Inside the drag show debate taking place in northern Illinois

Joel Filmore, left, also know as Moana Lotte, along with co-host Dymond Calloway, of Chicago, perform during "The Dollhouse: A Drag ReVue" on Saturday, Dec. 3, 2022, at the Martini Room in Elgin.

Vandalism at a Lake in the Hills bakery that was hosting an all-ages drag show. A bullet mailed to the Downers Grove Public Library that was planning to hold a drag queen bingo event for teens. Ongoing dissension at Yorkville City Council meetings about drag shows at two local establishments.

The events all occurred within months of each other and amid a heightened focus on drag events across the country, including one that was canceled Friday night because of concerns about protests.

So, when drag performer Summer Kornfeind heard the news about last month’s Club Q shooting, in which five people were killed at a gay nightclub in Colorado Springs, Colorado, she wondered if she, her audience or someone she knows could be next.

“I started seeing over the summer in the news this pushback [against drag], and I was getting apprehensive,” said Kornfeind, who lives in Plainfield and goes by the stage name Candi Forest.

The Plainfield Pride Fest, which was held in October, was approaching, and Kornfeind said she was “paying attention to the rumbling. How serious is this? Is this coming for us? You don’t know whether it’s just a small pocket of protesters or not.”

As drag has been popularized over the past decade by popular shows such as “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” more performers have sought to attempt the art form outside major cities such as New York and Chicago.

“Not everyone can afford to move into the city,” Kornfeind said. “When I started performing, I didn’t realize how many of us were going to the city and how much of a need there was [in the suburbs]. We would love to do stuff closer to home.”

Drag has come under attack by right-wing activists and politicians who complain falsely about the “sexualization” or “grooming” of children, The Associated Press has reported. Opponents have coordinated protests at drag events, sometimes showing up with guns. Some politicians have proposed banning children from drag events and even criminally charging parents who take their kids to one, according to the AP.

On Friday, a drag show at Stage Left Cafe at the Woodstock Opera House was canceled after plans to protest the event were posted on social media, Business Operations Manager Betsy Cosgray said. This is the first time the event has been canceled since it began in August.

Performers in Illinois told Shaw Local News Network that they think the recent rise in hostility toward drag shows in the suburbs has been driven by a small coordinated contingent who purposely misrepresent drag and the nature of their shows.

Molly Krempski of Yorkville, center, holding flag, led a protest against the drag show at the Pinz Entertainment Center in Yorkville on Aug. 21, 2022. Holding signs are, from left, Amy Adamec of Oswego, Barb Conger of Naperville, and Brynn Krempski and Macy Krempski, both of Yorkville.

“It’s terrifying for me personally,” said Jacob Welch, who goes by Ginger Forest when performing. “It seems like within the last year hate groups have become more vocal against drag. It’s only a matter of time before these protesters make their way to Chicago. These people are really dedicated to whatever their mission is, but it seems to be a mission of hate and misinformation.”

Molly Krempski, a drag show opponent, has spoken against the performances during Yorkville City Council meetings. She said she believes the shows are “highly sexual” and that her opposition to them is rooted in her religious beliefs. She has said she doesn’t “hate” drag performers but has compared them with “sex workers,” and she has the community’s rights in mind when voicing her opposition.

“I have compassion for people with gender and sexual confusion. I understand the pain and trauma that led them to their current lifestyles. I think exploiting their pain for our entertainment is wrong,” Krempski said during a September Yorkville City Council meeting.

The accusations of grooming or enticing kids to watch inappropriate content is a particularly nasty fiction, drag performers and producers in the Chicago area told Shaw Local News Network.

“It’s important people know that drag queens are people with lives and careers, not weird creepy ‘things,’ ” said Joel Filmore, a clinical professor at Northern Illinois University who performs at the Martini Lounge in Elgin under the stage name Moana Lotte. “Every day my life is about helping people. I am a therapist and I am a professor. I am not a creepy monster hiding in the bushes.”

