This article has been updated.
A standoff between protesters at an all-ages Christmas drag show at the Teatro Azteca and the pro-LGBTQ community was largely peaceful Tuesday night as both sides stayed on their side of St. Mary’s Street. in downtown San Antonio.
The crowd of members of the LGBTQ community and their allies grew to over 150 people as the night progressed, playing music, dancing and singing to drown out those who gathered across the street to protest the show that was on. about to start inside.
Police on the scene kept the theater entrance clear, so patrons could freely enter the venue.
A handful of armed people, dressed entirely in black with most of their faces covered, stood on the pro-LGBTQ side of St. Mary’s Street, rainbow scarves tied to their tactical gear. Most did not respond to a reporter, but one reporter confirmed that members of the John Brown Gun Club, a leftist gun rights group, attended.
About 40 protesters, some with the group This is Texas Freedom Force, which the FBI labelled “a group of extremist militias” after the insurrection at the US Capitol, stood in front of the St. Mary’s Theatre. Less than five appeared to be armed. They said they came to protest the all-ages drag show because it’s not appropriate for children.
On Tuesday night some protesters could be heard chanting “pedophile!” and “barber!” in the colorful crowd of counter-protesters and patrons lined up to enter the theater.
Shouts came from the other side: “the hairdressers are in their churches!”
Monica Gonzales, 49, waited in line for the doors to open for the show with her best friend and her daughter as the sounds of protests in the street grew louder. The daughter, who appeared to be an older teenager, declined an interview.
Gonzales said she had heard of protests at drag shows around the country, “but I didn’t expect it here.”
Crowds on both sides mostly behaved, though police stepped in to stop minor disturbances. Some street-side members of the pro-LGBTQ community helped with crowd control, keeping people from going out onto the streets. Many cars honked; some waved signs in support of the LGBTQ community. Some passengers mocked the protesters.
Police eventually closed Crockett Street, which runs along the river and ends at St. Mary’s Street, as the pro-LGBTQ community group crossed the bridge. As tensions escalated and a small group tried to cross the street, Kimiya Factory, president of advocacy group Black Freedom Factory, stepped in with police to calm the crowd and push it back to the sidewalk.
“Please stay on this side of the street, I beg you,” Factory said, noting that police were ready to arrest people who instigated the violence. As of 10 p.m., no protest-related arrests had been made and the combined crowds on the street had dwindled to fewer than 60 people.
City Councilman Jalen McKee-Rodriguez (D2) and Councilwoman Teri Castillo (D5) appeared to side with LGBTQ rights. Earlier in the day, McKee-Rodriguez, the first openly gay black man to win a City Council seat, told the San Antonio Report that counter-protesters should “focus on [what we] I hope to say in a protest, and that is that we deserve to be in this space as much as anyone else. And you can’t bully us away from that.”
Police Chief William McManus told the San Antonio Report early Tuesday that the department had spoken with a representative of This Is Texas Freedom Force.
“They have promised that… we will not have any problems with them,” he said.
Other conservative groups, including the San Antonio Family Association and the San Antonio Log Cabin Republicans, rallied their supporters to attend the protest.
McManus said he was not aware of any direct contact the SAPD had with the organizers of the counterprotest, which was not coordinated by a single group.
“Our policy is that when there are protests or demonstrations, unless there are problems, we must stay away and monitor from a distance.”
City Manager Erik Walsh, who stopped by to watch the demonstrations, said having the highway and traffic between the two parties appears to have helped reduce tensions.
“He’s been vocal, but both sides have kept their distance, which is important,” Walsh said. “People have the freedom to express their opinion…as long as it’s safe and it doesn’t become, you know, antagonistic or violent.”
The show, “A Drag Queen Christmas”, features at least one reference to alcohol, but does not include nudity or sexually explicit acts, according to promotional material and videos of previous performances posted online. Performers sing, lip-sync, and dance on extravagant sets in lavish costumes, not unlike other drag shows that have performed in San Antonio and other cities for decades, with little protest.
But a flurry of right-wing rhetoric and policies has led to an increase in harassment, threats and attacks against LGBTQ Americans across the United States.
There have been at least 10 significant protests and threats to drag out events in Texas this year through November. according to GLAD, a LBGTQ advocacy organization, of 124 the group has identified across the country. And as they have across the country, Texas Republican lawmakers have set their sights on trans rights Y drag shows.
Last week in San Antonio, the Starlighter venue was forced to cancel its remaining drag shows this year amid threats of violence.
An expression of identity and culture.
Drag performances are an expression and celebration of queer identity and culture, said Dr. Alejandra Elenes, chair of the Department of Race, Ethnicity, Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University of Texas at San Antonio.
Protesters appear to be confusing drag queens with transgender people, Elenes told the San Antonio Report. People of any gender identity can be a drag queen.
“It’s acting, it’s fun,” he said. “This [often] a critique of society… but some other [drag groups] say: we are not even politicians, we are just representing notions of femininity”.
Christian nationalists, who believe the United States should be ruled by Christianity, see challenges to patriarchy and traditional gender roles as a threat, and extremists resort to intimidation and violence, Elenes said.
“We are witnessing…a very loud and powerful minority that is using many tools, from social media to the courts and…the legislative process, school boards, public libraries, many institutions that are the foundation of a democracy , to push an agenda,” he said.
And one of the most powerful tools is violence or the threat of violence.
“When that threat comes to you, you have to believe it’s true, because [shootings] they are happening… it is not hypothetical, it is real,” he said.
In late November, the mass shooting at a Colorado gay club that left five dead and 17 woundedjoined the growing list of violence against the LGBTQ community.
“Communities of color have always been terrorized in the United States, so this is not new,” Elena said, but the targets and locations may have been expanded.
“We are not safe in the places where we should be safe: in churches, in schools, in supermarkets, in cinemas… [and] entertainment venues,” he said. “We have to stop accepting that violence is a solution.”