Southern Pines Drag Show Will Go on Amid Growing Opposition

Note: The following story first appeared in The Pilot on Nov. 22, 2022. 

Drag artist Naomi Dix outside the Sunrise Theater.

A planned drag show in downtown Southern Pines had become a lightning rod on social media even before Saturday’s deadly mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Colorado.

The discourse only intensified in the aftermath of the rampage at Club Q, which was scheduled to host a drag brunch the following afternoon in observance of Transgender Remembrance Day. After the attack, Sandhills Pride, a local LGBTQ organization, began discussing its own upcoming drag event at Sunrise Theater.

“Our community is devastated,” Lauren Mathers, director of Sandhills Pride, said of the shooting. “It’s alarming, it’s increasing and it’s getting out of control. We only have a few safe spaces and now they’re being invaded by violence.”

The nonprofit was already weighing safety concerns for its Downtown Divas drag show at Sunrise on Dec. 3. Some worried that attendees would face hostility from the Proud Boys, a far-right nationalist group whose members disrupted a drag event in nearby Sanford last month.

Those concerns grew after a number of Facebook users posted comments, many of which included homophobic and transphobic language, denouncing the popular downtown theater for hosting the event.

“This is the most disgusting crap I’ve ever seen here,” reads one typical comment. “Take this nasty crap back to New York where you belong! Real people don’t want you here and never will. Sunrise, you used to be a great place to go but you no longer are. I hope this leads to your closure now. Bye forever!”

Mathers said some of the other comments she read “would be inappropriate in any space.” One post, she said, included a reference to lynching.

“That’s not OK in anybody’s book, in any kind of civilized society,” she said.

Kevin Dietzel, executive director of Sunrise, was surprised by the backlash. The theater partnered with Sandhills Pride for a previous drag event without controversy in 2019.

“I thought maybe there would be some people who didn’t like the event, and they would stay home because they’re welcome to not come to events that they don’t want to see,” Dietzel said. “I didn’t think it was going to be a big thing that blew up.”

In addition to comments on Facebook, the theater was inundated with phone calls, Instagram messages and emails about the show. Several of the emails contained the same copied-and-pasted text arguing the event “shouldn’t be here and isn’t in line with the values” of the town, according to Dietzel.

But the event, he said, is “completely in line” with past programming at the theater, which in June hosted an LGBTQ film series sponsored by Sandhills Pride. He added that drag is “not new to the area,” pointing to previous drag shows organized by Sandhills Pride at Belvedere Plaza, an outdoor venue two blocks away from Sunrise.

“The Sunrise in an inclusive space,” he said. “We’re a community resource and we don’t discriminate on who uses the space or what type of event they place unless it’s a known hate group.”

In an interview before the shooting at Club Q, Dietzel said the theater planned to contract with a private company to run security during the show. Chief Nick Polidori of the Southern Pines Police Department said his agency was “following all of the information” it had received about the event and will “plan accordingly.”

“We’re working out all the details and keeping an eye on it,” he said Tuesday. “Before Dec. 3, we’ll have something in place to make sure we have enough personnel working and resources.”

While children and teenagers were initially allowed to attend the ticketed event if accompanied by an adult, Sunrise and Sandhills Pride have since decided to only admit individuals aged 18 and older. The change was announced Monday in a statement on social media.

“One of the issues being raised is an event like this will expose children to explicit content,” the theater said in the statement. “While we do not believe that the content of this show will be explicit in nature, out of an abundance of caution, the organizers of the event have chosen to implement an age restriction. As the venue hosts of the event, we have agreed and support this restriction.”

Honoring the Art

Mathers said there are “a lot of misconceptions around what drag and drag art is and its place in the community.”

One of the most common fallacies, she said, is that drag artists undress on stage. Mathers believes this misunderstanding stems from people confusing drag shows with burlesque performances, which sometimes involve stripping.

There is also the more incendiary, unfounded claim that drag artists are sexual predators who want to “groom” young children. Such accusations have become increasingly common among anti-LGBTQ hate groups amid the rising popularity of events where individuals in drag read stories at libraries and schools.

“(They think) that people who are doing this are grooming, which is to say that we are now pedophiles because with people who are sexual predators the word ‘grooming’ is used in that context when they are going after young children,” Mathers said. “We’re being portrayed in a way that is completely wrong and false.”

The issue has been compounded by an uptick in violence against gay, lesbian and trans communities. A 2020 study by the Williams Institute at UCLA found that LGBTQ people were “nearly four times more likely than non-LGBT people to experience violent victimization,” including physical and sexual assault.

Mathers said drag goes back to the Elizabethan era. It originated on the stage, she said, “specifically in productions of Shakespeare’s plays when women weren’t allowed to perform and men played all the roles.”

In more recent history, so-called drag houses have become havens for countless members of the LGBTQ community.

“Historically and even today, it’s the drag houses where many of the most marginalized members of our community have found family, protection and shelter when they got kicked out of their own original homes because of who they are,” Mathers said. “When we do drag, we’re honoring those individuals, their place in our history and the importance of this art form.”

