting drag shows — and insisting that they’re connected to transgender issues — had become a full-time job.
And she was about to help turn Roanoke from a local dust-up to a national flashpoint.
IT DIDN’T TAKE LONG for Roanoke City Hall to notice the Andersons’ posts.
Images of Jay and Bailey’s announcement started circulating on city email addresses and in text threads among council members within days of the announcement of the event.
On an Instagram account, Bailey had elaborated on his excitement about the show: “We are lucky to have the support of patrons and even the city council as we get this started.”
City Hall wasn’t happy.
“There may be a need to respond to Andersons post on Instagram, or personally contact Jay and let him know it’s not ok to make such a statement,” Mayor Carl “Scooter” Gierisch, Jr. wrote to then city manager Scott Campbell on August 15, according to emails obtained by USA TODAY under the Texas Public Information Act.
Bailey Anderson immediately removed the reference after the city contacted him. But it was out there now, this idea that the City of Roanoke had endorsed the show — when emails show the city council was actually repelled by the idea.
On Aug. 17, another Facebook account posted about a new event, also planned for the afternoon of Aug. 28, on Oak Street in downtown Roanoke.
The title of this event was “Pop-up protest against ‘kid-friendly’ drag show.”
It featured the same image from Anderson’s event posting, with “Barrel Babes” in big letters and the picture of Trisha Delish. But this time, there was a bright red X-mark slashed through the middle.
The protest was organized by Protect Texas Kids – a non-profit organization run by Kelly Neidert.
Neidert loves to talk about the time the police hid her in a janitor’s closet to get her away from an angry mob at the University of North Texas.
Neidert, then a marketing student, had invited the anti-transgender activist and political candidate Jeff Younger to speak to her university’s chapter of the Young Conservatives of Texas. Dozens of students showed up to protest the event, largely drowning out Younger’s speech. But the incident, which received media attention nationwide, helped make Neidert a darling of conservative Texas politics.
The young activist spent her college years taunting liberal students.
She wore a red Make America Great Again cap around campus and goaded progressives from her Twitter account, which was suspended in June after Neidert tweeted that anybody attending Pride events should be “rounded up.”
Neidert founded Protect Texas Kids as soon as she graduated in May, aiming to capitalize on the fame she gained at college.
The group’s mission, according to its website, is “Protecting kids from the toxic, indoctrinating agenda of the left by exposing the truth behind the ongoing assault that has been ruthlessly waged against our children’s identities, core development, and traditional values.”
In two interviews, Neidert was vague about what, exactly, Protect Texas Kids does, or where its funding comes from. Her website says the group is a nonprofit organization and offers an easy link to start making monthly donations. But federal 990 forms for its finances aren’t available on online databases.
Neidert’s website asks readers to submit tips and videos about “ideologies” being pushed on children, and celebrates her appearances “on shows like Fox & Friends, Newsmax, and OANN.”
In practice, Protect Texas Kids’ most visible activity appears to be Neidert, flanked by a cadre of supporters, showing up at events to yell, hold signs, then post video online.
She told USA TODAY she’s mainly driven by her concern about children undergoing medical treatments to transition from one gender to another.
“I’m completely against child transitions of any sort,” Neidert said. “If they’re under 18, I don’t believe that they should be allowed to medically transition at all.”
But Neidert and her organization don’t appear to protest medical clinics, or hospitals, or surgical centers, or the academic facilities that do long-term research about the health outcomes for people who undergo gender transition.
Instead, their primary target is all-ages drag shows.
That these shows have nothing to do with medical treatment for children doesn’t seem to faze Neidert. She said she believes children have no place at drag shows because they might fall under the influence of drag queens, who might encourage them to question their gender.
“At the end of the day, I think that they need to understand that transitioning genders is not the answer to whatever they’re feeling,” she said.
Neidert says she has nothing against drag, per se. As long as it’s only adults participating in a show, she said, people can entertain themselves however they see fit.
The problem, she said, is in the “sexualization” of children at these shows.
For evidence, Neidert points to the same few seconds of footage aired by Carlson and countless other right-wing activists: The pink neon sign with the crude message. The children giving cash tips to dancers.
“I don’t see it any differently than if it’s like a stripper, honestly,” Neidert said. “I just think that having events like that is just inappropriate. It gives kids a skewed idea of what is appropriate, and what’s not.”
Researchers see the work of groups like Neidert’s as a part of a broader political playbook, the same one that has long been used against all kinds of minority groups.
