eing caught in the crosshairs of organized hate is something artists in the LGBTQ2S+ community have been enduring ever since queer folk started creating art.

The recent hot take of the innately homophobic, transphobic and delusional is the presence of drag artists at all ages events. These shows often take the form of storytimes, puppet shows and singalongs, with a focus on entertaining children in a fun and inclusive way. They’re hosted in schools, libraries and other locales where children and their guardians can enjoy a day of glamour together. 

However, what was once a family-friendly knockout for all ages entertainment in Ontario has now been relegated to the back burner for many artists, as bigoted crusaders have started targeting both the artists and the venues that host these events. 

The majority of these impromptu protests have been scattered across Ontario and according to the519 — Toronto’s most prominent queer community centre — there have been roughly 15 instances of targeted harassment in the province involving all-ages drag events. 

In light of recent hate campaigns, community organizations, artists and performers in Toronto are orchestrating a system where they can rapidly signal one another if and when unwelcomed disruptors decide to make an appearance. 

Queer and Collected

One of the most significant players on the defensive end of Toronto’s battle against harassment is Queer Collective. This network of artists, musicians and activists is equal part bulletin board and publisher for queer artists across the city, with a focus on providing both physical and digital platforms for queer artists. 

When members of the collective began to see signs of aggression towards the drag community in early 2022, numerous alerts were put out which prompted those in the community to focus on their own safety.

Emily Gioskos, the co-founder of Queer Collective, has been monitoring incidents of harassment and is further studying them on a case-by-case basis to find the connective tissue between them. 

“It’s scary, especially looking at things online. When we started out we stated that Queer Collective is always a cyber-safe space. However, it feels like the more and more we talk with the community it's apparent that you can’t promise anybody a safe space anymore,” says  Gioskos. 

To combat the online-hate their platforms have received, Queer Collective has considerred making their spaces private, but Gioskos says it’s hard to maintain an inclusive community if you’re creating barriers for potential members. 

“When you’re trying to find community it’s not easy for those spaces to always be private, so we wouldn’t want that, that’s not the welcoming kind of language that we strive for,” says Gioskos. 

Even with online harassment running unchecked, the tragic murder of five people at a queer nightclub in Colorado Springs last November has made many in the global queer community more fearful of physical harm than comment sections.  

While this instance of domestic terrorism left many appalled, devastated and scared for their safety, it also functioned as a rallying cry for the global queer community, with many righteously proclaiming that they won’t stand for this type of violence and that influential institutions need to effect immediate change to prevent further loss of life. 

With organized hate now finding a home in the GTA, Gioskos and her team have allocated funding to hire private security teams for artists under the Queer Collective umbrella. 

“We’re funding security to protect the space and the people in it… people are feeling really scared right now, despite the progress we’ve made in the community, this really makes it feel like we are walking backwards,” says Gioskos. 

Crystal Quartz sits with one of her many fans. Photo courtesy of Crystal Quartz

Kids and Queens

Beyond those who provide support for the queer community are the performers themselves. 

Jon Dobbie (AKA Crystal Quartz) is a drag artist who actively performs in the GTA and has experienced firsthand the recent hostility towards queer artists in the city. 

“When it came to attitudes about my shows, earlier last year it was just love, love, love, until October 3. I had a drag brunch in Guelph and found out that people were targeting my next show. It went from a very loving feeling and quickly spiralled into complete hate, and I was getting it left, right and centre,” says Dobbie. 

According to Dobbie, specific groups of individuals began to show up in person to his shows. Beyond just physically intimidating him, they began to directly threaten venues that hosted his performances, which in turn, made Dobbie cancel several shows.

Tragically, it didn’t stop there, and Dobbie had another run-in with aggressors in early December. 

The average number of instigators was roughly 12 to -30 people, but this hasn’t excluded people acting individually.

“My whole thing is making safe spaces, I want people to feel safe, and these particular people are coming in and not making anyone feel safe. They’re everything that I’m against. It’s been hell and it seems like there’s nothing I can do about it,” says Dobbie. 

Luckily for Dobbie, there has been an immense outpouring of love and support, but he says all it takes is one individual to make the audience and performers feel at risk.  

“All it takes is one person to pull it all back, or at worst, do something completely sporadic. There’s so much love coming in, but sadly all I can think of at most times is the hate, I don’t want to put the lives of people who come to my show in jeopardy,” says Dobbie. 

Dobbie has endured accusations of child grooming, pedophilia and other outlandish criticisms shared by far-right groups across the globe. This has made any incentive to continue performing at all-ages events dwindle as the presence of physical confrontations has become increasingly likely. 

“They’re saying it’s about kids, but it’s not, it’s plain homophobia and they’re using kids to spread that ideology,” says Dobbie. 

Dobbie has attempted open communication with his aggressors in an effort to try to get to the marrow of their demands and has only been met with hostility and redundancy. 

“We’re basically the devil to them. If you talk to the people at some of these protests, they don’t even have kids, they’re once again just there to use [children] as a prop for their own kind of ‘freedom fighting,’” Dobbie says. 

Dobbie has persisted mainly due to one consistent group of individuals in his corner — his audience. 

“Oh god, this is going to make me cry. I get so many beautiful messages from the kids that tell me not to let bullies get to me and not to let hate win. I mean these messages are coming from nine-year-old girls who treat me like a pretty princess,” says Dobbie. 