‘Call to Action’

On Monday, parents of students at Calvary Christian School in Southern Pines received a copy of a poster promoting Downtown Divas along with a letter calling the event an “attack on the children of this community.”

The letter, which is undersigned by pastor Charles Garrison Jr., the school’s administrator, and principal Dwight M. Creech, reads:

The attached poster is a call to action. The LGBTQ forces are coming to Southern Pines and they are after our children. You can see from the poster that student tickets are half price. This is their target audience to peddle their abomination.

God’s Word is very clear. Genesis: 1:27 – “So God created man in His Own Image, in the Image of God created He him; MALE AND FEMALE CREATED HE THEM.” There are no other genders. Deuteronomy 2:25 – “The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman’s garment: for all that do so are abomination unto the Lord thy God.”

The truth of God is that women are not to identify as men and men are not to identify as women — it is an abomination to God. The Truth of God is that our gender cannot be changed. Psalm 100:3 says “Know ye that the Lord HE IS GOD: IT IS HE THAT HATH MADE US, AND NOT WE OURSELVES.”

Someone has said that, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”  Something that we can do is contact the Executive Director of the Sunrise Theater […]. We need to contact him and voice our opposition and ask that the Sunrise cancel this show.

Later in the letter, Garrison and Creech urge parents to also contact the two businesses sponsoring the event — Realty World Properties of the Pines and Manifest Boutique — as well as members of the Southern Pines Town Council. They write that a “permit has been approved for us to gather in protest” if the event is not canceled.

“The time for silence is over. We must earnestly contend for the faith. We must refuse the evil and choose the good by letting our voices be heard.”

When Garrison was asked by a reporter if he still planned to protest now that the show is restricted to adults, he said “absolutely.” He declined to elaborate in a phone interview.

Polidori, the police chief, confirmed that an application for the permit allowing an outdoor demonstration had been submitted to the town, but he said the application remained under review as of Tuesday morning.

In addition to the letter from Calvary Christian, a form letter denouncing the event has repeatedly been sent to Sunrise Theater, the event’s sponsors and other stakeholders. The letter reads in part:

First of all, this drag show goes against everything that is morally and spiritually right. You do not need a pastor, or anyone else for that matter, to inform you that it is wrong for biological males to dress up and act like women. God has given all humans a conscience that bears witness to what is right and wrong. I urge you to listen to your conscience and do what is right.

Second, it is wrong enough to air a show like this for adults, but then to take it a step further and encourage students and children to attend (by offering an admission discount) is pure evil. Jesus Christ warned all humanity that leading a child astray is one of the worst sins we can commit; He said it would be better to have a millstone tied around one’s neck and thrown into the sea than to lead a child astray.

Nikki Bowman, owner of Realty World Properties of the Pines, said she has received several “hateful calls” demanding she withdraw her business’ sponsorship of the event.

“I refuse to back down,” said Bowman, who has also received messages of support from the community. “I’m standing strong with the Sunrise and with Sandhills Pride.”

Making a Space

Naomi Dix, a Durham drag artist headlining the Downtown Divas event, said isn’t bothered by the controversy. She has dealt with disapproving critics throughout her career.

“I don’t really consider them to be a threat because at the end of the day, these people don’t really want to go to jail,” she said. “They’re just doing this because it gets them a little bit more clout, gets them some clicks on social media and it makes them look popular amongst their group of people. But at the end of the day, they’re just creating a space for themselves to be able to look cool to their friends. If that’s the route that they want to go, let them go.”

The rampage in Colorado hit close to home for Dix, who said one of her friends was shot six times at Club Q and is currently recovering from the attack. The shooting was also a reminder, she said, that “there’s still a lot of work to be done.”

“It brought a lot of pain to us, knowing that this is something that still exists out there, but it has made us stronger in fighting what we know is still a fight for us,” Dix said. “As a person of color myself, being in the eye of people who look at us or look at me or just want to be an opposition is nothing new. For people who identify as straight, this might be something new to them but I have to fight every single day just because of the color of my skin. On top of that, I also have to fight because I am a queer person who also happens to be a drag queen.”

Dix isn’t interested in dissecting the recent rise in hand wringing over drag, which she dismissed as simply the latest trend among people who dislike the LGBTQ community.

“I don’t really care where it’s coming from,” she said. “Listen, people go through fads. The same way that people are wanting to look like the Kardashians every single day is the same way that people are jumping on the bandwagon of being so angry about drag queens doing a story hour or drag artists performing in their town, city, state, whatever. It’s a fad, and it is what it is. All I know is that my job is to create a space for people to be able to feel as though they are accepted.”

And in that space, she said, even detractors are permitted.

“I’m never going to turn someone away from the door because of their beliefs or because of how they feel about something or their opinions,” she said. “That would make no sense. If I’m teaching that this is an open space that’s inclusive of everyone, then why would I turn someone away?”