The obsession with all-ages drag shows isn’t even really about the shows themselves, Holt said. Because these shows are symbolic of a broader shift toward gender fluidity across America, for conservatives, they are wrapped up with everything from medical treatment for gender-questioning children, to the subject of same-sex marriage, he said.
“It’s tied back into these more conspiratorial narratives about, ‘They’re coming for your kids,’ and is used to stoke outrage and hate towards the LGBT community generally,” Holt said. “They’ve come up with these labels like ‘groomers,’ and have been applying them very liberally to all parts of the spectrum related to transgender issues and LGBTQ issues broadly.”
Despite devoting her life to the complex issues surrounding childhood gender identity, Neidert, like other all-ages drag show opponents interviewed by USA TODAY, acknowledged she has never actually talked to people on the other side of the issue — anyone who might better inform her about why these shows exist.
She’s never sat down and talked with the Trevor Project, to hear how these shows impact transgender and questioning children’s mental health. She’s never spoken to a drag performer who performs for children. Or a proponent of the shows. Or an academic who has studied them.
She told USA TODAY she’s open to doing so, though she doesn’t really see the point.
“I would be totally willing to sit down with someone,” she said. “I don’t think at the end of the day, my mind would be changed.”
Neidert also talked to USA TODAY about another hot-button topic that helped Roanoke make the news: Second Amendment rights.
Sometimes she said, she and her supporters will openly carry guns at events, which is legal in Texas. More often, they’re carrying for protection, she said.
“Typically when I go out, if people on my side aren’t carrying, I think that they’re typically concealed carrying,” Neidert said.
Whatever her motivations, Neidert and her group get attention. When the Andersons were organizing their event, she had already been on cable news shows and was making a mark in the right-wing media realm.
So when Protect Texas Kids posted its pop-up protest, people who followed right-wing media noticed, fast.
Her post became a kind of force multiplier for Anderson Distillery.
But it got the restaurant noticed by all the kinds of people who weren’t interested in going to a drag brunch.
On the same day Protect Texas Kids announced its protest, city officials were talking a lot — to one another.
At 5:23 p.m., Roanoke Councilmember Bryan Moyers wrote an email to the mayor and city manager Campbell:
“Have y’all seen this?” he asked. “I don’t like it at all. Doesn’t align with our core values.”
Six minutes after that, at 5:29 p.m., Campbell replied to Moyers, writing that the city had received complaints about the brunch, but that the event did not appear to need a special permit, and the city probably couldn’t stop it.
At 6:18 p.m., Campbell wrote to the entire city council, saying he had heard there would be protests at the Anderson Distillery event.
By the next day, angry emails were landing in the city council’s inboxes.
“When did sexually oriented businesses become a thing in this town?” wrote one resident, who said he had lived in Roanoke for more than 20 years. “This is highly inappropriate and to welcome all ages is completely inexcusable and should not be tolerated.”
Mayor Gierisch’s responses were rapid-fire.
“We are looking at every legal statute to see if there is a provision that we could take action,” he wrote. “I’ve personally reached out to the owner and his landlord. I’ve encouraged people to reach out to Jay Anderson and share the dissatisfaction.”
Jay Anderson said Gierisch never tried to convince him to cancel the event. Gierisch, Moyers and every other Roanoke city council member, when contacted by USA TODAY, declined to comment about the event at Anderson’s or did not respond.
On that same day, Aug. 18, the Texas Scorecard, a conservative website, published a story about the planned Barrel Babes Brunch.
“Roanoke Restaurant Poised to Hold Drag Show for Children,” the headline read.
With the right-wing media coverage growing, the turmoil was also spreading well beyond City Hall.
On Roanoke’s Fairway Ranch neighborhood Facebook page, the usual gripes focused on why the underpass on Byron Nelson Boulevard was once again closed, or the pack of wild hogs wandering in front of Cox Elementary.
Now, a member posted a link to the Texas Scorecard story, urging people to write to the restaurant and “step up in any way you can to show that this isn’t the draw we want for our downtown!”
Here, too, Gierisch jumped in. He quickly posted in the Facebook group that the city was on top of the problem. He even gave people Jay Anderson’s direct email address.
More angry emails came in: “This is nothing short of child abuse.” “This is disgusting and should be illegal.” “This is just as bad as porn.”
By Aug. 25, the city was fielding inquiries from reporters. And a lot of angry questions that boiled down to one thing: Why don’t you stop this?
The City Council seemed convinced the Andersons planned to violate the very essence of Roanoke. But the city couldn’t find so much as a zoning violation.
