Anti-LGBTQ+ tactics spread in Wisconsin, but so does support

“You guys are disgusting … letting your kids be sexualized,” a man shouted at parents as two teenagers dressed in drag read aloud to preschool-age children at a Pride event in a rural southeast Wisconsin city. 

The two teens continued on; the children kept listening; the parents stood pat.

“Blood! Blood! Blood!” chanted masked neo-Nazis armed with guns and swastika banners as they protested nearby. Undeterred, residents of Watertown stayed after the Nazis left, showing support to vendors and performers who kept going.

A month before, speakers at a Dane County Board meeting blasted the county for considering a measure that would support residents seeking medical care to affirm gender transitions and identities. The County Board, in the same meeting, overwhelmingly agreed to declare Dane County a sanctuary for people who are transgender and nonbinary, and the Madison City Council unanimously approved a similar declaration the following week.

Nationwide, individuals and organizations tried 2,571 times to ban books last year, and almost all of the targeted works had LGBTQ+ themes, according to the American Library Association. Yet “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” a coming-of-age story that was No. 2 on the list of banned or challenged books in 2022, sat prominently on display this summer at the Madison Public Library Hawthorne Branch.

Anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric has reached a fever pitch with groups such as Gays Against Groomers and the neo-Nazi Blood Tribe — both of which showed up at the Watertown Pride event — claiming they’re fighting on the moral side of a war against children. They say gender-affirming care is nefarious medicalization of kids, and that literature depicting gay-themed romance or youth coming-of-age is pornography aimed at indoctrinating children.

Most of all, they say allowing children to declare themselves trans is part of a conspiracy  against childhood innocence.

“In America, all you have to do to be trans is literally just say I feel as though I was born in the wrong body,” said Patrick Sheridan, co-director of chapters nationally for Gays Against Groomers. “There’s not really a lot of science other than asking the opinions of confused children.”

Critics like Sheridan may have grown bolder, and some have become aggressive and threatening, but people in the LGBTQ+ community are determined not to be backed into the shadows. Many say they haven’t been driven into hiding because the level of support is greater than the level of opposition.

As one Madison organization, Outreach, noted in a statement: “We are committed to responding to harm committed against our community with tangible support and affirmation.”

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Members of the Neo-Nazi group called “The Blood Tribe” carry swastika flags and semi-automatic carry riffles to protest at a family-oriented Pride in the Park event at Riverside Park in Watertown.

Neo-Nazis and church protesters

“Some families are big, some families are small. Some families are the same color, some families are different colors. Some families have two moms, some families have two dads. All families like to hug each other.”

Those are excerpts from “The Family Book” by Todd Parr, a children’s book.

It is the book that Bailey Mosling and Andy Schueler, two 17-year-old boys dressed as drag queens Nemo and Andi Withani, read to toddlers at Riverside Park in Watertown on July 29.

Reading books to children is meant to be peaceful and fun. Which is why it was jarring, the teens said, to see dozens of men marching during the family-oriented event. The Nazis carried semi-automatic rifles and swastika flags; they were dressed in black shirts and wore black masks.

Mosling, as Nemo, saw them approach but a tent blocked his view of the men once they arrived. Police officers kept the Nazis separated from the event via barricade.

“We didn’t know it at the time, but they were armed,” Mosling told the Cap Times later. “I saw them coming, waving their flags and everything.”

The Nazis were from the Blood Tribe, which formed in 2021. The group drew national attention and widespread condemnation after it descended on Watertown.

“Nazis, swastikas, and any other anti-LGBTQ, white supremacist, or anti-Semitic messages, symbols, or groups are unacceptable and unwelcome in Wisconsin. Period.” Gov. Tony Evers said in a statement. “I am especially alarmed that these individuals chose to disrupt, harass and intimidate kids and families who were attending a local Pride event.”

But Mosling said that even though the Blood Tribe men were scary-looking, it was other protesters who were more disruptive.

“I feel very weird saying this, but the neo-Nazis were way more respectful of the rules and law than the Christian groups that were there, who were not respectful,” Mosling said. “It’s very weird to say the neo-Nazis were more respectful than these Christian church groups, but in a way it’s true.”

An Instagram post shows a video of Nemo reading “The Family Book” to toddlers and other young children when a man shouts “This is disgusting! You’re letting your kids be sexualized right now.”

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Teen drag performer Nemo reads “Red: A Crayon’s Story” by Michael Hall, at the first McFarland Pride in the Park event at William McFarland Park on June 25.

The idea that children so young are gleaning anything sexual from such an event is, according to Mosling and Schueler, ignorant and absurd.

