Matthew Asente wasn’t sure what to expect when he arrived at Memorial Park in Wadsworth, Ohio. His wife first heard about the gathering on Facebook. A charity Drag Queen Storytime, organized by local Aaron Reed, whose proceeds would go to victims of the Club Q massacre in Colorado Springs. Recently approved by Wadsworth City Hall, the event’s location was moved from Wadsworth Brewing Co. due to violent threats. Nonetheless, Matthew thought it was important to attend alongside his son, because he wanted “to try and make sure our kids are being raised with the right values.” Matthew knew there’d be counter-protesters, predicting a smattering of “10-20 people,” mostly “locals from our town.” But this image was shattered when Matthew was confronted by an attendee, who warned him not to bring his son to the park. The stranger gave one reason: “there are literal Nazis down there.”
Asente’s guide wasn’t exaggerating. The images that would eventually arise from Wadsworth were shocking. Hundreds were attending the event, with right-wing cells having a considerable presence, including a coalition of far-right groups, ranging from the Proud Boys to Patriot Front and White Lives Matter. Most notable among them were the “Blood Tribe,” Neo-Nazis clad in black and red, who chanted “Sieg Heil,” and shouted racial slurs. The situation quickly descended into violence, as members of the far-right coterie clashed with the “Parasol Patrol,” a LGBTQ group used to defend attendees at events like this one. Two would eventually be jailed because of an altercation, with three unrelated medical emergencies, and three pepper spraying incidents, adding to the chaos. Pasha Ripley, who co-founded Parasol Patrol, recalled the counter-protesters “following us while we escorted kids to their cars.” Asente remembered how, as he and his son entered the pavilion where the storytime was held, they were “bombarded with the most hateful things.” They were “chanting about the final solution,” which created “a sense of tension throughout the entire day.”
After the events of March 11, the counter-protesters tried to distance themselves from their Neo-Nazi compatriots. One of the counter-protest’s primary leaders was Kristopher J. Anderson. Formerly a candidate for the Ohio statehouse, he lost to Democratic incumbent Tavia Gulonski, and has since re-branded as a grassroots activist. Anderson amplified the protest on social media, writing, “all hands on deck this weekend,” and “arrive early if you can,” on March 8, four days before the story hour. “If you care about children, it is your duty to show up,” Anderson Tweeted on March 9.
Repeatedly, Anderson has referred to the presence of Nazis and white supremacists as an unwelcome surprise. “No normal person wants to see Actual Nazi’s in Medina County or on this earth in 2023 or ever,” he wrote on Facebook after the event, later replying to an outraged commenter in another post that “Lumping in normal anti-groomer protesters with crazy people, white supremists, and Nazi’s,” is “unacceptable.” Anderson echoed this sentiment to the media. “We weren’t all on one side,” Anderson is quoted as saying by the Columbus Dispatch. Despite publicly lambasting the Nazi attendees, protest organizers shared a different view on Telegram. Messages from a private Telegram channel obtained by the Washington Blade show counter-protesters saw the Nazis as a nuisance, but a useful one, which could be used to intimidate their enemies as anti-LGBTQ policies are institutionalized.
“Just let the Nazis handle the pedos while we try to pass legislation,” wrote one user. Speaking about White Lives Matter, a self-identified Proud Boy noted “using those guys as part of the push for legislation,” can be “just as effective,” as demonizing the drag events themselves. Though the same user admonished Blood Tribe as “cringe,” they applauded them for having “stressed out and demoralized PP (Parasol Patrol).” Yet another poster wrote, “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade,” telling their fellow users to “have some fun with the Nazis showing up.”
Likewise, cross pollination between the 18+ Get Rid of US Telegram Channel and the message board of Project 171 — populated by members of the White Lives Matter chapter, and avowed Nazis — is frequently shown. “I’m one of the lead admins for WLM (White Lives Matter),” noted one user on Project 171’s public chat. Another user shared an image of a blonde woman holding an assault weapon dressed in a Ku Klux Klan robe. Regardless, the Project 171 channel’s administrator promoted his group on 18+. “Don’t forget to join the Project 171 chat,” the administrator wrote. Although organizers tried to spread misinformation about the Nazis’s origin, the Project 171 administrator was more honest. “Aaron didn’t have the Nazis come. They got invited through WLM.” Kristopher Anderson didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Unity among extremist sects against the queer community was an outcome of the Wadworth rally noted by Ford Fischer, a freelance documentarian, made famous by his coverage of Jan. 6 and the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville. No matter the minor ideological differences of factions like The Proud Boys or Patriot Front, on March 11, they were “all on the same side of this issue.” Only 36 hours away in Columbus, Ohio, a collection of hate groups led by the Proud Boys rallied against a drag story hour organized by Red Oak Community Schools, holding a victory rally after the event was canceled. According to Fischer, the “presence of a common enemy has been more effective than anything else in recent history.” Relating Wadsworth to his experiences in Charlottesville, Fischer diagnosed Unite the Right a failure, and the “common cause of protesting Confederate statues,” insufficient to prevent far-right infighting. Unlike Wadsworth, where the far right showcased a united front. “This event, that happened Saturday, fulfills the goal of the people at Charlottesville,” Fischer said.
Similarly, the topic of drag queen story hours has gone from a fringe issue on the right discussed by the likes of Alex Jones to a prominent talking point. Anti-drag bills have been introduced in 14 states since the passage of Tennessee’s law prohibiting drag performances in public, or where children may be present. Unsurprisingly, violent threats against drag performers have also increased, with GLAAD documenting 141 incidents of anti-LGBTQ threats targeting drag events. Aaron Reed, who conceived what would become the story hour in Memorial Park, believes conservative pundits are complicit in the violent actions and rhetoric wrought by hate groups. “Fox News is basically doing this,” Reed said, describing the alt-right as merely “following their lead.” Matthew Asente shared Reed’s sentiment, criticizing Republican politicians for “talking about outlawing these people.”
Aaron Reed’s memories of March 11 mainly concerned what happened inside the pavilion, rather than outside. Reed praised his team, and Parasol Patrol for trying to do “everything we could to block the kids from the hate,” and supportive locals, their children “laughing, singing, dancing,” as storyteller River Rose read and sang. Specifically, Reed named the father of a “ten-year-old local trans girl,” who said to him after the show it was “the first time he saw her smile in two years,” since beginning her transition.
Weeks have passed since the incident at Memorial Park, and Matthew Asente is still shaken. He has a “close trans friend,” with whom he plays Dungeons and Dragons. Asante admitted “I’d be lying if I said I understood it wholly at first,” but experiencing the hatred directed at the queer community on March 11 has given him a new perspective. For the first time, Asante recognized that the protesters at Memorial Park wanted to “eradicate,” the LGBTQ community, and called the vitriol directed at the attendees “terrifying.” However, Asante made clear what he went through was nothing compared to LGBTQ people who must withstand it daily, saying “I felt that for an hour.” Aaron Reed views March 11 as a warning, and should serve to “wake up the good people,” that many people in this country are “walking around in fear every day.” No matter what lines in the sand anti-LGBTQ activists attempt to draw, Matthew Asente felt the choice was far more binary. “You’re either with the Nazis, or against them.”
Zurie Pope is a University of Cincinnati student and freelance writer.