“It has been suggested that we should be treating Anderson’s as a Sexually Oriented Business because of the nature of the event.” wrote the city manager in an email to the council. “The City Attorney agrees that we cannot arbitrarily make that assumption unless we become aware of specific activity that falls into defined categories of our SOB ordinance.”
Instead, the council knew that public pressure was their best weapon against the event. And Jay Anderson was getting lots of it.
Now, he and his family had a decision to make.
RuPaul once said: “When you become the image of your own imagination, it’s the most powerful thing you could ever do.”
That quote might define every side of the fight that happened in Roanoke. It’s meant to define the drag performer. But instead, it could be defining drag protesters.
What actually happens at all-ages drag shows may be eclipsed by an imaginary version of what happened. Or might happen.
Kiba Walker, a Texas drag artist who performs as Salem Moon, said he’s perplexed at the ignorance and hate performers increasingly face.
“To think that there are people out there saying that kids being exposed to this is dangerous to them, it kind of blows my mind,” Walker said.
“I literally know kids that have tried to take their own lives because of the type of oppression and bullying that they got.”
Walker began questioning his sexuality at the age of nine, and said he grew up facing brute hostility to the personal qualities he felt most enriched him and made him happiest.
“I was obsessed with singing. I was obsessed with acting. I wanted to dress up and do all this other stuff, and kids and even adults would tell me ‘You can’t do that,’” he said.
Growing up in California in the 2000s, Walker said, classmates called him “gay” like it was a bad thing. He didn’t even know what the word meant.
It got so bad, his parents decided to home-school him. But by the time Walker reached high school in Reno, Nevada, he found a group of friends who loved him for his art and his singing and acting and passion. Drag became a natural extension of that. It gave him a place to express himself, create his own narrative and live it out on stage.
Six years ago, Walker created Salem Moon, a character who loves pop, rock and Broadway. Anything really — singing or lip-syncing. Patsy Cline, Lady Gaga, Stevie Nicks, Miley Cyrus.
When Walker agreed to co-host the Barrel Babes event with Bailey Anderson, he knew it was an all-ages show.
That means thinking carefully about the “vibe” of the show, Walker said: What type of music will they play? Should the dancers only wear long gowns and not their more risqué outfits? He said responsible performers communicate extensively before all-ages shows, making sure everybody’s act is appropriate.
“We are adults, with properly functioning minds that can say ‘Hey, there’s children in the audience, we need to edit our routines.’” Walker said. “99% of the time, everybody’s okay with that, because we know how to work as professionals. It’s our job.”
There have been occasions, he said, where drag queens crossed the line.
“I have scolded entertainers for not following those rules,” he said.
The Barrel Babes Brunch, Walker said, was not one of those occasions.
A week before the Barrel Babes Brunch, Jay Anderson knew he had kicked a hornet’s nest. He was getting the calls and emails. He knew about the social media attacks. And he increasingly worried protesters might show up.
The city manager visited with Jay. So did a city councilmember. His landlord talked to him, asking him to reconsider.
“I told Jay, I didn’t think it was a good move,” said John Delin, whose company owns the retail space where Anderson Distillery is the anchor tenant. “I thought it would create too much controversy for a young business, and that he ought to seriously consider what he was going to do with it.”
Meanwhile the distillery’s minority partner, Andrew Frank, said he had no idea the anticipated event even existed until he read about it on Facebook.
Because of the long drive from his house to the restaurant, he had already backed away from the business and become a silent partner, Frank said.
But he also gave Jay his opinion: This was a bad idea. Roanoke was too conservative for this kind of thing.
And the words “All ages welcome” made things even worse.
“That was a huge mistake on their part,” Frank said.
The Anderson family questioned themselves. A lot.
“Should we just cancel?” they asked themselves every day. “Maybe we should just cancel.”
Then, about a week before the event, a mother approached Jay Anderson at the distillery.
I have a queer daughter, she said. Thank you for doing something to support her.
“It had moved to more of a personal decision, not only to support my son, but to support the community I thought was being marginalized in our city,” Jay Anderson said.
And there was something else. Beneath the raucous debate over the brunch was an indisputable fact: People wanted to go.
Gretchen Veling was scrolling through Facebook when she saw the post about the brunch – and the protest. She felt her temper rising. Veling lives in nearby Keller and has two children she describes as queer.
To her, the outrage wasn’t about the show or harming children. It was about bigotry.
“We’re going to that brunch,” she told her family.
There were dozens, if not hundreds, of others like her in the surrounding towns and suburbs.
