Several months ago, a local bookstore invited guest drag queen Amanda Villa to host readings for children. The event was created and announced via Facebook and local radio, and within moments there were comments and complaints online. Although the business had to deal with a whole slurry of protest, confrontation and concern from local members of the Sarnia community, they continued with the event. On November 26, 2022, some could not believe the backlash that had been generated as one bystander said, “about 10 to 12 men dressed completely in black, their faces were masked, some of them had balaclavas. They were carrying a flag. They marched across the parking lot toward us..” [Source]
Growing up in Sarnia, my exposure to drag events was minimal before the last few years. I attended one back in 2019 at Lambton College, and since then, we at Refined Fool have run karaoke, bingo, and night shows almost monthly. I have been setting up the sound systems for these events but have yet to be interested in staying and participating. The nights have always been successful and fill the rooms with lots of energy – so I hear. We have never faced backlash or issues hosting these events.
So why the commotion for the storytelling? What was I missing here? After reading through comments by local folks who had such a distaste for the bookstore’s unique event, I was now interested. There were accusations of pedophilia, grooming, child exploitation, woke political activism, insulting women, cultural appropriation and intentional promotion of an oppressive ideology. I can keep up with the current culture wars and where the conservatives and the liberals will land, but this one didn’t seem to add up. The accusations were too severe not to take them seriously – is this child abuse that they are accusing people of actually happening right under our noses, supported by the local bookstore and hundreds of people right out in the open? One particular online forum in Sarnia got aggressively worked up about it. Their posts started filling up with insulting and trolling language, taking unnecessary verbal shots at the people involved.
I don’t make it a habit (anymore) to get involved in culture wars where everyone is double downing on their extreme to delegitimize the other side. This situation quickly became polarised; you were either grooming children, or you were a bigoted and hateful person. This was all happening outside my front door and with businesses I cared about, friends putting themselves out there for each other, a small group of local agitated political activists, and out-of-town protestors. Sarnia is a city that is important to me. When conflict arises, I make my best attempt to try and mediate. I hoped to encourage good-faith participation from the antagonists in the online dialogue. This situation involved local businesses, hundreds of local people, political activists and, most importantly, children. Given the benefit of the doubt that the main concern was actually for the safety of the children, I could try and reassure them that their children were safe and maybe create an opportunity for the group to learn about a culture they didn’t understand.
As this escalated, I reached out to my friend Dayve, also known as Amanda Villa, the drag queen hosting story time at the Bookkeeper. Dayve moved here from Windsor, where he was a teacher for many years and has always been a performer. When he moved to Sarnia, he met a community where he felt welcomed and saw an opportunity to develop his skills as a performer in and out of drag.
I invited Dayve to join me at a monthly event I run called Conversations on Tap, where we informally discuss topics of religion, politics and current events. We would be in a safe public space opening up the room for all to converse face-to-face, removing the keyboards and allowing everyone to ask questions about what they had absorbed through the media. This way, instead of posting videos they would find on the internet as some sort of mic drop in a conversation, they could be exposed to the real human beings behind an event like this. My event was advertised heavily on the group called Politics for Sarnians (now called Momentum Sarnia). Before the event, I called on the forum to contribute questions that would help frame the discussion and encourage a peaceful gathering. Some members contributed.
Most of our regulars showed up. Dayve showed up. The owner and manager of the Bookkeeper showed up. Unfortunately, but predictably, no one showed up from the Politics for Sarnians group. There were several excuses as to why none of them made it. Some said it was because it was my bar, and they didn’t want to support my business. Others said I was disingenuous, and some stayed home because of Covid. The opposition to the event from the folks that supported drag queen storytime really threw me off. They said I was platforming hate and giving way too much exposure to the bigoted ideas they were asking on the document I made open to the public. They said it would not be a safe place for LGTBQ people to go because I was inviting such vitriol into the space. After a lot of drama surrounding the event, it went off smoothly and restfully. Everyone there entered into a healthy conversation exploring topics surrounding drag.
I stayed engaged locally, and after further research, I was surprised at how integrated the international media talking points are embedded into some of their logic and discussion. I quickly realized that national media discourse completely erases local engagement for the local protestors. Not a single person knew Dayve or had talked to him. The protestors that had shown up to the event earlier this year were protesting because they legitimately thought some strip tease was happening, exposing children to sexually explicit fashion and teachings. That’s how their algorithms feed them content that portrays all drag queen storytelling. When a local protester at the January event went inside to look at what was happening, they were surprised at how “boring” it was. Still, they then repeated that it was “weird” to them and that children shouldn’t be exposed to it.
Why do I care?
As I mentioned earlier, the group that was called Politics for Sarnians has now changed their name to Momentum Sarnia. This is part of a more significant attempt to create a political brand in Sarnia called Serious for Sarnia. Led by Brooke Daye and Brandon McCaskill, this group has been actively trying to make political progress in the city by repeating right-wing talking points, insulting those that call out their tactics, and allowing out-of-town participants on their local forums to support their real goals. They have a larger group called Momentum Canada which produces media parroting those same talking points. It was initially created to have a gathering place for like-minded individuals who felt discriminated against by the government through the pandemic. I recently sat on a 2-hour interview with Brooke where I repeatedly confronted his ideological rants surrounding substance use and addiction, economic systems, police enforcement and his weak understanding of how municipalities work.
I take issue with political players in Sarnia that have swallowed an ideology from national media and attempt to spread it locally. Sarnia is a small bubbled-off town, and with that comes an increased risk of oppressive rhetoric being used to build up “momentum” for larger political purposes. Suppose you can find a group of people who believe the national storyline that drag storytelling is actually grooming children? In that case, you can take all that rage and anger (after all, who wouldn’t be enraged at the exploitation of children) and have that harnessed for very different purposes in forums like this. I have been following the group closely, and some topics of discussion just in the last few weeks have been mocking Adam Kilner (a black politician in Sarnia) for reading a kid’s book about race, posts about trans people in washrooms in other provinces, propping up Jordan Peterson’s fear-mongering, and a lot of memes making fun of anyone on there who confronts or exposes them. When something local shows up in the group, it gets almost no engagement. The risks in my opinion are significant. Illogical rage quickly looks for a leader, and if that leader is Brooke or Brandon, then the city of Sarnia is going to have a much larger problem on their hands. These two guys are more interested in power and influence in Sarnia at the expense of freedom, love and respect and they will continue to utilize alt-right talking points to build their base.
In conclusion, the one thing I have learned through this ordeal is that the only politics that matter is local. If you are going to make a stink out of something happening in your backyard, it makes no sense to watch a bunch of Youtube videos and random news sources to inform your view on what you are up in arms against.
I hope the lingering online commenters receive the message loud and clear: internationally fueled narratives are nothing more than false ideas of fear that have nothing to do with what is happening here in Sarnia. If you are genuinely “Serious for Sarnia,” then fight for justice and the rights/safety of the actual human beings in our city, not some fear-mongering fairy tale that does nothing but spread misinformation and breed hate.
As for those who didn’t back down, I see you. Let’s keep moving forward. And hey, maybe I’ll come to your kid’s drag birthday party next.
Brandon McCaskill posted a response behind a subscription wall to a Serious for Sarnia newsletter, so if you don’t want to subscribe, here it is below.