Two weeks ago, a zoo official said they were committing its drag queen event even after intense blowback. On Wednesday, the event went live, and both supporters and protesters saw it as a massive step for Billings. Whether it’s a step in the right or wrong direction depended on who you asked.
The event was a Drag Queen Story Hour scheduled by 406 Pride, a local LGBTQ resource group that organized Billings Pride 2022. Inspired by previous story hours across the nation, three Montana drag queens arrived at ZooMontana to read children’s books over a four-hour period for $4 a ticket.
Although the zoo originally anticipated around 40 attendees, seats filled fast on Wednesday. Within the first 15 minutes, 200 were seated, new rows of foldable chairs were added, and the entry line spilled into the parking lot. By the end of the day, the zoo estimated as many as 2,000 tickets were sold.
The overwhelming support came largely as a show of support follow intense backlash that included threats against the zoo director. When the story hour was announced, ZooMontana and 406 Pride received numerous messages demanding the event be called off. Some were diplomatic, while others were hostile and used homophobic slurs.
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ZooMontana stood its ground.
“Let me be clear – ZooMontana prides itself in being inclusive of all living beings,” zoo director, Jeff Ewelt, wrote on Facebook. “While personal threats and threats of no longer supporting the zoo are concerning, we will not let unwarranted fear and hate deter our decision to move forward with this harmless and fun reading event that is held throughout the country.”
Little over a week after Ewelt’s post, a protest was arranged by Montana Family Rights Alliance, a group of parents aiming to protect their view of family rights and values. A Facebook event titled Protect Our Children’s Innocence was launched, and it was quickly spread across social media. Some protesters heard about it from the radio, the news or from breakfast spots at small restaurants.
Jenna McKinney, the group’s administrator and original poster of the Facebook event, said people felt shut down.
“After a week of pushback, they didn’t have a place to go,” McKinney said.
Ewelt said he knew about the protests and would allow them to be outside the zoo. As a privately funded business, ZooMontana could legally forbid protesters, but Ewelt said he doesn't want to silence anyone. Still, he said uniformed police officers were on the scene to make sure everything stayed "civil."
"I want to give them the opportunity to have a voice, as long as they're peaceful," Ewelt told the Gazette Tuesday. "If we so choose, we can ask them to leave."
Protesters gathered at the zoo’s entrance shortly before 11 a.m. By 11:30 a.m., there were over 60 attendees. The street across the zoo’s entrance was packed with cars and trucks. Motorcyclists revved their engines to excite the crowd before finding a parking spot down Pierce Parkway. Some protesters held massive Montana and United States flags, while others held handmade and printed out signs.
“Stop sexualizing kids,” said one. “The T in LGBT stands for pedophile,” read another. As the protest grew, cars, semis and trucks driving by would honk — some in support and some in defiance.
“Love you!” a drag queen yelled out her window as she drove into the zoo. Another driver waved a rainbow flag and flashed a middle finger at the crowd.
A protester named Kris Rosager said it’s sad and disappointing that the zoo allowed children to be exposed to drag queens.
“They’re just children,” Rosager said. “Kids shouldn’t be exposed to sex or sexuality that young. Some of those kids were in strollers!”
Steve Ventling held a sign that read, “A zoo is for families, not a platform for perversion.” He said he’s worried about what comes next.
“Will it be strippers? Swingers?” Ventling said. “The kids don’t deserve to find out.”
His wife, Margaret Ventling, said she feels women are being taken advantage of through drag.
“I consider myself a feminist, but I find my gender hijacked,” she said. “We fought so long and hard against the hair, the makeup, the nails, to get away from that stereotype, and here they are bringing it back. It makes my blood boil.”
While the protesters make it clear they don’t think it’s okay for drag queens to be at the zoo, many also didn’t wish them harm. When a truck driver stopped by and enthusiastically yelled, “Those f***ers are going to hell!” some protesters reeled back in disapproval.
“We’re not haters. We’re lovers!” Rosager said. “We don’t want to see anyone hurt.”
Meanwhile, a small wave of counter protesters emerged on the outskirts. Avi Fox and Ember Madden stood a few feet from the main crowd holding their own signs — these ones in support of the zoo. Like many others, Fox and Madden heard about the protest through the grapevine, and they mutually agreed it was important to show their defiance.
“Drag is not inherently sexual. It’s an art form that comes from a lengthy, deep history and culture,” Fox said. “Exposing them to drag is no different than exposing them to religion. They’ll grow up and make their own decisions.”
“We’re not a menace to society. We’re just people,” Madden said. “It hurts deeply to have such an important community waved away like this.”
Across the street, a protester held a sign calling Christians to take back the rainbow. To Fox, a transgender Christian, it misses the point.
“The rainbow is a promise that God wouldn’t destroy the world again, and I feel that the gay community representing themselves with the rainbow is a promise that they aren’t here to destroy anything either,” Fox said. “We’re here to add to the world, to strengthen it.”
Overall, Fox sees the protesters as hypocritical.
“You don’t rat out your family members or members of the church,” Fox said. “It’s only sexualizing the kids when it’s the gay community.”
Waiting in line for her ticket, Tara Williamson agreed.
“I’m appalled,” Williamson said. “I work with people who experience real sexual trauma, and that’s not this.”
Others in line said they came to support and protect their LGBTQ loved ones from the protesters. David Brockman, dressed in a U.S. Navy baseball cap and a rainbow Marvel shirt, wanted to make sure the kids he went with were safe at the show.
“It’s mostly for them,” Brockman said. “I don’t want them to worry.”
From within the zoo, the audience roared with cheers when the drag queens began the show. The first book read was titled “Families, Families Everywhere,” which celebrated diverse families through rhyme.
“There are more types of families than could ever be named. And none of these families are exactly the same,” the book reads. “No matter the family, how big or how small, it’s the love that will make them a family at all.”
Other books told the tale of slippery frogs and a Christmas kitten, among other family-friendly adventures.
In front of foldable chairs, children gathered at the drag queens’ feet, attentively watching as the reader showed pictures from her chair.
One 5-year-old was thrilled by the dresses alone.
“They were so pretty!” Olivia Dunford said. Her favorite drag queen was the first to read, dressed in silver and white diamonds. “I liked her dress. I liked her family story.”
For many people in the LGBTQ community who attended, the day was a monumental step for visibility. Grayson Proctor found himself nearly moved to tears.
“It means so much to finally be recognized,” Proctor said. “This is amazing.”
And for those who were intimidated by those like the protesters, Proctor said he encourages them to be strong.
“Don’t stop being yourself,” he said. “Be who you are.”