War and Pageantry 

As a result of recent events, a majority of drag artists across the GTA have opted to cancel their all-ages shows completely. 

“It’s really hard on our mental health, I still receive hate mail every single day, they kept bombarding my Instagram account so much that I had to shut it down. I don’t blame artists at all for not wanting to be in harm’s way,” says Dobbie. 

A total pulling of the plug on social media accounts is something that is becoming more and more common for queer artists, which is a huge blow to their income, as social media is used to maintain their audience and promote events.   

Dobbie has put all-ages shows on hold for now, however, he’s not out of the fight and is utilizing any means available to prepare himself for when he returns to the stage. 

“I’m taking some self-defence courses to make myself feel a little bit safer. I’m also going to talk to venue operators about I.D. scanners. For anyone who has a violent past, the last thing they want to be is identified,” says Dobbie. 

Dobbie remains fatigued by the lack of communication across local police precincts when it comes to targeted altercations, as with every violent incident, he has to tell the same story and inform officers of potential risk. 

“I have to contact local police departments, which sucks because I’m performing all over the province. [The police] don’t communicate at all and I have to go over all of these stories again and relive it every single time,” says Dobbie. 

As for when or if things will ever get back to normal, many in the community are hopeful that this kind of hate isn’t sustainable. 

A sentiment Dobbie further punctuates with: 

“I just want to get back to that time, that time where I could walk into a venue and greet everyone with a friendly greeting, a time where people weren’t concerned for their safety before even stepping foot in a venue… I just want to hope that things can change.”

Photo courtesy of Crystal Quartz

Fashion and Police

After multiple lockdowns and COVID-19 restrictions put shows on hiatus, 2023 has become symbolic for Toronto's queer community as many are shaking off the baggage from years prior, according to Gioskos. Quarantine stressors, show cancellations and lack of community spaces were just a handful of the variables that dominated community concerns. 

“There’s a need and a direness to be together. We aren’t going to let irrelevant people impact that. We’ve had an incredible turnout, all of our recent events have sold out, far in advance of the night that they are taking place,” says Gioskos. 

With the recent surge in community risk, many are looking for comfort in spaces where they can express themselves without the risk of reprisal, and queer fashion has always been one of the greatest tools for community pride. 

However, even this mainstay for community expression has started to be impacted by the uptick in anti-queer doctrine. 

“People go all out at our events and feel safe to do so, even though they get harassed on the streets of Toronto when they do,” says Gioskos. 

With violence and aggression toward the queer community trending upward, the inevitable involvement of law enforcement is something that is constantly anticipated by community leaders, even as queer trust in Toronto law enforcement is justifiably tarnished.

“In the Toronto community, there is a level of distrust with the police. They continue to neglect us to this day, so there is a huge need for community protection,” says Gioskos. 

Beyond safety, if an artist has their livelihood impacted by a lack of turnout due to direct threats towards themselves or a venue, crowdfunding applications are implemented to help make back any potential lost income. 

Even as aggression tries to keep pace with queer art, Queer Collective has been lucky to have experienced no cancellations, however, this does not mean those within the community are walking away unscathed. 

“One of our performers — who encountered far-right protestors — felt that the show must go on. However, they were still very much feeling traumatized by the experience and there are still intense emotions surrounding what happened. With drag performers, their performances bring the community together, they really are the backbone of the queer community,” says Gioskos. 

Cause and Effect

As the queer community continues to fortify itself, those on the side of hate continue efforts to disrupt and desecrate queer art.

As a result, queer artists have taken countermeasures into their own hands. 

With online platforms continuing to be a playground for hate groups, buffers against hate speech have been implemented on platforms that Queer Collective maintains creative partnerships with, such as YouTube.

Digital platforms that allow hateful and bigoted online harassment are particularly dangerous because they often function as a catalyst for in-person encounters and aggression. 

The most jarring example of this occurred last year when a Texas-based organization created an online community platform to publicly disclose the locations of drag venues in order to enable harassers. 

“Online harassment is something that doesn’t bother us because it happens so often, however, it is really scary when you start to get doxxed to the point where people are going to show up and physically hurt you — when it goes beyond the internet,” says Gioskos. 

Instances of targeted hate continue to work in tandem with the gentrification and disappearance of venues in Toronto that are already dealing with the pressures of unaffordability. 

“A huge weight of responsibility is being put on the shoulders of queer venues, as in Toronto, they are constantly disappearing due to condo incentives and escalating rent. As a result of this, further obligations are now on venue operators,” says Gioskos. 

While acquiring new queer-friendly spaces has always been a game of inches, The Village has been a bastion of the queer community in Toronto since the 1960s. 

“For some, The Village is considered the designated queer safe space. For others, sometimes that’s not the case, as it has a history of being targeted,” says Gioskos.

Due to further developing hostility, Queer Collective has ramped up its background checks when engaging venues, brands or potential sponsors. 

“We’re always looking for venues that aim to make spaces more queer-friendly, that’s our biggest challenge in Toronto, finding safe venues to work with,” says Gioskos. 

Gioskos remains grateful to both brands and venue operators who have turned up to support the cause, as with every successful event, information about queer safety increases, which further fortifies community security. 

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Feb 2, 2023
Local News
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