Republicans are waging an all-out war on the rights and existence of transgender people this election cycle, and that battle is being carried into Colorado by legislators like state Representatives Mark Baisley (R-Roxborough Park) and Dave Williams (R-CO Springs), among others. 

This year has seen nearly 240 anti-LGBTQ bills introduced across the country, the bulk of them targeting transgender people’s access to gender-affirming health care, ability to participate in school sports, and in Oklahoma, to use the bathroom that aligns with their gender identity. The moral panic over the existence of transgender people has manifested itself in a renewed interest by conservatives in drag queen events, rekindling the performative hand-wringing and protesting of 2018.

“Get ready for Lauren Boebert to call you all groomers,” joked drag queen Laura Menorah during the Colorado Democratic Party’s fifth annual Obama Gala on June 4.

The “groomer” slur began gaining traction in right-wing media spaces in April of this year, popularized by influencers like Charlie Kirk and Douglas County’s own anti-trans bigot and election denier Joe Oltmann, who in addition to spreading lies and disinformation about the 2020 election has claimed that public educators are “recruiting kids to be gay.” Critics and commentators noted that such rhetoric was likely to inspire violence against the LGBTQ community and pride events this year — they were right.

Menorah and U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO).

Most recently, 31 members of the neo-Nazi outfit Patriot Front were arrested while attempting to allegedly disrupt a pride event in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho — three arrestees were from Colorado. In Washington, 27-year-old Tyler Dinsmoor was arrested for making threats of violence against LGBTQ people. In April, a Brooklyn gay bar was the site of an arson attack.

Despite the potential for widespread anti-gay pogroms, politicians have found political capital in attacks against the marginalized LGBTQ community. In Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis has moved to not just deny transition-related health care for trans youth, but also to deny Medicaid coverage of gender-affirming health care for adults. In Texas, Governor Greg Abbot has ordered the Department of Family and Protective Services to investigate parents of transgender children. Texas legislator, Rep. Bryan Slaton (R), has proposed legislation to ban minors from attending drag shows.

“These laws and actions by states and others that try to discriminate the LGBTQ+ community and transgender [people] are abhorrent,” said Rep. Jason Crow (D-CO). “They’re horrific and they’re inconsistent with our values as a nation, in my view.”

Colorado is unusual in that it has widespread legal protections for LGBTQ people, on the basis of both sexual attraction and gender identity. Attempts to codify such protections at the federal level have proved to be unsuccessful. “We also have the Equality Act, which is a really important element of this, which we passed in the House, and has gone to die in the Senate because of the filibuster,” said Crow. “There are things that can happen. The administration has executive order authority and can take actions as the executive branch, and I continue to push them to do so and they’ve already done that. Number two, I sit on the Armed Services Committee and we pass, every year, the National Defense Authorization Act and we always have to be looking at opportunities for how to protect people’s rights through the NDAA. That might be provisions to ensure active reproductive health care for our service men and women, it could be making sure we’re protecting our transgender troops, or LGBTQ troops as well, which I’ve been a leader on in the committee.”

Despite Colorado’s legal protections for the LGBTQ community, conservatives are pushing back. Monument Academy, a charter school in El Paso County, passed a proclamation in February in opposition to the requirements of Colorado’s public accommodation laws.

Most recently, Republican legislators have expressed outrage over recent drag events at the Denver Botanic Gardens and a community center in Highlands Ranch.

While there is a significant difference between drag queens and transgender people, politicians and pundits constantly conflate the two, using sensational drag performances as a cudgel to attack the marginal social acceptance of the broader LGBTQ community.

Drag is a highly stylized form of performance art in which performers, usually cisgender gay men, wear over-the-top outfits and makeup as part of a comedy or musical performance. While the performances are sometimes a bit risque — “Tucking is when you put your Joe into your Manchin, or your Kyrsten into your Sinema,” quipped Menorah at the Obama Gala — they are fundamentally no different than any other variety act.

Drag Queen Story Hour, in which drag queens read to children, drew intense controversy from the Colorado right in 2019. Mile High Comics in Denver was the site of heated protests between LGBTQ supporters and Proud Boys and members of the Traditionalist Worker Party, a neo-Nazi forerunner to today’s Patriot Front, and Proud Boys also attended a protest against a similar event in Windsor. While drag events aren’t new in Colorado — female impersonator shows were common in mafia-connected clubs throughout the Front Range during the 1920s and 30s — conservatives have seized on them as an avenue to attack the rights of transgender people, who, unlike drag queens, are not performers.

“If you were to own a strip club in Denver and you started sending your strippers and dressed like strippers to read for kindergarteners, people would be outraged,” said right-wing podcast host Julie Hayden during a June 6 episode featuring Williams. “They would say you can’t do that, right? If you were to say that we’re going to take kids to strip clubs and we’re going to let the kids sit around the poles and stick money in the strippers’ G-strings, people would be like, of course, you can’t do that. That to me is one of the most outrageous things, right? For some reason, it’s okay because these people are transgender or they, you know, it’s like somehow or another it’s okay to sexualize and to groom children. I mean, the word for that is pedophilia. Wake up, folks. That pedophilia somehow is okay as long as it involves transgender people.”

Hayden’s remarks, like much of the controversy over transgender people and drag events, are based on false information and junk science.