People like Nichole Guidotti, a 38-year-old human resources professional from Roanoke; Karen Daily, a 49-year-old mother from Trophy Club, whose child identifies as non-binary; Liz Dyer, who is from Fort Worth, has a gay son and founded Mama Bears, a group that supports families of LGBTQ children.
Justin Wagley, 34, had grown up in the conservative north Dallas suburbs, in a time when he said he was taught LGBTQ people existed — just not in his community. He saw ads for the drag brunch as a comfort. “There are other people that aren’t just similar to you,” he said, “but are welcoming and excited to meet you.”
In all, more than 500 people clicked “going” or “interested” on the Facebook post for the Barrel Babes event. Anderson’s entire capacity was only 132. They were suddenly so popular, they’d have to turn people away.
But they were also worried about protesters.
Shortly after announcing the brunch, Bailey Anderson called to ask the Roanoke Police Department to assign an officer to monitor the event. The department responded that, since none of its officers had signed up for the off-duty shift, no extra patrols would be available, Bailey Anderson said.
City emails obtained by USA TODAY appear to corroborate that. An Aug. 17 email circulated within the police department identified Bailey by name and noted his request. “Bailey was advised that the off‐duty posting would be created,” the officer said. But that posting was apparently never filled.
For a week before the event, the family called seven other local police departments, asking if they could hire off-duty officers as security for the drag brunch, Bailey said. Nobody could do it.
Despite Bailey’s earlier request for help, by Aug. 25, city officials seemed to think the Andersons had everything in hand.
“We have also been asked about security at the event,” Campbell wrote to the council. “We understand that Anderson’s is trying to arrange some private security”
He added: “From a City perspective, we are planning to have extra patrol on Oak Street that day, only because of the potential for protests. We would do that for any type of protest as a matter of practice. This is only precautionary, and we are not expecting any issues.”
But that same morning, still more people were taking note of the event.
About an hour away from Roanoke, at the North Texas Fusion Center, part of a system intended to help departments coordinate responses to criminal and terrorist threats, agents from across law enforcement monitor for possible threats to public safety.
An agent at the fusion center had found a noteworthy post online, and sent it as an alert to the Roanoke police department.
The agent wrote: “Please see below details regarding a planned pop‐up protest.”
GRETCHEN VELING, her husband and her teenager woke up Sunday, Aug. 28th, ready to have a good time.
They knew the Barrel Babes Brunch would be crowded, so they rushed around getting ready. Then they jumped in the car, drove 10 minutes to Anderson Distillery and Grill, and pulled into the attached garage behind the restaurant.
The family emerged from the car to a sight they had not expected:
Standing nearby were six to eight people dressed all in black. They had masks on their faces and assault rifles over their shoulders.
Veling stood there, trying to piece together what she was seeing.
What the hell is this? She thought.
Shortly afterwards, Kiba Walker pulled into the parking garage behind the distillery in his parents’ SUV. His face was painted and ready for work. Orange blush. Plum lip. False lashes.
Like the Velings, he soon saw the figures in black clothing and masks holding ARs. Unlike the Velings, Walker knew exactly what he was looking at:
This is where we are, he thought. We’re at a point where we have to be defending ourselves with weapons, because people are threatening us on a daily basis.
“Just saw some guys masked up in all black,” he texted Bailey.
“Those are organizers helping us,” Bailey answered. “If they have rainbow accessories or a red and white waistband.”
One of the figures dressed in all-black approached Walker.
“Do you need help with your bags?” they asked.
The police hadn’t been expecting trouble, But someone else had.
About a week before the Barrel Babes Brunch, Bailey Anderson was at another drag show when he was approached by someone about the Roanoke event. The person was part of a secretive group called the Elm Fork John Brown Gun Club.
Bailey and his father later got on the phone with a representative of the club. The Andersons say the group planned to keep protesters at a distance, while escorting patrons to their cars and protecting them from harassment.
The Andersons welcomed the help.
“We diligently searched through all of the surrounding jurisdictions for uniformed police officers,” Jay Anderson told USA TODAY. “Once we determined that we were going to be unable to obtain anyone’s services, we accepted some help from the John Brown Gun Club.”
Jay didn’t know much about the group at the time, he said. He just figured they were a group of gun enthusiasts. Like a bowling club.
The Elm Fork John Brown Gun Club did not agree to an interview with USA TODAY. The club, which shares the name of the legendary abolitionist leader and the nearby river branch that flows toward Dallas, doesn’t overtly identify itself as “anti-fascist.” But the club’s social media presence shows a clear leftist political bent.
