Drag Queen Story Hour goes on despite neo-Nazi’s attempt to burn church down | Ohio

They had to pass barricades, metal detectors, bomb-sniffing dogs, a background check by event organizers and a sign still bearing the scorch marks of what authorities called an attempt by a neo-Nazi to “burn … the entire church to the ground”.

But on Saturday 1 April, more than 100 residents of north-east Ohio gathered inside the Chesterland Community church and listened to a group of drag queens read stories to children. “It was amazing,” the church’s pastor, Jess Peacock, said. “I kept seeing the smiles on the kids faces and for me it was like, that’s why we did this.”

Saturday’s event was the first Drag Queen Story Hour held by the church, in a community where the same church held the first local LGBTQ+ Pride event just last year.

Peacock said that they expected to receive a certain amount of backlash – “hate mail and hate voicemail and social media hate” – when they began publicizing the event, but the response to the story hour went far beyond the usual.

“The messages we started getting were much more vitriolic, in the sense of accusations of pedophilia, grooming and horrible things being done to kids,” they said. “It felt like this was a bit different. And then once someone tried burning our church down, it went to a whole other level.”

One week before the planned story hour, on 25 March, Peacock was alerted to damage at the church. They found burn marks on the building and broken bottles on the ground – detritus from an apparent molotov cocktail attack.

The attempted arson came amid an escalating campaign against LGBTQ+ rights in the US, waged both through street-level intimidation of drag or other LGBTQ+-themed events and through a state-level legislative assault that has seen more than 400 bills aimed at restricting LGBTQ+ rights introduced in 2023.

On Friday 31 March, federal authorities arrested and charged a member of a neo-Nazi group with two counts related to the attempted arson at the Chesterland church.

Aimenn Penny, 20, told investigators that he made the molotov cocktails and used them at the church because “he was trying to protect children and stop the drag show event”, according to the charging affidavit. “Penny stated that he would have felt better if the molotov cocktails were more effective and burned the entire church to the ground.”

Penny is a member of “White Lives Matter, Ohio”, a group with “racist, pro-Nazi, and homophobic views”, according to the complaint. He had previously protested another drag queen story hour “wearing military-style gear” and distributed racist and white nationalist flyers in his home town of Alliance, Ohio. Law enforcement found “a hand-written manifesto that contained ideological statements” and Nazi memorabilia in his residence.

He faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted for malicious use of explosive materials.

While the arson attack caused great anxiety for Peacock and their congregation, it also strengthened their resolve.

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“We didn’t want to become crusaders for this, but once it became clear that we needed to be, we shifted gears,” they said.

Security for the event was coordinated by Mallory McMaster, who runs a local social justice event planning business. McMaster said security cost about $20,000 and was even more intense than when she worked for an abortion provider.

“This was by far the most involved and multilayered security process I’ve ever had to do for any event, let alone an event that six months ago would not have needed any security,” McMaster said.

“The rhetoric is so incendiary, and the language is getting more and more volatile,” she said. “This is what we tried to tell people before [abortion provider] Dr [George] Tiller was assassinated … it’s escalating.”

She added: “I hope this creates a blueprint for other organizations or cities. Even if they’re conservative or don’t have a big LGBTQ community, they still don’t have a choice: they have to stand up to Nazis.”

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