Hayden’s reference to “kids sit around the poles and stick money in the strippers’ G-strings” is a reference to a photo that was widely circulated among right-wing media influencers of a child putting money in a cisgender burlesque performer’s garments. Seth Dillon, CEO of conservative joke website Babylon Bee, incorrectly identified the woman as a drag queen.

“I mean, they are grooming these kids,” said Williams, the Colorado Springs lawmaker, in response to Hayden’s comments. “They are trying to get them to become transgendered and to become, you know, drag queens and then continue on in this behavior. And the problem with doing that is they are children, they’re minors. You shouldn’t be trying to decide whether or not they’re some other gender. I mean, this is insanity. And by the way, if you look at all the statistics on this issue, people that are transgendered, they don’t typically have a great life. Their suicide rates are among the highest and they have huge mental health problems. And a lot of times they’re legitimate creeps. I mean, if you look at some of the stuff that was reported by these guys who infiltrated the bar about the performers, you’ll find out that they’re unsavory characters. They really are legitimate creeps who want to harm children.” 

Williams’s claims about suicide stem from a 2011 Swedish study that found overall mortality for sex-reassigned persons, especially from suicide, was higher than the control group. That study is often misrepresented and used by anti-transgender activists. One of the study’s authors, Cecilia Dhejne, was asked about the misuse of her research in Martin J. Smith’s 2021 book about the history of gender confirmation surgery in Colorado, Going to Trinidad.

“People who misuse the study always omit the fact that the study clearly states that it is not an evaluation of gender dysphoria treatment,” said Dhejne. “If we look at the literature, we find that several recent studies conclude that [World Professional Association for Transgender Health] Standards of Care-compliant treatment decreases gender dysphoria and improves mental health.”

During a recent Colorado Springs press event, Colorado Times Recorder asked Williams about the effect anti-LGBTQ political rhetoric is having in inspiring violence against transgender people.

“People shouldn’t be targeted for the activities they engage in, who they identify as, the lifestyle they choose or have to be a part of,” he said. “This is a free society. This is America, you can be who you want to be here. The question is when certain things occur in our society and people want to speak out against it we need to do so in a peaceful way. If we can’t do it peacefully then obviously that needs to be dealt with. Again, when anything violent happens, that should always be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”

Williams, who went on to call for a special legislative session to pass a bill similar to Slaton’s during his appearance on Hayden’s show, isn’t the only Colorado lawmaker to weigh in on the existential threat posed by drag queens.

Baisley appeared on Randy Corporon’s show on June 18 to discuss the recent controversy over a sold-out, 21+ drag comedy show at a Highlands Ranch recreation center.

“Douglas County is a pretty special place,” said Baisley, of the Colorado county that is increasingly the home of right-wing extremists and QAnon adherents. The Colorado Springs Anti-Fascists recently identified Highlands Ranch resident Dillon Oakes as another Colorado member of Patriot Front. “It’s a very family-oriented place, Highlands Ranch in particular, a lot of parks, libraries, and so on. And what we have been seeing across the country is the drag queen, you know, reading in our libraries and in elementary schools, and that’s just in the back of the mind for parents, so when they when they hear the drag queen comedy hour coming to Highlands Ranch, to a rec center, which is a very family-oriented rec center, it’s got this wonderful, lazy river swimming pool where they take their kids all the time. It’s just the place they want to be able to relax and leave their kids to go play in the pool while they work out. And this is something coming that they go, ‘Oh, we don’t want to see this coming to Douglas County,’ so they get up in arms. Well, understandably, too, if it were simply some goofy comedy show that were happening, that’s one thing, but what has put them on edge, of course, is all the readings and so on and the press toward their children. And so they’re on guard. I think it’s very understandable that they objected to it.”

“It’s a very family-oriented place, Highlands Ranch in particular,” said Baisley

The protest last Friday, organized by Aaron Wood of Freedom Fathers, featured approximately 50 protesters near the entrance to the Southridge Recreation Center, imploring passing motorists not to “drag down our rec center.” Protesters at times confronted motorists who disagreed with them, and one woman yelled “faggot” at one of the counter-protesters.

A woman — who declined to be named — said she was concerned about transgender women using bathrooms or changing rooms alongside cisgender women, and said that hosting a drag comedy event in Highlands Ranch was “throwing it in our faces.” She carried a sign which said, “Freak shows belong at the circus.”

As the protesters were dispersing, a second wave of counter-protesters, carrying a large banner that read “queers bash back,” took up a position across the street from the protesters. One man, who had angrily engaged a motorist earlier in the evening, was silly stringed as he tried to push his way through the counter-protesters.

“There was a threat of an Antifa-like response if they were to show up and protest,” said Baisley.

The “Antifa-like” response to an anti-LGBTQ protester.

At the end of the protest, Wood encouraged protesters to attend the June 21 meeting of the Highlands Ranch Community Association’s board. Highlands Ranch, unlike Castle Rock or Parker, is not an incorporated municipality and is governed by the community association.

“If you find yourself interacting with someone who is ‘critical’ of ‘the transgender movement’ or whatever, ask them what they think trans people should do,” wrote author Imogen Binnie in The Paris Review. “If the only thing they can come up with is ‘not be trans,’ point out that the vast majority of trans people have already tried that, and it tends to make us suicidal. If they can’t come up with anything better than ‘don’t be trans,’ please understand that they very literally want me and at least 1.4 million other Americans — not to mention way, way more people outside the US — to die. Don’t let them equivocate. ‘What should trans people do?’ All they’ve got is ‘die.’ It’s kind of intense.”