Welch, who hosts and produces a story time with drag queens show in Lincoln Square in Chicago, said from his understanding, the harassment is coming top-down from organizations encouraging people to attend city council meetings and attempt to enact anti-drag ordinances.

Kornfeind cited Krempski’s Let Kids be Kids, as well as United4Plainfield and Moms of America as organizations with members who have protested drag shows over the past six months in Lake in the Hills, Yorkville, Plainfield and Downers Grove.

In the Downers Grove case, the public library announced in September that it would host a drag queen bingo event for teens. Bingo games and a short lip-sync performance were planned as part of the event, which was to be hosted by Tyler Reviglio, who goes by the stage name Aurora Divine.

Drag queen Fox E. Kim works the crowd during the brunch show at Yorkville's Pinz Entertainment Center on Aug. 21, 2022.

The event, schedule for Oct. 11, was canceled because of threats, including a letter sent to the DuPage County offices in Wheaton that included a bullet, authorities said.

Event supporters said it was designed to support LGBTQ community members who have been marginalized by society.

“I believe that the issues raised about the event are borne out of ignorance or worse, and as a community, it is important for us to recognize opportunities to learn and grow when it comes to understanding those who may be different from us,” Downers Grove Commissioner Chris Gilmartin said at a council meeting. “It’s also important for us to stand up and support those who have been marginalized.

City council meetings have become a battleground for residents to oppose drag shows in their community and, in some cases, local officials have joined the protesting.

Kornfeind said that not only did anti-drag protesters employ nasty accusations and vitriol, but when performers have tried to engage in dialogue or ameliorate concerns, the protesters have refused to listen.

“They have an agenda,” Kornfeind said, “and they are not willing to talk with us or meet with us if they don’t get what they want. They won’t talk to us outside the meetings. They won’t tell us their concerns directly. For Pride Fest, they just called local businesses and sponsors and harassed them, hoping they’d pull out.

“All these people have the same message: that they fear for children. They’ll throw around the word ‘groomer’ so lightly, but there is no willingness to actually listen. Clearly, none of them have been to an all-ages drag show or story time to see what actually happens.”

More than 80 people attended the Lake in the Hills' Village Board meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2022 as a result of the controversy surrounding UpRising Bakery and Cafe.

Filmore also said he felt there was a “concerted effort to demonize the queer community,” and the attack on drag shows was just a variation on a long-standing theme of hatred against the LGBTQ community.

“Some people think it’s funny, and it’s not a sincere stance,” Filmore said. “But there are some really dangerous people out there, waiting for an excuse to create violence. Right-wing and religious zealots are trying to create a social climate that is toxic for the queer community because they need an enemy, and we are that enemy.”

In Yorkville, the controversy over drag shows at two establishments has become a debate over the place of religion in civic affairs.

It started Aug. 21, when Molly Krempski of Yorkville and her supporters protested outside a sold-out 21-and-over drag show at PINZ Entertainment Center, a bowling alley and bar at 1211 N. Bridge St.

They flew banners declaring “Jesus is king” and signs that read “Let kids be kids.”

The “Sunday Funday Drag Brunch” featured drag queens who were covered from their necks to their ankles in colorful, expensive dresses. No buttocks were exposed. There was no stripping, twerking or gyrating.

The largely female audience for the noontime show handed the drag queens dollar bills as the performers paraded between the tables.

Patrons eagerly provide tips for drag performer Aleyna Couture during the "Funday Drag Brunch" at the Pinz Entertainment Center in Yorkville on Aug. 21, 2022.

Two days later, Krempski and her group attended a Yorkville City Council meeting, contending that the drag shows at PINZ, the second since owner Chris Reum purchased the business, and others at Southbank Original Barbecue, 129 E. Hydraulic Ave., violate city code.

Mayor John Purcell, who serves as the city’s liquor control commissioner, said he talked with the business representatives, and they are now in compliance with the ordinance.

Since Krempski’s first appearance before Purcell and the Yorkville aldermen, subsequent appearances have become increasingly confrontational, with Purcell frequently calling recesses to the meeting when Krempski has refused to yield the floor.

