Councils must show solidarity, stop enabling drag panic

A number of councils in Victoria have caved in to pressure from the homophobic far-right and cancelled LGBTIQ gatherings, mostly drag story time events, aimed at promoting inclusivity and reading skills.

About 10 drag story time events organised by local councils and schools have been cancelled or postponed, which has emboldened the far-right. Ralph Babet, a Victorian United Australia Party Senator, has also been involved.

Far-right, anti-LGBTIQ and neo-Nazi forces, including My Place and Reignite Democracy Australia, following their counterparts in the United States, have became emboldened over the pandemic lockdown, feeding on people’s insecurities and prejudices.

They are trying to create what is known as “drag panic” — falsely accusing LGBTIQ people, as well as their allies, of using LGBTIQ educational campaigns to enable paedophilia.

The campaign in Naarm/Melbourne has been stepped up since last October when neo-Nazis targeted a Jewish drag performer at a youth festival in Moonee Ponds.

Two months later, they targeted an end-of-year LGBTIQ youth event, which included drag shows, organised by Stonnington Council’s Youth Services division, which was to be held at the Victorian Pride Centre. After being threatened, the organisers cancelled just a few hours before the event was to begin.

The City of Casey buckled in April, on police advice, after it was targeted by right-wing Christian groups. It cancelled a month-long drag workshop in Narre Warren. A co-creator of The Art of Drag event, Belial B’Zarr, said it was the third event to be interrupted, or cancelled, because of such harassment.

This happened just days after neo-Nazis joined British anti-trans campaigner Kellie-Jay Keen (“Posie Parker”) on the steps of Parliament.

Monash City Council (MCC) cancelled its Oakleigh drag story time event and Nilumbik City Council cancelled its Eltham drag story time event. MCC cancelled after a council meeting had to be abandoned after up to 100 homophobes turned up.

Attacks on individual drag performers have also been escalating, with the far-right posting car number plates online.
However, some councils are pushing back.

The Hume City Council reversed its cancellation of Aboriginal, queer and trans performer and speaker Kitty Obsidian for a International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia, Lesbophobia and Transphobia event. This came about because of Obdisian’s popularity: a large number of people contacted council to show their support for the event.

The cancellations have been made on “safety grounds” after police advice. Clearly, this has emboldened the far right to escalate their attacks on drag and LGBTIQ events.

Such cancelling allows the far-right to cancel our free speech.

The queer community is fighting back: Rainbow Community Angels has supported community-organised events outside the Eltham and Oakleigh libraries after the two councils cancelled events. A number of unions are also supporting the Angels.

The Angels movement is drawing on a proud tradition of resistance. The first Angels responded to their classmate Matthew Shepard, a young gay man, who was murdered in Colorado in 1998. The Angels shielded his family and community from homophobic protesters at the murderer’s trial.

They shielded LGBTIQ youth to a Minus 18 Queer Formal in St Kilda in 2017, when homophobes threatened to picket it. They went to the funerals of Orlando nightclub shooting victims.

The Australian Services Union (ASU) library delegates have also taken a strong stand. When the Monash Council’s event came under attack, they passed a motion, which said, in part, that cancellations based on direct threats of violence “is an unacceptable attack on our rights as workers and on the rights of our LBGTIQ members and the broader queer community”.

The ASU said retreating from such threats is not on. “What message are our councils sending by cancelling such events, which are basic introductions to the wonderful diversity of gender and sexuality that exists in our communities?”

They also appealed to the community to organise LBGTIQ events, and drag storytimes in particular “to show that we will not be cowed in the face of far right abuse”.

I will move a motion at the Merri-bek Council meeting on June 20 that council stands up to far-right abuse and does not cancel these events. We need to demonstrate to the LGBTIQ community, and any other community similarly targeted, that we will create safe spaces. To do that, we also need to guarantee safe staffing levels at libraries.

While the LGBTIQ community, particularly drag performers and trans people, are facing the brunt of attacks right now, the far right’s targets can change at any time. We saw that when the neo-Nazis organised an anti-migrant rally on May 13, a few days after Coalition leader Peter Dutton made his anti-migrant budget reply speech.

The solution is not to buckle to hate: we have to stand up and fight back.

[Sue Bolton is a Socialist Alliance councillor in the City of Merri-bek.]