It also shows a passion for Second Amendment rights and self-protection.
“Arm trans women, we take care of us,” reads an image the club tweeted in November, along with the message: “Arming your community with the resources and tools to thrive is mutual aid. We’re the ones we’ve been waiting for.”
In recent years, Americans have become used to seeing images of people carrying rifles and handguns at public events. In states like Texas where it’s legal to carry guns openly, there’s sometimes little space between the idea of Second Amendment rights and using guns to send a political message.
But when rifles show up at rallies, they tend to be in the hands of right-wing groups, including far-right extremist groups that call themselves “militias,” according to data collected by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project.
In response to the growing armed protest movement on the right, anti-fascists and other left-leaning groups have begun arming themselves as well, and are increasingly willing to bear those arms in public, said Stanislav Vysotsky, a professor of criminology and author of the book “American Antifa.”
“They are taking on another more proactive stance, particularly because the far-right have become increasingly more militarized,” Vysotsky said. “So they (anti-fascists) are becoming increasingly more armed — they’re becoming increasingly more intimidating as a way of demonstrating that people on the left won’t be intimidated and will protect themselves.”
It’s the next stage of a tactic that anti-fascists call “Proactive self-defense,” Vysotsky said.
In 2018, 2019 and 2020, when far-right extremist groups like the Proud Boys announced events in liberal cities like Portland and Berkeley, California, they were met with violent resistance from anti-fascists, some of them organized, who attacked the far-right extremists with bear mace and their fists.
“Far-right demonstrations are almost always either a pretext, or create the conditions to facilitate acts of violence by actors on the far-right,” Vysotsky said. So, he said, anti-fascists respond to threats of violence, and to incursions by right-wing extremists in liberal neighborhoods, with “proactive” violence.
What the Elm Fork John Brown Gun Club did in Roanoke was a stark example of a new phase of armed resistance from the left, he said.
After the social media threats, and after white supremacists and other extremists threatened other LGBTQ events, the Elm Fork John Brown Gun Club decided the Andersons, and the local LGBTQ community, needed their help.
So, in the early hours of Aug. 28, they masked up to protect their identities, and drove to Roanoke with their rifles.
Hours of video footage shot that day shows practically every detail of what happened at the Barrel Babes Brunch. People who attended described it in interviews.
This is the view of what happened inside the event:
Salem Moon sashayed toward the screaming crowd in a full-length ruby gown glittering with sequins that brushed the top of her size 13-wide stilettos.
Hips swaying, blond wig bouncing and lip-syncing to “Heart to Break” by Kim Petras, the drag queen strutted between tables in full performance mode. Admirers handed her singles, tens, even hundred-dollar bills.
She sauntered to the double doors, threw them open, and was greeted by cheers, cameras and more bills by the crowd on the patio outside.
As the music faded and Salem Moon headed back inside, she bent down and held up her hand to a little girl for a high-five. The child smacked back with gusto.
There were jokes and dances and even a game of musical chairs with audience members.
“Drag is what actually inspired me to want to become a fashion designer,” one participant told the crowd, to huge applause.
Bailey Anderson — as Trisha Delish — weaved through the wooden tables in a long-sleeved plum-colored dress and tights, lip syncing to “Magic Dance” by David Bowie.
Salem Moon sang Roar by Katy Perry, dressed in a pink Power Rangers costume.
Rolla Derby — a female performer who calls herself “The Crayola experience of drag” — sauntered through the crowd in a tight pink dress and cotton candy pink wig, singing along to Gwen Stefani.
Drag queen Nayda Montana lip-synced to “The Best of Both Worlds,” by Hannah Montana, before moving outside and climbing on top of a table, close to where a small child was sitting. For a few seconds, Nayda gyrated her hips.
A man at the table snapped pictures. The child, who had been recorded earlier smiling as she watched the performances, was also later captured on video crouched over on the table bench, resting her head on an adult. There were no drag queens around them at the time.
Gretchen Veling watched the dancing and lip-syncing, wondering what all the fuss was about.
Justin Wagley watched the whole show, noting how the drag performers always asked parents for an OK before posing for pictures with a child.
“I never got a funny feeling in my stomach, or a bad taste in my mouth,” he said.
By 3 p.m. the brunch was winding down. A clearly emotional Jay Anderson, who had been rushing around serving customers for hours, took to the mic to thank people for their kindness and support.
That night, he updated the restaurant’s Facebook page:
“We want to thank EVERYONE who showed up today to support our Barrel Babes Brunch.
