Tory government and US conspiracy theories to blame for anti-drag attacks in UK, study finds

New research blames members of the Conservative government, and the import of conspiracy theories from the US for the rise in anti-drag sentiment in the UK.

A report by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) found, a “loose coalitions of extremists, conspiracy theorists, local activists and fringe political actors”, including far-right groups, fundamentalist religious activists and anti-LGBTQ+ right-wing influencers, are to blame.

A new report specifically names Tory deputy chair Lee Anderson for his comments on “culture wars” in helping escalate anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric.

The report digs into the rise of the anti-LGBTQ+ “groomer” slur – which attempts to link queer people with pedophilia – framing drag as “trans ideology”, performances as misogynistic, and the entire concept as satanic, and states these are just some of the narratives being used by groups in various countries to mobilise against drag under the guise of protecting children from harm. 

The research outlines how much UK-based fury aimed towards drag events has been lifted from ideas posed by similar groups in the United States, such as Gays Against Groomers and Libs of TikTok. 

The groomer theory, where drag queens and other LGBTQ+ people are seen as trying to groom children to become LGBTQ+ or engage in sexual abuse, has taken precedent as the most extreme form of anti-drag rhetoric. 

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“Drag performers are framed as ideological indoctrinators, seeking to ‘groom’ children into LGBTQ+ identities, particularly trans identities,” the report reads.

“They are also framed as predatory, with some people, such as Turning Point UK activist and GBNews presenter Calvin Robinson asking the rhetorical question, ‘Why [are] drag queens so keen to spend time with your children?'”

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More extreme versions of this claim will argue that drag literally promotes “sex in front of children”. 

When discussing the involvement of the Tory government, the report states: “In February 2023, the Conservative Party’s deputy chairman Lee Anderson discussed a strategy of leaning in to ‘culture wars’ in the next election, signifying further political emphasis being put on exploiting these issues.”

He said at the time that, to win the next election, the Tories would need to focus on the ‘trans debate’.

A protest against the Drag Queen Story Hour event at a library last year. (Guy Smallman/Getty Images)

The groomer conspiracy has gained traction on social media during the past year, with the Center for Countering Digital Hate finding that posts containing the narrative on Twitter alone have soared by 119 per cent under Elon Musk’s ownership of the platform. 

This is not the first time social media conglomerates have benefitted from toxic rhetoric, with Meta, the parent company of Facebook, being found to have made more than $13,000 (£10,000) in October 2022 from adverts describing LGBTQ+ people as groomers.

Only in the US though, is there a “substantial” body of elected politicians making it public policy to crack down on drag, in states such as in Tennessee, and push narratives which suggest LGBTQ+ people are dangerous. 

Despite the US being the centre of much anti-drag – and wider anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric – such attitudes are making their way across to the UK as well as to other European countries and beyond. 

The ISD research found there were 57 incidents of anti-drag action which targeted online and offline events in the UK between 1 June 2022 and 27 May 2023.

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The report examined incidents in the United States, Australia and France, as well as isolated events in other European nations. 

It found the UK witnessed the second-highest incidence of anti-drag mobilisation of countries analysed, topped only by the United States, which had 203 incidents.

A vast majority of these incidents (49) specifically targeted Drag Queen Story Hour events at UK libraries between July and August 2022.

Protesters and pro-drag groups at a library in Brighton last year.(Martin Pope/Getty Images)

Drag Queen Story Hour, and its founder Aida H Dee, has been the centre of much furore, with the drag performer facing numerous death threats

Tracking responses to the events, the ISD found protesters showed up at 44 of the 69 libraries listed as part of the Drag Queen Story Hour summer tour. 

Seven of these events were either cancelled, due to safety fears, or amalgamated into a larger event to mitigate threats. 

‘I’ve been threatened with violence at events’

Drag Race UK star Crystal, who sued right-wing TV host Laurence Fox after he called her (and two others) a paedophile, said that although the figures made depressing reading, she was not surprised by them.

She told PinkNews: “It is shocking to see the statistics in black and white, which confirm my own anecdotal experiences over the past couple of years, where I’ve definitely felt that rise happening.

“I’ve experienced targeted harassment at events, I’ve been threatened with violence at events and it’s hard to know whether these are just isolated incidents.

“Seeing that the UK clearly reporting an increase, and is now the second-highest place in the world [for anti-drag actions], is really depressing and unsurprising.” 

The drag performer went on to say that the entire anti-drag movement is being led by “opportunists” who “don’t necessarily believe what they’re saying, but know it can stoke divisions and get nasty legislation on the agenda”. 

Crystal, Drag Race UK
Crystal, who competed on Drag Race UK, says she has been targeted at events. (Credit: Getty Images)

Crystal added: “It’s a depressing mix of opportunism from right-wing people, who are using division to get attention and score points, and people, maybe already predisposed to a homophobic mentality, who believe them and find it easy to agree with those points.” 

Commenting directly on the prevalence of the groomer conspiracy theory, she said: “There’s nothing a queer person can do to groom a child’s sexuality or gender. Those are inalterable characteristics that we grow up with and, if anything, we’ve all been groomed by a heteronormative society to be as straight and heteronormative as possible. 

“Yet we’re still here and we’re still queer, and so if grooming were possible, then you wouldn’t have queer people.”

“No drag queen’s message is ‘you should be gay’ or ‘you should be trans’.  Our message is: be yourself.” 

Members of the right-wing Patriotic Alternative group are confronted by counter protestors during a Drag Queen Story Hour event at Tate Britain in London, earlier this year. (Guy Smallman/Getty Images)

Aoife Gallagher, the author of the report, said: “These incidents should not be viewed in isolation. They speak to a wider anti-LGBTQ+ mobilisation in the UK and they raise concerns about a backsliding trend in LGBTQ+ rights. 

“The UK went from receiving the top score in LGBTQ+ rights across European countries in 2015, to falling to 17th position this year. 

“Homophobic crimes have doubled and transphobic hate crimes tripled. Although counter-protesters at drag events often outnumbered protesters, this is not enough to protect these communities.  Policymakers should be working towards protecting vulnerable groups from this kind of activity.”

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