Drag queens have long known to protect each other.
Dahmit Janet of the Beer City Sisters explains, “One of our big rules is that, particularly if we’re ‘in face’” — meaning in drag — “that you just don’t go anywhere alone.”
No exceptions. “Even if it’s, like, ‘My car’s parked right there!'” She says. “‘No, I’m gonna come with you, just because'”
Beer City Sisters’ shows in Asheville don’t draw many protesters, Janet says. But occasionally when the Sisters walk around town ‘in face,’ people will yell at them from cars. (“We just kinda wave and keep walking,” she says with a laugh.)
But a visit to Johnson City, Tenn., on June 24 for its Rainbow Festival was different. “When we got there there were several [protesters] as we made our way in,” Janet explains. Protesters were “for the most part not being combative, but letting us know how they felt about us.” On that occasion, she felt grateful the group traveled together.
“There is this heightened sense among the entire LGBTQ community here of fear,” says Amy Upham, executive director of Blue Ridge Pride, which is planning its Pride festivities in September. The event could draw 20,000 attendees based on its permitting application. This year, Blue Ridge Pride anticipates tripling the amount it spends on security.
Even in Asheville, touted as “gay-friendly” by everyone from real estate agents to the local tourism board, fear is growing over the escalating hostility toward the LGBTQ community.
A Campaign for Southern Equality report published in May found that of 165 LGBTQ people in Western North Carolina surveyed, one-quarter reported experiencing physical violence related to their identity, while 80% reported emotional or verbal violence related to their identity.
Buncombe County is the only one of 18 counties in WNC, and Asheville the only city, with local protections for sexual orientation and gender identity, the Campaign for Southern Equality report says. However, North Carolina does not require mandatory reporting of hate crime statistics and has not eliminated bias rage (or “panic defense”) for criminal acts, according to a state scorecard by Human Rights Campaign, a nationwide LGBTQ advocacy organization.
Among the venues and events in Buncombe County that focus on LGBTQ patrons or performers — such as fundraisers and parties, bars and clubs, children’s drag-queen story hours, comedy shows and drag shows — safety and security are ever-present concerns.
“We want to talk about Asheville as a liberal place,” says Youth OUTright Executive Director Adrian Parra, who uses they/them pronouns. (Youth OUTright is a nonprofit supporting LGBTQ youths in Western North Carolina, which hosts numerous social events, including an annual Queer Prom for people ages 14-20.) “But I think that there are limits to that,” they say.
Janet confesses to taking Asheville and its queer-friendly reputation “a little bit for granted,” which “now in this current climate, we’re pulling that back in.”
The Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office doesn’t track the reason for hate-fueled incidents, says spokesperson Christina Esmay. She says that if an incident is identified as having hate bias as a motivation, it is sent to N.C. State Bureau of Investigation or the FBI.
Asheville’s law enforcement does track the reason for hate bias incidents. There have been 13 incidents that resulted in charges for hate bias against sexual orientation to Asheville Police Department from 2018 to June 2023, says spokesperson Samantha Booth.
According to APD data shared with Xpress, eight of the anti-gay bias incidents were directed toward men, while five incidents involved lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. Three incidents were reported in 2021, five in 2022 and four so far this year. (Booth notes that gender identity is not a category being tracked for bias charges, although the gender identity of the victim is tracked in such circumstances.)
However, statistics may be underreported because not every incident is reported to the police and not every incident results in a charge. Some LGBTQ people acknowledge less willingness to report crime due to a concern police won’t help them or fear police will cause further harm. (North Carolina law does not prohibit profiling based on actual or perceived LGBTQ status by law enforcement, the Human Rights Campaign state scorecard reports.)
“The Asheville Police Department is committed to unbiased, equitable and respectful treatment of all persons in enforcing the law and providing police services,” says Deputy Chief Mike Lamb in a statement. “Maintenance of public trust and confidence in law enforcement is critical to effective policing and is achieved largely through the respectful, fair and equitable treatment of the public. This is a basic requirement of law enforcement and the right of all persons in our society.”
Booth notes that APD previously had staff members serving as LGBTQ community liasions, but those roles are currently unfilled.
Tripling Pride security
In the wake of a Supreme Court ruling allowing businesses to refuse LBGTQ customers and an overall hostility from certain segments of the population, planning for this year’s Pride festival is a little more complex.
Blue Ridge Pride is forming a subcommittee specifically to address security for the festival, Upham says. She plans to invite first-responder agencies to attend those planning meetings.
Upham joined Blue Ridge Pride in May and says her understanding is it spent about $1,000 on security last year. “We’re going to at least triple our security costs this year,” Upham continues. Pride always had security at the festival, but this year she anticipates additional personnel due to municipal requirements for security at public events and fears among festival planners.