Drag shows “are highly sexual in nature,” Krempski told the council, and violate city code because they constitute adult entertainment.

Krempski, who leads her group in prayers outside the Yorkville City Hall before the meetings, has warned the council that divine intervention is imminent.

Molly Krempski of Yorkville, right, and Nancy Thompson of Newark were protesting against the drag show at the Pinz Entertainment Center in Yorkville on Aug. 21, 2022.

By the Oct. 11 council meeting, supporters of the drag shows also appeared. They accused Krempski and her group of bigotry and religious extremism, and Purcell again recessed a meeting that had turned into a shouting match.

PINZ held another drag show Oct. 30, but Krempski and her group did not stage a protest.

Kornfeind said she and others have offered to take measures to ameliorate any concerns of inappropriate content, including hosting preview shows and screening song lists, costume pieces and outfits in advance, but these offers have been shut down.

Kornfeind said she was “unprepared” for the first meeting she attended that included public comments on their shows – a Plainfield Park District meeting in which community members unsuccessfully petitioned to ban drag-related activities.

“I knew to expect negativity, and I knew what they were going to say,” Kornfeind said. “But hearing it said by different people for over an hour was emotionally a lot. I left that first meeting very shook.”

Summer Kornfeind, in drag costume as Cindi Forest, leads a story time for kids at Plainfield Pride Fest on Sunday, Oct. 16, 2022.

The opposition to drag shows has not been limited to speaking up at meetings. In the case of UpRising Bakery, employees have been subjected to verbal and online harassment and the shop has been vandalized. The controversy prompted Gov. JB Pritzker to stop by the bakery in August to show his support.

Welch said he was doxxed by protesters and accused of promoting child abuse.

Kornfeind said that in similar attacks against her, pictures of her performing in separate adult and children’s shows were intertwined to make it look as if there was no distinction.

“They’ve been saying and doing some very un-Christian things,” Welch said. “I’ve been doing my show for four years, no pushback. Everybody has a great time. All of the sudden my posters were vandalized, calling me a pervert. It’s outrageous. These people have never seen me or my show. They have no idea what they’re talking about. And now I’m reading this is happening all over America.”

Filmore said that with his show at the Martini Lounge, he “didn’t need my doctorate” to “know the difference between entertaining adults and children.”

Amy Adamec of Oswego protests drag performances for children outside of Plainfield Pride Fest on Sunday. Oct. 16, 2022.

Both Welch and Kornfeind performed earlier this year at UpRising and praised the venue and its decision not to back down to the persistent hostility, which has included protesters and counterprotesters standing outside the parking lot for weeks.

James Gustafson, who said he resides in Arizona but had lived in Lake in the Hills for 30 years, was among the opponents who turned out in September to protest outside UpRising. He said at the time that adults could do as they pleased, but he didn’t agree that kids should be invited to such events and was disappointed they were allowed. Gustafson also equated allowing children into a drag event to child abuse.

“Why do we even have to ask questions like that?” he said. “Doesn’t it just automatically register in your mind that that’s wrong?”

Although Welch said he felt it was important to continue to perform in suburban venues and not back down, at least one Chicago-area producer of drag shows said their cohorts are less inclined to perform in the suburbs, where the audience could be more conservative and “more unpredictable.”

A. Gutierrez, who performs as Mz. Mr., co-produces and co-directs shows for Spicy Queens Present, including what they describe as a “burlesque murder mystery.” Gutierrez asked that only their first initial and last name be used due to safety concerns.

Gutierrez said they are careful to cultivate a relationship with performance venues as incidences of protests or harassment demonstrate latent animosity.

“This whole scenario points out the fragility of the safety of the LGBTQ community,” Gutierrez said. “It makes it difficult for our community to thrive in places where we’re not as concentrated.”

Filmore noted that while Elgin was a “great community” and the handful of drag shows there were popular and free of controversy, queer entertainers of color had an “exponential” level of concern.