“Yes, every table was full before we officially opened. Yes, we reached maximum capacity and had a waitlist to get inside. Yes, we ran out of food.”
There are two other things that are known about what happened inside Anderson’s that day.
First, public records show the city determined the business didn’t violate any codes for crowd capacity.
Second, in attendance in the crowd were two inspectors from the Texas Comptroller’s office, the Andersons said. The agency imposes fees on sexually oriented businesses.
How those inspectors came to be summoned is unclear.
Bailey Anderson said they showed up because of complaints from the public. USA TODAY sought records about the comptroller’s involvement under state public records law, but the office declined to release those records, instead forwarding them for review to the state attorney general.
The inspectors, though, apparently found nothing amiss.
That night, in his Facebook post, Jay added:
“Yes, we passed the ‘no sexual content’ inspection from the Texas Comptroller’s Office.”
The scene outside the event was somewhat different.
There, too, people who attended described it in interviews. This scene, too, was extensively documented in video, including scenes released by protesters, by right-wing media outlets, by an independent journalist working the scene that day, and by the Elm Fork John Brown Gun Club.
Outside Anderson’s, spilling from the gray-white sidewalk curbs to the shade trees across the street to the building on the next block, were a lot of people making a lot of noise.
Protesters with signs reading “Stop Sexualizing Children” and “Drag the Queens out of town.”
People on the sidewalk with cameras in each other’s faces.
And standing in front of them all, a line of black-clad gun club members, face masks up in the 97-degree heat. As protesters approached, they cautioned each one to move back. “Stay on your side,” they warned.
The gun club members appeared to be the only people in the crowd openly carrying weapons.
In one video posted on Twitter, three million viewers would eventually watch Clark Magee, a middle-aged man in a red Texas Rangers jersey, rant about pedophiles and claim a pro-drag protester had spat on him.
Two men who had come from nearby Dallas kissed for the cameras and raised a middle finger.
One woman screamed at protesters as she drove by.
Kelly Neidert was somewhere across the street keeping away from the main fray.
When the show was over, members of the gun club escorted people to their cars. The protestors melted away. Nobody was shot. Nobody was hurt. That was all.
But beyond the protesters, there had been another category of people in the crowd.
By their own description, they call themselves journalists, though their news outlets are ones focused on outrage.
And their effect on Roanoke was just beginning.
THE DAY AFTER the Barrel Babes Brunch, Mayor Gierisch’s email inbox was blowing up.
“It was a Drag Queen Pedo GROOMER Event.”
“Why have you allowed your seemingly wholesome city of Roanoke to be overrun with
sexual deviancy in the streets?”
“You ought to be absolutely ASHAMED of yourselves for signing off on this. This is TEXAS! The citizens of this great state do NOT approve of the grooming and sexualization of children!”
The little city, the “Unique Dining Capital of Texas,” was now being trashed as a haven for child abusers.
For days, day and night, sometimes as late as 9:30 p.m., Gierisch wrote back to the angry emailers. The core of his message:
We did not support this. We tried to stop it. We couldn’t find any laws that prevented it. We talked to Jay Anderson. He wouldn’t listen. It’s not our fault.
City officials talked to the Texas Attorney General’s Office. The Denton County District Attorney. Legislators. Anyone they thought could help them prevent this from ever happening again.
Meanwhile, city emails show, Rep. Tan Parker — a Republican state representative from nearby Flower Mound — was trying to shepherd the city through its crisis by helping draft a public statement, to be posted on social media and the city website.
“We recognize and understand the concerns expressed by the community that this activity fails to reflect the family values and caring culture that the city of Roanoke is committed to maintaining,” the statement reads.
The statement acknowledged there had been people carrying rifles “in support of the private business” and noted that carrying those guns was legal. But it added another remark attributed to Gierisch:
“We are saddened that families were subjected to conduct that resulted in the presence of armed protestors, and believe this behavior was irresponsible, dangerous, and intolerable — our City will continue to investigate the incident.”
The mayor didn’t specify whose conduct he believed was irresponsible
Kelly Neidert isn’t the only person with a camera spending lots of time on drag shows.
The controversy over these events has attracted a cadre of activists and attention-seekers, especially in Texas. Often calling themselves “journalists,” these activists don’t abide by the traditional journalistic code of objectivity, instead thrusting themselves into the middle of the situation.
Almost immediately, reports from these activists from Roanoke started showing up on Twitter and YouTube. That version of events differed from Jay Anderson’s description, and from the city’s, and often from the reality clearly shown in the hours of footage from the event.