“The outrage over the perceived sexualization of children at drag queen story times or at drag shows is … all based in fear and hatred,” Schueler said. “Hiding behind the idea that you’re doing this to protect kids is so much more acceptable than just flat out saying you hate gay people and don’t think they should be around.”

Some fundamentalist Christian groups and angry right-wing parents have been a constant presence throughout Mosling and Schueler’s performing careers. The boys said they just tune them out.

Besides, they said, many more people are there supporting them than protesting.

“While this was the most disruptive group of protesters we’ve encountered, we also saw the most community action and banding together to deal with these disruptions,” Schueler said. “Whether it was just families who had stayed despite the protests … to various different community members literally getting up out of their seats to block someone trying to record … or shout.”

Watertown Mayor Emily McFarland said that the city’s Police Department did an excellent job keeping all of the groups separated and that such hate groups would never be welcomed in the community.

“We denounce hate groups and all that they stand for,” McFarland said.

The Nazis were not the only organized extremist group protesting that day.

Gays Against Groomers, an anti-LGBTQ+ organization founded in 2022, had planned to protest the event for weeks. Its organizers claimed they were surprised by the armed Blood Tribe marchers, and that they, too, denounce what the Nazis stand for.

“We categorically denounce all forms of extremism, including the abhorrent ideologies represented by those identifying as Nazis,” Gays Against Groomers said in a statement.

“Our primary goal is to shield children from the potential harm caused by extremists … within the community,” the statement said. “This includes those who may push for early sexualization, forced indoctrination, and premature medicalization of children. We are human rights defenders.”

However, an April 21 tweet from Gays Against Groomers’ Illinois chapter was far less critical of Nazis.

“A child wearing anything queer related is worse than a Nazi having a child wear a shirt with a swastika on it,” the social post said. “The queer movement is more evil than the Nazis.”

The Nazi party came to power in Hitler’s Germany and was responsible for the systematic extermination of 6 million Jewish adults and children, as well as the murder of millions of others they considered inferior.

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A post from Gays Against Groomers Illinois. 

Anti-LGBTQ+ movement grows

LGBTQ+ leaders and advocates have sounded the alarm for years about a rise in hate activity targeting their group. That activity has gained a stronger foothold in the nation’s political power structure, particularly within the Republican Party.

Gays Against Groomers, or GAG, claims it is a grassroots, nonpolitical organization, though its founder, Jaimee Michell, has been aligned with Republican presidential candidate and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

According to GAG’s website, the group believes that allowing children to identify as transgender and providing gender-affirming care is part of an effort to indoctrinate, sexualize and medicalize children under the “guise of LGBTQ.”

School boards, local governments, “woke media” and pharmaceutical corporations are among those listed by Gays Against Groomers as major culprits in a war on childhood innocence.

Even toy companies are part of the problem, they say.

“If you look at toys geared toward children, these toys with the LGBTQ rainbow on it are sexualizing children … throwing these children down a pipeline to having their genitals mutilated,” Sheridan said, adding that gender-affirming care is wrong.

“How do you know if that’s what a child really is? How do you know that putting chemicals in their body is going to be good?” Sheridan asked. “There’s not really a lot of science other than asking the opinions of confused children.”

Outreach, an LGBTQ+ resource center that has operated in Madison since 1998, says gender transition or affirmation is about supporting children — not indoctrinating them.

“The selective outrage at transgender, nonbinary, and gender expansive people seeking gender affirming medical care is devoid of factual information,” Outreach wrote as an organization in a statement. “These attacks are especially egregious as they attempt to frame the issue as protecting children. We know that their homophobic and transphobic rhetoric aimed at ‘protecting children’ results in alienation, bullying, violence, and worse outcomes for LGBTQ youth, especially transgender, nonbinary, and gender expansive youth.”

Gender-affirming care is not happening in the manner or at the scale critics claim, according to Outreach.

“Transition care is generally less accessible and more prohibitive for minors as it usually requires parental approval as well as provider approval,” Outreach said. “In many cases it is not covered by insurance, and there are few experienced medical professionals providing gender-affirming care of any kind.” 

Promoting acceptance

Bailey Mosling said he was 14 the first time he knew drag was for him. Mosling is a transgender boy who lives with his parents and brother in Middleton.

Being Bailey was fine, he said, but becoming Nemo was spectacular.

Nemo is Mosling’s name while in drag.

“I started doing drag after watching (the TV series) ‘Drag Race’ with my mother,” Mosling, now 17, said. “I love doing art and performance and I love doing makeup. So for me it just made sense because it was all these things that I like to do in one package with a little bow on it. I’m able to use this platform to advocate for trans youth.”

