LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Diana Rae Ellis leaned into the bathroom mirror in her apartment, applying makeup in a familiar routine to dress in drag.
Eyeliner. Eyelashes. Lipstick. Glitter. Wig. Dress.
It was a recent morning, and the 30-year-old Ellis was preparing to entertain families at a private event space in her hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, to sing and read aloud a children’s book called “My Awesome Brother.”
Ellis is a transgender woman and a drag queen. Her wig and flame-orange dress were for her performance in an afternoon all-ages drag storytime where she promotes community and acceptance.
But she knew that any such show, in the midst of an escalating culture war over transgender rights and drag performances, meant potential risks of putting her identity on the front lines.
And this day would prove no different.
It came as Republican lawmakers have pushed bills to restrict all-ages drag shows or regulate the lives of transgender youth. Tennessee has banned drag in front of minors. Kentucky pushed through a sweeping bill that includes banning all gender-affirming health care and restricting the bathrooms they can use.
Protests at all-ages drag shows have proliferated from Ohio to Texas, where both pro- and anti-drag protestors sometimes end up toting guns, and where some people claim they want to protect children while others openly demonstrate everything from prayers to Nazi salutes.
And this week saw a fresh round of rhetoric attempting to link all transgender people to violence after police identified the assailant deadly school shooting in Nashville as a transgender person.
This Sunday, however, a day before that shooting, Ellis ignored the culture war – and hints there could be protestors – as she got ready.
By the time the day was over, there would be books, songs and plenty of smiles from kids. There would also be a threat that would bring a police bomb squad not just to the venue – but to her own apartment.
Warnings of a protest or worse
Last week, a drag event called “Come As You Are” in Prestonsburg, Kentucky, was called off “due to extreme threats of violence against our group, the organizers, and the venue.”
In the days leading up to Sunday’s event in Louisville, organizers were also facing a worry.
The Kentucky chapter of Drag Queen Story Time warned that a neo-Nazi group might travel to Louisville and protest, citing a Telegram chat in which users said they hoped to persuade white supremacist group members from Ohio to attend.
But on Sunday ahead of the 2 p.m. event, Ellis said she wasn’t worried. The event space was behind a gated private property and extra security was planned. The local group had only seen one other time when a sizeable number of protestors had shown up.
In the apartment that she shares with her partner and a roommate, her father and their dog, Tiger, lounged on the sofa as Ellis applied huge eyelashes and signature glitter to her lips, a can of Red Bull energy drink on the toilet.
Ellis, still tired from performing drag the previous night at a local LGBTQ nightclub, then spent time memorizing the songs she would sing to the crowd of families and children.
Ellis, the parent of a 3-year-old child, said she came out in high school and later realized, “I don’t think I’m born in the right body.” She now identifies as a transgender woman.
Drawn to drag when she was young, she joined her first drag pageant around 2015 as part of a Pride event and found in it art, expression, community and acceptance. She goes by the drag persona Diana Rae.
Several years ago, she got involved with Drag Queen Story Time and found that, too, brought its own rewards – allowing her to communicate a positive message.
Despite drag shows’ reputation for being risque, that’s not the case with all-ages events, she said. Instead, she said, they’re about promoting education, fun and to promote acceptance.
“They’re basically telling people, hey, whatever path you’re going down, it’s OK,” she said.
But as opposition mounts, her mother has fretted about her safety, she said. Many nightclubs that host drag shows have ramped up security, particularly in the wake of last year’s mass shooting at Club Q, an LGBTQ club in Colorado that killed five people.
As Ellis made her way to the venue, crowds were already entering, finding food, tables with kids’ crafts and books. Another drag performer, John Rice, 40, whose drag name is “Tova,” was getting dressed despite the worries about neo-Nazis.
“I’m not going to live in fear,” Rice said.
Moments later, an organizer ran over with urgent news: There’s been a bomb threat, they said. We have to evacuate.
A show, delayed
Ellis and her partner, Ethan Mask, 20, pulled up to the venue, and attendees milled outside waiting for a Louisville Metro Police Department bomb squad to check the building.
A small group of protestors had shown up, one carrying a sign that read “Drag Queen Story Time is child abuse,” but none appeared to be armed or members of a neo-Nazi group.
Also on hand were several people dressed in black and carrying rifles as volunteer security. And there were members of the Parasol Patrol, who use colorful umbrellas to create a visual barrier to protestors. Around them were live streamers and news cameras, including a crew from Japan covering America’s clash over drag shows.
“I heard everybody’s flipping out,” another performer said as Ellis waited in a gated parking lot.
That’s when organizers and a police officer came striding up, telling Ellis that the bomb threat also targeted her own apartment that she’d just left.
As she stood next to her car, a member of the bomb squad said they would search her home. Ellis, shaken, nodded and quickly got on the phone with a neighbor.
“There are going to be some police officers at the house,” she said. “Not to scare you, but there’s been a bomb threat called in on the apartment.”
Ellis appeared stoic but said later she was “freaking out” and about to cry. Then, she gathered herself. She wasn’t going home.
“You’re a target. How do you handle (being) targeted? You stay strong, you smile and you do what you came here to do,” she said.
After the space was cleared by police, Ellis walked inside to cheers and hellos. Roughly 150 people including families with children had gathered on lawn chairs. Soon she was in front of them.
“My name is Diana Rae, and this is Drag Queen story time,” she said. “I want to read you guys a book called ‘My Awesome Brother.’”
The picture book, about transgender acceptance, tells the story of a child whose older sister is transitioning.
After reading, she asked everyone to look at a stranger and say repeat affirmations: “You are loved. You are special … When you are feeling down, and you feel like you’re not going to make it, remember today that I believe in you. And you have to keep going.”
Then she lip-synched a Lizzo song called “Special.”
After other performers read books, Ellis signed autographs and took photos with attendees. As the event wrapped up, the crowds dispersed, and she’d been told police had found nothing suspicious at home.
Before leaving, she sat for an interview with the Japanese TV crew to talk about the battle over all-ages drag events. “Drag is not a crime,” Ellis said. It’s art, she explained, grasping to understand the opposition.
“Drag queens are just trying to read a book to the kids. Drag queens are trying to elevate and educate … so why do you need to turn around and attack them?” she said.
By late afternoon, as they packed up her wig and other gear, Ellis drove more than an hour to help at another drag event.
She returned to her apartment that night, deciding she wasn’t going to let threats keep her away from her home.
The next evening, she’d read the news that police identified the person behind a shooting at a Nashville Christian elementary school that killed three students and three staffers as a transgender person. She feared it would give conservative anti-transgender commentators a pretext to say, ‘We were right, they’re crazy.'”
Another wave of anti-trans rhetoric was scary, but it wasn’t new.
“Since I came out as trans, I’ve always had safety concerns,” she said.
What’s needed, she said – much like the plot of a children’s book she reads – is for people to try to understand and accept people who are different.
And much like her story-time affirmation, she would, despite it all, keep going.
Chris Kenning is a national correspondent. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @chris_kenning.