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Analysis 'Terrifying' LGBTQ+ event in Tralee aims to drag us back to the past

Aoife Gallagher charts the rise of anger and misinformation around a lighthearted LGBTQ+ family storytime event in Tralee recently.

THERE HAVE BEEN several moments in my life where I’ve felt great national pride in Irish people and stories making international headlines: the Irish Women’s soccer team qualifying for the World Cup this year; Derry Girls receiving the acclaim and recognition it deserved; Ireland becoming the first country to legalise marriage equality by popular vote.

Last weekend a video filmed in Ireland featuring people who brand themselves as Irish patriots received millions of views across the world. But instead of pride, it instilled anger, fear, and disgust.

In the video, a man can be seen aggressively barging into a family-friendly Pride event being held in a library in Tralee, Co. Kerry. As he pushes multiple people out of the way he shouts that the event is a “disgrace” claiming that “men dressed as prostitutes [are] reading filth to children”.

A group of people gather around him and raise rainbow-coloured umbrellas to protect the children and parents who were attending. This, the man claimed, was evidence of the group “protecting grooming”.

Drag events as a target

Drag story time events have become a common part of Pride celebrations throughout the world. They are very different from the burlesque-style drag shows popular in LGBTQ+ clubs. At story time events drag performers read stories to children in an entertaining, pantomime-like style.

The stories promote inclusivity and acceptance of LGBTQ+ lives and the events have become a popular attraction, especially for LGBTQ+ families.

But in recent years, these events have increasingly come under attack from a range of actors: anti-LGBTQ+ campaigners, far-right groups, religious movements and conspiracy theorists. These groups are bound by a belief that drag story time events are a sinister attempt to “groom” children into LGBTQ+ identities. In many instances, they explicitly claim that drag artists are paedophiles, reigniting age-old anti-gay tropes that frame the LGBTQ+ community as being a threat to children. They also tend to view queer relationships as being inherently sexual or in some cases, simply degenerate.

Truths

As the video from Tralee made its way to virality online, it was shared and framed as a “father” who was “exposing drag queens dressed as prostitutes reading sexual books to children”. As many should be aware, the online world rarely lets facts get in the way of a highly emotive story, but the facts in this story are important.

Firstly, the event did not feature “drag queens dressed as prostitutes”. The event featured drag kings wearing slacks and shirts complete with suspenders and bowties. The additional claim that neither artist was Garda vetted was also found to be untrue.

Second, the book they were reading was called Prince and Knight. It is a children’s book based on the countless fairytales told to children across the world but with an LGBTQ+ twist. The prince in this story does not fall in love with a princess. Instead, he falls in love with a handsome knight and lives happily ever after.

There is nothing in the book that could be described as “filth” or “sexual”. It is a story about love.

And so, the video spread. From Alex Jones’ Infowars to a segment on Rupert Murdoch’s Talk TV, and on to the feeds of multiple “verified” Twitter users who pay $8 to have their content boosted by the platform’s algorithm. On Sunday the 16th, it even caught the attention of Elon Musk himself, warranting an inscrutable “!” reply and further boosting the reach of the misleading clip.

Replies to the video questioned why those in attendance at the event were making such an effort to block entry, framing their protection of the young attendees as sinister. “LGTBQ guards at the door protecting the perversion and child abuse”, said one. “If nothing is wrong here, why are they blocking him and the camera from seeing it? Suspicious,” said another.

Missing context

Another key piece of context left out of the video as it whizzed around social media was the identity of the man who was described as a “father”. That man was Ross Lahive, who previously worked with the Epoch Times, an online media site with a history of pushing pro-Trump conspiracy theories and Covid-19 misinformation. In 2022, he was convicted of breaching Covid guidelines after attending a children’s birthday party at the height of the pandemic. Gardaí told the court how Lahive had been “insulting and abusive” and had called them “Nazi scum”.

Lahive, along with a small group of similar minded people have been at the centre of this kind of anti-LGBTQ+ mobilisation in Ireland.

They have entered libraries and bookshops, live-streaming themselves on Facebook as they confront staff and accuse them of promoting “grooming”, “pornography” and “paedophilia” for stocking LGBTQ+ friendly books.

Many of the same people who are now targeting libraries and bookshops were previously using the same tactics on pharmacies and vaccination centres, convinced that Covid-19 vaccines were killing people. On other occasions, Lahive and others mobilised outside schools to oppose pandemic restrictions, a strategy they have promised to use again to oppose LGBTQ+ inclusive education when schools return in September. Others also affiliated with this movement have been at the centre of recent anti-migrant mobilisation.

The common thread here is a belief in far-right conspiracy theories and misinformation spread online which, especially during the pandemic, radicalised people into believing in a warped version of reality, where vaccines are lethal, immigrants are criminals, climate change is a hoax and LGBTQ+ inclusivity of any kind is “grooming”.

Response

The state’s response to the mobilisation of these groups has been lacklustre at best and enraging at worst. Two weeks after Lahive and others ripped up a copy of Juno Dawson’s This Book is Gay in Cork City Library, the Gardaí escorted him and others into a library in Swords, Co. Dublin to confront the staff there.

Dawson’s book was subsequently removed from a recommended reading list for Junior Cycle students as well as the Pride Reading Guide by Children’s Books Ireland.

Outside Leinster House on 11 July, Independent TD Mattie McGrath addressed a crowd, including Lahive, that had gathered to oppose what they describe as “gender ideology” in schools. McGrath described this as an “evil…satanic” agenda, assuring the crowd that he would represent them in Dáil Eireann.

At the same event, Independent Kerry TD Michael Healy Rae told those in attendance that he has “grave reservations over some of the things that are going on in the educational world.” When asked directly by Lahive to make a statement to oppose This Book is Gay, Healy Rae responded by saying that he “wants to see children protected in their childhood” and “there’ll be time enough for all the awful things that are out there.”

Those who suffer are the young people who are most in need of support; the children of same-sex couples who are made to feel othered, teenagers questioning their sexuality or gender identity who are being denied resources. Those at the coalface, facing intimidation as staff members or volunteers and being accused of promoting “grooming” should not have to tolerate such aggression.

“It was the most frightened I’ve ever been as a gay person,” one attendee at the event in Tralee told the Kerryman. “It was a truly terrifying experience,” said one of the drag kings in an emotional video posted to TikTok.

It’s frightening to see segments of Irish society appease the irrationalities of a loud minority whose tactics are underpinned by conspiratorial belief and fascist tendencies. We are better than this and stronger than this and we must continue to push back at every given opportunity.

Aoife Gallagher is a research analyst with the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a counter extremism think-tank working to push back against the rising tide of extremism, polarisation and hate on a global scale. Her first book, Web of Lies, is now published by Gill Books.

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