Political pressure over ‘Drag Kids’ event rocks Boise Pride

BOISE, Idaho (AP) – When Joseph Kibbe attended the first Boise Pride Festival in 1989, he and about two dozen other participants wore paper bags over their heads to hide their faces from potentially violent onlookers.

At the festival’s first parade two years later, Kibbe and his friends greeted marchers with nooses in front of the Statehouse.

“Boise was a very different place back then — it was not a safe time to be LGBTQIA,” she said.

However, for Kibbe – then a middle schooler who faced frequent beatings at school, now vice president of the Boise Pride Festival board of directors – the event was the only place where he felt like a part of a community.

“I could come and be who I wanted to be here, who I really was,” Kibbe said Friday, just hours before this year’s festival began. “That was a huge morale booster and why I’m so passionate about what we’re doing today.”

But this year, a roughly half-hour program in the festival’s three-day schedule called “Drag Kids” has sparked a wave of political pressure and anonymous threats.

Festival organizers envisioned a short show where kids could wear sparkly dresses and lip-sync to songs like Kelly Clarkson’s “People Like Us” on stage. But others, including Idaho Republican Party Chairwoman Dorothy Moon, expected a wild scene where children would “engage in sexual performances with adult entertainers.”

The event garnered national attention from far-right websites and podcasts, and by Tuesday organizers realized this was not the “normal” opposition, festival president Michael Dale said.

“Sexualizing children is wrong, period,” the Idaho GOP tweeted. “Idaho rejects forcing adult sexuality and sexual appetites on children”.

Moon and the Idaho GOP have sent out statements directing voters to ask the festival’s corporate sponsors to pull support. Some did, at least in part — removing their logos from festival fencing and scrapping plans for booths. The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare announced it is raising $38,000 in funding along with resources focused on smoking cessation and HIV/AIDS prevention.

A conservative California pastor has begun rallying like-minded congregations, asking members to tell the Ada County Sheriff to arrest any festival organizers “contributing to juvenile delinquency.” A group known for armed protests told fans to show up on Sunday.

Others, however, rallied to support Boise Pride. Four Democratic state lawmakers pledged their own financial support and issued a joint statement criticizing what they called “false, dangerous claims by Idaho GOP Chair Dorothy Moon that fueled the violence.” New business sponsors have joined to fill vacancies.

But the political maelstrom was getting more intense by the hour and five children were stuck in the middle. Riley Burrows, a full-time drag entertainer from Boise who co-produces the Drag Kids event, began receiving death threats on social media.

“It’s, ‘We’re gonna show up at this festival,’ ‘We’re coming after you,’ ‘I hope you know you’ve got a target on your back,’ and ‘They’re gonna find you in a tree,'” Burrows said. “It’s become so repetitive.”

On Thursday afternoon, the festival organizers made the decision to postpone the children’s performance.

“We wanted to ask these kids first and foremost why it’s affecting them, their confidence and their lives. And they still wanted to do it,” Dale said, fighting back tears. “But it was a matter of their health, their welfare and the festival goers.”

Anti-LGBTQ rhetoric has increased in Idaho and the US in recent months, and earlier this year 31 members of a white supremacist group were arrested outside a Pride event in northern Idaho on charges of planning to riot. Boise Pride organizers are working with Boise police to beef up security since the arrests in north Idaho in June.

None of the five new performers are new to drag shows. The youngest is 10 years old and was inspired by watching her mom prepare for the show.

“She really wanted to copy me and just do the makeup and have fun with it,” said Harley Innocent, who goes by her stage name. Innocent is one of several cisgender women who participate in drag, sometimes referred to as “AFAB” or “Assigned Female At Birth Queens”.

Her daughter’s first performance was in 2019, in the rural town of Emmett, Idaho. She liked it, Innocent said.

“She was really looking forward to being able to do it on the main stage at Pride – it was a great opportunity for her to share her talent.”

Innocent says her daughter puts on “porcelain doll” make-up, wears a wig and chooses a song to suit her mood.

It’s similar to a glamorous beauty pageant, Innocent said, but more relaxed. “In drag you don’t have to be perfect. We’re just trying to have fun and welcome them to this art form.”

Burrows, the co-producer of Drag Kids, said the kids are just having fun on stage in beautiful clothes.

“It’s like sending your kid to dance school and the theme of the show was rainbows – big tutus, bows and fun hair.”

That’s different from an adult drag show, which can have heavier themes, more revealing costumes and appeal to a more mature audience, Burrows said: “It’s like the difference between a children’s TV show and an adult TV show ».

Youth shows can give kids a sense of belonging, he said, adding that “it’s not scary to be gay when you’re surrounded by love and acceptance.”

There’s a lot more support for LGBTQ kids today, Kibbe said, but it was still heartbreaking to tell them the event was being postponed until organizers could find a safer, more supportive space.

“The actions of any small minority group don’t reflect how the majority of people feel, but we haven’t yet figured out how to compensate for that,” Kibbe said. “The kids that were going to be on this show were literally just trying to let other people know, ‘Hey, you’re OK, this is what a supportive parent looks like, this is what a friend looks like.’

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