One YouTuber interviewed people and police officers as a “journalist,” saying he simply wanted to talk to people. He then posted a video describing the gathering as a “Gay gang” and showing that he had people working “undercover.”
Two other people, who describe themselves as journalists for a video streaming service that airs right-wing commentary, tweeted a grainy photo of the street scene in Roanoke. In it, they drew a circle around a figure in a nearby parking garage and wrote that it was an “Antifa sniper.”
That part, especially, caught fire, and email complaints to the city for days cited the idea of “Antifa snipers.”
According to the same city officials who opposed the drag show, the only people stationed looking down on the event were police officers.
Steven Monacelli, a freelance journalist who left a career in tech to report on the unfolding mayhem in his home state, has spent the last couple of years chronicling the controversy over all-ages drag shows.
His photos and videos of protesters and the gun club members at the Barrel Babes Drag Brunch have been viewed millions of times online.
The most vocal anti-transgender activists in Texas have formed what Monacelli calls “astroturf” organizations — groups that purport to be grassroots, but are actually funded by deep-pocket conservatives, he said. They portray themselves as independent, struggling advocates, but they don’t reveal who is funding their organizations, he said.
“They give the image of a network of grassroots, concerned citizens’ groups, that all then get regular and favorable coverage within a certain network of right-wing media outlets that oftentimes are part-funded by some of the same people I suspect are funding these groups,” Monacelli said.
That niche media attention soon gets the eye of more mainstream outlets, particularly Fox News, Monacelli said. And once this one-sided coverage masquerading as community activism hits Fox, the battle to tell the truth has already been lost in Texas, he said.
The pattern seen after Roanoke is one that is playing out across America: Conservative news stations have covered all-ages drag shows “obsessively,” concluded a report by the left-leaning media watchdog Media Matters for America.
Roanoke became the latest example.
In a newscast after the Barrel Babes event, Fox News anchors announced “Shocking new video” of “Masked Antifa standing guard,” over the all-ages drag show. A “reporter” at the event said there was “vulgarity, sexualization of minors and partial nudity,” in the show, according to the anchor, though the video offered no proof.
“How does anyone, anyone in their right minds, think that is kid friendly?” the anchor asked his guest, Texas State Rep. Bryan Slaton, who responded with an answer that ranged from “porn in our school libraries” to human trafficking.
No matter how skewed or inaccurate or just plain untruthful reports generated about all-ages drag shows are, it’s clear they resonate.
Slaton, a former pastor who represents Texas’ second legislative district, north of Dallas, had announced in June he would be sponsoring a bill to ban all-ages drag shows in the state. Citing “perverted” adults seeking to take advantage of children, Slaton has since done the rounds of conservative talk shows, spreading his own accounts of these shows and the people who participate in them.
In an interview with USA TODAY, Slaton repeated the claims he made on Fox News, including that anti-fascists took up positions in “perches” overlooking the Barrel Babes Brunch and that the event should have been shut down by Roanoke’s fire marshal — even though city officials had already debunked those claims.
As for the show itself, Slaton said, performers were “wearing underwear” and “dancing provocatively.”
Slaton wasn’t at the event. Pressed on what his evidence is for these claims, he said he had information from “people that were there.”
Asked why a man dancing in women’s clothes is any more “provocative” than, say, routines performed by the cheerleaders for the Dallas Cowboys, Slaton was blunt:
“I believe men are to be men and women are to be women,” he said.
Anderson Distillery was only a few months old by the time its Sunday brunch became international news.
It was the most popular event they had ever held. Now, though, they were being barraged with hundreds of phone calls.
People from as far away as Louisiana, Kansas, California and New York angrily weighed in.
The Andersons printed out a map of the United States and pinned it to a bulletin board. They tracked the states the calls came from with pushpins. At the top, in black marker, they wrote, “WALL OF HATE.”
Jay Anderson knew he also had another problem. He had a business to run, and a lease on his restaurant. Business was up and down. It was impossible for Jay to tell what might have been were it not for the drag show.
His landlord, John Delin, who had tried to persuade Anderson to cancel the event in the days before the brunch, told his tenant that whatever the Andersons did could affect the other tenants.
Delin told USA TODAY he just wanted the Andersons to succeed. The Andersons’ lease already included a clause ordering the distillery not to do anything to taint the reputation of other businesses in the building. The drag show had done that, Delin said.
Now he wanted the Andersons to sign an amendment to that lease — one outright banning any future drag shows.
Delin said Jay readily agreed because he was upset about the distress the event had caused.