Joel Filmore, also known as Moana Lotte, hosts "The Dollhouse: A Drag ReVue," on Saturday, Dec. 3, 2022, at the Martini Room in Elgin.

“I think when someone who is Caucasian experiences blatant bigotry, they are astounded in a profound way,” Filmore said. “But I assume people hate me. Why? Because I’m Black. Everywhere I go, someone hates me simply because I exist. That’s not true for everyone.”

Filmore said that as a counselor, he makes it a point to reach out to the queer community to let them know “there is somewhere safe they can get good counseling.”

One thing that gets lost in the discussion about drag is how popular and profitable it can be for venues that host them, Gutierrez said.

“Queer artistry is a money maker,” Gutierrez said. “When businesses host showcases for the first time, they’re bringing in a new market. People shunning that are saying ‘no’ to money, to an enhanced opportunity for business. It’s just another layer of stupid.”

Gutierrez also criticized the protesters’ concerns about children as disingenuous and more about anti-LGBTQ bigotry.

“If they really cared about children,” Gutierrez said, “they’d be for free education, not complaining about drag queens reading in libraries.”

Instead, Gutierrez said, they felt that as drag has become more prominent, opponents “want queens to stay in a marginalized position and not become part of popular culture.”

Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker leaves his mark on the window board at UpRising Bakery and Cafe at Lake in the Hills; the governor made a surprise visit to the cafe Friday afternoon, which has received harassment over the past month, including outright vandalism, over a planned drag brunch show, which was rescheduled for this upcoming Sunday.

The concerns over the content of drag shows belies an ignorance of both the variety of drag performances as well as the self-awareness of performers to engage in audience-appropriate content, Welch said.

“Not all drag is sexual,” Welch said. “It doesn’t always have to be revealing costumes. It all depends on what show you’re doing. I haven’t met a single queen who said, ‘Oh, yeah, let’s just have kids at our adult show.’ As performers, we want to feel comfortable performing our art form too.”

Rather than being exclusively a form of burlesque, Welch defended drag as a subjective and “evolving art form,” which is why it is becoming more mainstream.

The art form includes “drag kings” – performers who present as hyper-masculine men – as well as women or gender nonconforming artists who model the drag aesthetic.

“Drag is the new clown,” Welch said. “There’s a lot of opportunity for characterization and costuming. Ten years ago it was very different, but people are getting a little stuck on what they’ve seen on ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race.’ They think that’s all drag is, so they assume it can never be appropriate for kids. The line is clearly drawn [between different kinds of drag shows], but we’re attacked anyway.”

Ashley Quiles, right, and Becky Hofner, both of Plano, demonstrate support for the drag show at Yorkville's Pinz Entertainment Center on Aug. 21, 2022.

Kornfeind, who is a parent, believes the drag story time events are a great way to introduce children to stories and literature.

“Molly [Krempski] looked at me at one of the meetings and mentioned that we were ‘broadening kids’ minds’ ... to what? That is what I want to know,” Kornfeind said. “I had to stop myself from laughing at the absurdity. We want to broaden them to … reading!”

She said despite the protests and negativity, Plainfield’s inaugural Pride Fest this year was “amazing” and had a great turnout.

“I think we will overcome this,” Kornfeind said. “A lot of people in the suburbs didn’t realize this [hostility] was happening in their own backyard. Once the issues with the park district was more public, we got so much support. When we can showcase the positive we are doing, that will boost this [drag in the suburbs]. Everywhere drag gets popular or grows there is pushback. This isn’t new.”

Filmore offered a more pessimistic view of the ability to change people’s minds, saying that only “profound emotion stimulus,” such as involving a friend or family member coming out, could change one’s view of drag or positions on LGBTQ generally.

However, if there is a silver lining, Filmore said, it’s knowing conversations with protesters can be fruitless has allowed him to focus on his career and his performances.

“I understand they don’t like me. That’s OK, but that is as far as they get to take it,” Filmore said. “I only have a choice how I react. But I am not going to stop living my life.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.