“I’m in contact with a couple of other major cities who have gotten security right over the past several years,” Upham says. She has attended weekly calls about Pride festival security by CenterLink, a nationwide nonprofit supporting LGBTQ community centers. She’s also consulted guidance from the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection from Georgetown Law published in May about how armed extremists might attempt to interfere with Pride, what types of activities by armed extremists are considered unlawful and how Pride organizers can protect community members.
The institute suggests hiring additional private security to supplement law enforcement, which Upham says Blue Ridge Pride is considering.
Security provided by off-duty members of APD and BCSO is costly. According to the city of Asheville’s Outdoor Special Event Guide, a uniformed police officer with a vehicle has a standard rate of $86.25 per hour, with a four-hour minimum, and a uniformed supervisor with a vehicle has standard rate of $97.75 per hour. The Office of Special Events does not offer a nonprofit rate for off-duty security.
Off-duty members of BCEMS can be hired for events to provide medical coverage, and the nonprofit Buncombe County Rescue Squad can be hired for medical standby.
Keeping a positive vibe
Pride organizers seek to balance the need for security with a wish to provide comfort for attendees in other ways.
“We’ve heard loud and clear from the LGBTQ community, especially the trans community, that cops feel unsafe,” says Upham. She says the organization takes these opinions seriously.
“But we also know we need, frankly, armed security there because of the potential for the act of an armed assailant in a crowd of 15,000, 20,000,” she says, “The conversation is around how do we have that [police] presence without making it feel like a prisonlike system where people are boxed in by cops.”
Melissa Hahn, who books comedy shows through Modelface Comedy, also questions the optics of visible police presence at Blue Ridge Pride, suggesting it “raises anxiety levels so much.” She suggests plainclothes officers might be more suitable.
Another consideration for the LGBTQ community is handling protesters. When Janet from Beer City Sisters recently visited Johnson City, she noticed something unusual on a protester, who told her she was going to hell: He was wearing a body camera.
“Why was he wearing it? He was looking for a moment he could share on social media, of course,” Janet says. “I find that [protesters] a lot of time, that’s what they’re looking for. The important thing is don’t give them anything that they can use.”
While giving a protester a viral moment isn’t worthy of Janet’s attention, she says keeping the public aware of the dangers LGBTQ people face is important.
“While of course there’s trepidation about attracting too much attention, I think we need to speak up and speak out,” she says.
Zero tolerance, or not
Bars and venues in Asheville already have various elements of security, usually in the form of a bouncer checking identification at the door. In previous Xpress reporting, Amy Marshall, co-owner of The Odd, and Morgan Hickory, co-owner of Shakey’s, say their employees are scrutinizing customers at the entry more thoroughly, and staff has discussed protocols for dangerous situations. Both bars host drag performances, LGBTQ-friendly dance parties and in the case of Shakey’s, “RuPaul’s Drag Race” watch parties.
Hahn says the feeling of safety for LGBTQ people — whether onstage as performers or as audience members and customers — is variable. “A lot of places like to think that they are [queer-friendly].” says Hahn. “Some places are actually more so than others.”
True safety can’t be measured by the presence of a gay pride flag in the window of a brewery. She recalls a venue that posted signs claiming zero tolerance for bigotry. “When we would go to the owners and be like, ‘Hey, we’re having issues’ … the owners would always just be like, ‘Well, they’re spending money here.'”
Management inaction shows that enforcing policies against bigotry “doesn’t matter, and that [it] is performative,” Hahn says. “Then the customers start to realize that it’s performative. And you lose your queer customers, because they don’t feel safe.”
Hahn says queer events feel safer in West Asheville versus downtown. “I’m less likely to have a drunk bachelor party come be disruptive in the middle of the show in West Asheville, whereas in a brewery if I started setting up the queer comedy party, they can be jerks about it sometimes.” She says when more conservative tourists come to her events, they can seem ruffled.
Different Wrld in West Asheville is her preferred location for queer-friendly events. “If someone’s being a problem, it’s not just on me to kick them out,” she explains. “The entire staff has my back.” But if circumstances require Hahn to step up at any venue, she will. “I don’t have an issue with confrontation,” she says.
Nevertheless, the responsibilities that come with working to keep a community feel safe weigh on her. Hateful incidents against LGBTQ people, like the Club Q nightclub shooting in Colorado last year, are jarring.
“Anytime there’s a story in the news about a shooting in a theater or any event like that, I have nightmares for weeks about that happening at one of my shows,” says Hahn. “It’s very stressful.”
Do you have more to add to this story? Contact the author at jwakeman [at] mountainx.com.