Two years ago Mosling met Schueler at a drag show and they became friends.

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Teen drag performers Andi Withani and Nemo perform at FIVE Nightclub in Madison. The two advocate for LGBTQ+ youth at local community events.

“For me, the first time I went to a Pride event was Milwaukee Pride,” Schueler said. “It was a time where I felt like I could exhale and let the walls down of trying to gauge whether someone was going to be judgmental. I felt that was also shown in the drag performance that I saw, because it was these people who came from similar backgrounds as me onstage with so much confidence and love for themselves.”

The two said they’ve had fun performing at places like FIVE Nightclub, where they are allowed to perform if a parent is present. They said drag has been a life-changing experience because of the freedom they feel when performing.

One of Mosling and Schueler’s favorite activities is drag queen storytime.

“All the books we read for storytime are all very similar to ‘The Family Book,’” Schueler said. “There’s a book we read about different-colored crayons getting along and making friends. All just very positive messages about accepting different kinds of people and accepting yourself.”

Critics like Sheridan say it is grooming to have boys dressed in drag reading children’s books. The harm is that it introduces children to the idea of queerness or a transgender identity, he said.

“If you dare to say a trans woman is not a woman, they consider that an act of genocide,” he said.

Tyrone Creech is a youth leadership organizer for GSAFE, which stands for Gay Straight Alliance for Safe Schools, a Madison organization that works with LGBTQ+ students. He believes kids need to be introduced to things that reflect who they are.

“It’s funny to me when white people talk about genocide, firstly,” Creech, a person of color who also identifies as LGBTQ+, said when told of Sheridan’s comments.

“There’s this whole backlash that drag queens are harmful to children,” Creech said. “There’s no child that now identifies as LGBTQ+ because a drag queen read to them.” 

Madison and Dane County become sanctuaries

Madison remains a longstanding refuge for the LGBTQ+ community. The city was one of the first in the country to ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and in the early 1990s created Wisconsin’s first domestic partnership registry (a precursor to legalized gay marriage).

“All of these efforts highlight the way the city recognizes the LGBTQ community as an important part of the diversity of the greater Madison community,” Satya Rhodes-Conway, the city’s first openly gay mayor, said. “Outreach and the Magic Festival are a great example of that. Madison is generally quite welcoming, but it’s great to have specifically queer spaces like the Magic Festival.”

The Magic Pride Festival is an annual event Outreach started in 2019 as an alternative to having a Pride parade and includes food and local business vendors, as well as music performances.

“It was great to see so many folks braving the heat to be there this year,” Rhodes-Conway said of the Aug. 20 event, noting that such gatherings show “Madison is a welcoming, safe and supportive community for families of all kinds.”

To the mayor, the Magic Festival represented a strong stand in the battle between hateful rhetoric and people who keep living their lives in public in spite of it.

“This is all the more important in light of the national efforts by right-wing groups to demonize the LGBTQ and especially the transgender community,” Rhodes-Conway said. “Nationally, and in Wisconsin, we’ve seen discrimination against LGBTQ youth, especially transgender youth, in communities and schools to the point where the Human Rights Campaign declared a state of emergency for LGBTQ people in the United States for the first time ever.”

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Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway and Ald. Dina Nina Martinez-Rutherford look to the crowd joyfully after raising the transgender flag outside of the Madison Municipal Building.

Rhodes-Conway said the sources of demonization include the Wisconsin state Legislature, where Republican lawmakers have already successfully killed a ban on “conversion therapy” that seeks to turn LGBTQ+ youths heterosexual or counsel them to conform to preferred gender identities. Legislators also have proposed restricting transgender athletes from competing in girls’ and women’s sports and banning gender-affirming care for minors.

“We know that these actions and the rhetoric that accompanies them lead directly to anti-LGBTQ violence and hate crimes,” the mayor said. “That’s what makes the organizing and activism of trans youth, and actions like the City Council and County Board resolutions so … important.”

In June, the Dane County Board voted 25-1 to approve a resolution declaring that if Wisconsin were to pass laws that imposed civil or criminal penalties to organizations or people helping someone receive gender-affirming care, the Dane County Sheriff’s Office would basically do nothing.

Gender-affirming care includes treatments such as puberty blockers, hormones or surgery.

The vote came after hours of anti-LGBTQ+ speeches and false claims during public comment.

The following week, Madison’s City Council also unanimously passed a resolution declaring the city would serve as a sanctuary as well.

“It’s critical that we, as a government and a community, stand up to hate and discrimination,” Rhodes-Conway said. “I want everyone to know that … Madison is a place where everyone, but particularly trans kids, are welcome and supported and affirmed.”

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