A group of nearly 200 counter-protesters stood outside a Winnipeg coffee shop on Saturday morning as a drag queen story hour took place inside — an event which drew about 40 protesters and a police presence, after the venue owner received threatening messages.
The protesters "don't even know what they're actually complaining about," said Katrina Tessier, owner of Scout Coffee and Tea.
She says three local drag queens approached her to host a Halloween-themed drag story hour event for children at her location on Rothesay Street, in northeast Winnipeg.
While Scout has hosted many storytime events in the past, none had involved drag queens, Tessier said.
"We thought it would be a great event to have," she told CBC on Saturday.
But she started to receive calls, emails and messages on social media critical of the event, Tessier said. Among them were threatening messages from people who said they hoped for the shop to burn down during the drag story hour, and for Tessier to be punched in the face.
"If you were so concerned about children then why would you want … [those violent things] to happen in a space with children?" Tessier asked.
Police were made aware of the threats and were on site during the event, she said.
Family-friendly drag events across Canada have been targeted by hateful comments and threats in recent years, prompting multiple police investigations and renewed concerns about the safety of the 2SLGBTQ community.
Those who protested Saturday's event in Winnipeg said they believe children should not be exposed to drag events.
"I don't care what they do when they're 18, but children have no place in an adult world at all," said Janice Smaha, who held up a sign that read, "Only two genders, stay away from our children."
"I do not believe this is acceptable around any children. This should be illegal, do you understand? Not accepted, illegal."
After learning about the planned protest, Alex Krosney organized a "welcome committee" to make attendees of Saturday's drag story hour feel safe. That group clearly outnumbered protesters outside the event on Saturday.
Krosney had a simple message for those protesting: stay home.
"If drag queen storytime isn't for you, don't come," she said.
The protesters "choose to shut down and be hateful," she said, "instead of trying to open their minds and be supportive and loving."
"That's not the experience we want for the folks coming to this event."
Krosney said she organized her group to support children attending the story hour.
"Queer people don't magically appear as adults," she said. "Some of the kids in here today might be queer."
'These aren't their kids'
Shane Lawson brought his two young children to the event, which he says was all about showing support.
As a gay father, he says he wanted them to feel like they're a part of his community.
"We're not living in the dark ages anymore.… They're going to get exposed to it either way. Why not do it in a fun, inclusive, kid-oriented place?" Lawson told CBC.
At the end of the day, he says those who protest drag queen story hours are spreading the wrong message.
"These aren't their kids. It's not their choice," he said. "They're promoting hate, and it's not OK."
The coffee shop only allowed people with tickets into the event, and all 50 tickets were sold, Tessier said.
People who ordered takeout were asked to wait at the door, but Tessier felt there was no need for any safety measures in the first place.
She says she's been trying to educate critics of drag queen story hours about what actually goes on at the events.
"They see drag queens and they automatically think it's going to be a club show," she said. "You really need to realize that these performers can perform on different levels."
One of the drag queens who participated in the story time event, Rose Mortel, said she had received death threats and threats of physical violence, so she was relieved that the event was successful and peaceful.
"It's nice to see that the support on our side is large and on the other side it's quite small," she said Saturday.
At the event, "We read a book about dressing up, we read a book about sharing, we read a book about pride, we read a book about Dolly Parton that was a children's story — so that was about it," said Mortel.
Tessier is glad that Krosney's group was organized to make attendees feel safe at the event.
"I'd rather have those people out taking over that space, so when families come, they don't feel that the protesters are taking over."
WATCH | Drag queen storytelling event supported, celebrated amid some pushback: