These Drag Artists Are Banding Together To Stop Anti-LGBTQ+ Violence

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Tiara Latrice Kelley remembers the shock and confusion that rang through her body when she received a text from her friend the night of June 12, 2016.

“Did you make it to Pulse? If so, get out and run.”

Wednesday marked the eighth anniversary of a gunman opening fire and killing 49 people at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. The massacre is the biggest act of gun violence against the LGBTQ+ community and the second deadliest shooting in the nation’s history.

Kelley, a drag artist and Black trans woman who had performed at and frequented Pulse for years, had planned to go to the nightclub that evening but ended up falling asleep early. She woke up to a barrage of sirens and dozens of frantic text messages. She and her friends walked a few blocks to the nightclub, where she saw people being carried out on stretchers with bullet holes in their limbs.

“I was in shock. This was the first time that our community as a whole, in a big way, had been under attack,” Kelley told HuffPost.

A few years later, in 2022, Kelley needed a change of pace and moved from Orlando to Colorado with her husband. She soon found herself producing shows at Club Q, a gay bar in Colorado Springs.

Tiara Latrice Kelley and nine other drag artists who have had firsthand experience with anti-LGBTQ violence and harassment launched an advocacy group called Qommittee.
Tiara Latrice Kelley and nine other drag artists who have had firsthand experience with anti-LGBTQ violence and harassment launched an advocacy group called Qommittee.
Tiara Latrice Kelley

On Nov. 19 that year, Kelley was set to produce a show at the club but stayed home because she was feeling ill after a dialysis treatment. A little after midnight, her colleagues called her about an active shooter at the bar.

“I was having a flashback to June 12. It was just so surreal,” Kelley said. “What are the chances of this happening again? And what are the chances that I barely missed it?”

Five people were killed and at least 22 were injured in the Club Q shooting.

This spring, Kelley and nine other drag artists who have had firsthand experience with anti-LGBTQ violence and harassment launched an advocacy group called Qommittee, which aims to fight back against anti-LGBTQ+ legislation and violence, as well as provide legal support and resources to artists who are targeted.

“We’ve always had to fight tooth and nail for our place in this world,” Qommittee’s website reads. “We bust our assess to make a living as independent entrepreneurs, dealing with shady venues, building our own audiences, creating stunning looks, and putting on unforgettable shows. But now, we’re also battling a tidal wave of hate-doxxing, harassment, death threats, armed protests, bombings, and even shootings.”

Among Qommittee’s members are Sairen Strange, who had an event canceled due to armed protesters in Tennessee, the first state to ban drag shows in public spaces; Hysteria Brooks, who survived the Club Q shooting; and Empress Dupree, who planned to perform at an Ohio venue that was later firebombed.

Sairen Strange, a Qommittee member, had an event canceled due to armed protesters in Tennessee where drag shows are now banned in public spaces.
Sairen Strange, a Qommittee member, had an event canceled due to armed protesters in Tennessee where drag shows are now banned in public spaces.
Sairen Strange

“My hope is that we can band together and create an atmosphere that makes our community, particularly the drag community, and trans people who do drag, feel safer in spaces where they are performing or even just walking down the street,” Kelley said.

Over the last three years, there has been a rise in hate crimes, violence, harassment and threats to the LGBTQ+ community amid the surge of anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric and legislation.

There were at least 145 incidents of harassment, vandalism and assault directed at LGBTQ+ people and events during Pride month in 2023, according to a report from the LGBTQ+ media advocacy group, GLAAD. The group also notes that drag events and performers experienced 138 acts of hateful incidents between 2022 and 2023.

Already this June, there have been numerous threats to the LGBTQ+ community, including a call to burn all Pride flags from the Colorado Republican Party, and four bomb threats targeting drag events at libraries and restaurants in Alaska, Texas, New York and Massachusetts.

Such threats have had a devastating impact on the mental health of LGBTQ+ people. Eighty-seven percent of young LGBTQ+ people reported that they worry a mass shooting could happen in their local community, according to new data released by the Trevor Project. LGBTQ+ youth also reported higher rates of suicidal ideation in the last year, the data shows.

In May, the Federal Bureau of Investigations and the Department of Homeland Security issued a public service announcement to raise awareness about the risk that “foreign terrorist organizations or supporters” may pose to Pride-related events. The State Department issued a similar warning about the possibility of terrorism taking place at Pride events abroad.

But Qommittee members say the federal government’s failure to acknowledge the threat of domestic groups, like far-right agitators, toward the LGBTQ+ community is dangerous.

Another Qommittee member, Empress Dupree, planned to perform at an Ohio venue that was later firebombed.
Another Qommittee member, Empress Dupree, planned to perform at an Ohio venue that was later firebombed.
Empress Dupree

The organization kicked off its national effort with a petition urging the federal government to do more to protect LGBTQ+ spaces, and particularly the drag community, from violence.

“[The notices] single out only foreign terrorist organizations, and it explicitly omits any threats that come from within the United States,” Scott Simpson, a community organizer with Qommittee, told HuffPost. “They make no mention of the kind of anti-LGBTQ+ hate that is so evident and happening across the country, and that is alarming to us.”

“There’s a huge trust deficit between our community and law enforcement, and for good reason,” Simpson added, referring to the history of police targeting LGBTQ+ people and criminalizing their behavior. “It is so vital that if they are really intending to live up to their mission of protecting us all, that they state that commitment clearly and act on it.”

“The FBI closely monitors potential threats to public safety. As we continue to communicate and share information with our partners, this public service announcement is being released by the FBI and DHS to the American public to help protect our communities,” the FBI wrote in a statement to HuffPost.

A DHS spokesperson said the agency “urges the public to stay vigilant and to promptly report suspicious activity to their local law enforcement.”

Hysteria Brooks, also a Qommittee member, survived the shooting at Club Q nightclub in Colorado Springs and helped triage victims in the parking lot the night of the attack.
Hysteria Brooks, also a Qommittee member, survived the shooting at Club Q nightclub in Colorado Springs and helped triage victims in the parking lot the night of the attack.
Hysteria Brooks

For now, Kelley and her community are figuring out how to celebrate Pride while prioritizing safety.

After the Colorado Republican Party sent out an email to its supporters describing LGBTQ+ people as “godless groomers” last week, Kelley said Pride organizers in her state started to receive threats.

“Sadly I do believe rhetoric like that is going to lead to more violence,” she said. “It’s going to lead to more people taking what they’re saying seriously.”

After narrowly missing two major anti-LGBTQ shootings and being the target of online attacks, Kelley has found herself second-guessing whether to hang a Pride flag outside her home.

“I was super excited about putting up Pride flags in my yard and letting people know that we’re proud of our community. But to be honest with you, I took pause this year in doing so. Am I putting a target on my back by doing that?” she wondered.

Kelley ultimately decided that censoring herself would be “letting them win.”

“That is not something I’m willing to do,” she said. “So my Pride flags are up, and it is what it is.”