Jay Anderson felt differently.
As part of the family’s agreement for building the restaurant from scratch, Delin still owed the Andersons $160,000 in tenant improvement funds, Anderson said. If he didn’t sign the lease addendum, he worried, he might never get that money. And the business would be dead.
“I don’t know why he would have those concerns,” Delin said. “There was never a threat of withholding funds.”
Sixteen days after the drag brunch seen around the world, Jay Anderson walked into Roanoke’s gleaming city hall, up the sweeping staircase, and into the council chambers, with its wood-backed seats and metal ceiling tiles.
It was the first city council meeting since the event, and Jay was scheduled to speak.
But first, Mayor Gierisch had his own speech to deliver.
The drag show was irresponsible, dangerous and intolerable, he told the chambers. That one bad decision had negatively affected 17-plus years of positive growth and development.
Gierisch said news outlets had questioned why the police hadn’t been more active at the event. He insisted the Roanoke Police Department was heavily involved that day, with uniformed and plainclothes officers at the scene and around the perimeter and marked cars routinely patrolling the parking garage to make sure the state’s open-carry gun laws were followed.
And — contrary to rumors circulating online — there were no “Antifa snipers” looking down on the crowd from the top of the parking garage, Gierisch said. Those were city police officers.
“So I’ll go on to say that the media falsely reported that our police and fire did nothing,” he said. “They absolutely did exactly what they were set out to do. So, for the media to falsely report that, I reject those and I am sickened by it.”
Gierisch never specified which media outlets he thought were wrong.
Gierisch finished his speech, then opened the meeting to public comment, summoning Jay Anderson to speak first.
Anderson said he had never expected the Barrel Babes Brunch to become the major news story it did.
“This is my first public opportunity since the event to express my sincere and heartfelt apologies that the commotion outside my venue became such a disruption to the city and (to) apologize to the residents, my fellow business owners, Mr. Mayor, and the council as well, all of whom were negatively affected by the groups on the street,” Anderson said.
He thanked the police department. He invited people to talk to him about the incident. He said he wanted to heal the hurt and be a positive force in the community.
Anderson didn’t apologize, though, for holding the drag brunch. Or for supporting his son’s passions. Or for following through on something because of the mother who had told him: I have a queer daughter. Thank you for doing something to support her.
Because he wasn’t sorry.
All through the fall, in the months after that hot day at Anderson’s – after the emails and the phone calls and the speeches at the new City Hall – a few other things will happen.
Elon Musk will buy Twitter and trigger a near-daily stream of new controversies. Kelly Neidert, suspended from the site since summer, will rejoin it. The Protect Texas Kids account will continue targeting drag events.
Twitter will, instead, suspend the Elm Fork John Brown Gun Club.
The outrage among right-leaning media over drag shows will show little sign of stopping, all through the fall.
“It is certainly a huge moral crime that nobody should accept,” Tucker Carlson will intone on his nightly show on Oct. 18, referring to another all-ages drag queen show in Texas. “Sexualizing children is totally wrong. It’s the most wrong thing of all, and it just shows how totally passive and out of it the rest of us are that we haven’t acknowledged that and done something about it — actually done something about it.”
A month after that, a drag show at a Colorado Springs nightclub will become a target. Five people will be fatally shot and 19 wounded. While investigators have not detailed a motive, the suspect in the shooting will face 305 criminal charges, including 48 hate crimes.
“It’s extremely heartbreaking and makes me angry as hell,” Bailey Anderson will tell USA TODAY after Colorado Springs happens. “We all knew it’s what the hate is leading up to.”
State Rep. Bryan Slaton will insist he plans to introduce a bill to ban all-ages drag shows, though by the last day of the year, no such bill by Slaton will appear. (Slaton will, however, introduce a bill proposing to redefine gender-reassignment surgery or prescription of puberty blockers for a child as “abuse.”)
But all that is happening far beyond Oak Street.
Right now, in this moment, it’s a crisp fall North Texas day, the kind of clear day that makes it easy to forget about the summer.
The classic cars are on display and the band is playing at the top of the City Hall stairs, and Jay Anderson is scooping mac and cheese and trying to run a business.
“I’ll be right there to seat you,” he says to the customers arriving at the door.
People take their free food samples and wander on, farther up Oak Street, to the other restaurants, where they take more samples, then vote online for their favorite.
After this day, the voting will take a surprisingly long time to tally, and for 11 days the city will make no announcement. Finally, someone will call City Hall to inquire: What happened in the cookoff?
And Jay will learn he has won.
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