For the last four years on the third Sunday of every month, drag queen Ginger Forest heads to Jerry’s Sandwiches in Lincoln Square just in time for brunch. She’s there to put on a show.
To a never-ending chorus of children’s “wows” and “oohs” muffled by bites of food, Ginger and his drag daughter Candi Forest parade between tables, wearing high heels and sashaying in their blond wigs while they read books to families.
“It’s almost like a Disney meet-and-greet because we’re in these big costumes and these kids are just at the table and they’re staring and watching us,” said Ginger, who has been doing drag for seven years.
But across Chicagoland, recent drag events advertised as family friendly have been targeted with threats of violence and vandalism, with one suburban library even canceling its Oct. 11 children’s drag queen bingo because of “numerous threats” and “aggressive emails.” The controversies have been sparked, in part, by social media campaigns from Awake Illinois, an organization rooted in the suburbs that was born from the anti-mask, anti-vaccine fervor of the COVID-19 pandemic and has been criticized for anti-LGBTQ rhetoric.
Over the past weekend, both protesters and counterprotesters showed up in Lake in the Hills outside UpRising Bakery and Cafe to express opposition and support for drag programming, according to footage on social media and Lake in the Hills police. The bakery was vandalized in late July for a family-friendly “Starry Night Brunch Drag” show that had to be postponed because of the harassment. An Alsip man was later arrested for the vandalism.
On Sept. 12, the Downers Grove Public Library canceled its drag queen bingo that had been planned next month for seventh to 12th graders after a call to action by Awake Illinois, and a statement from Orland Park Mayor Keith Pekau, the Republican nominee for Congress in the 6th District, who said drag has “sexual content.”
In the latest controversy, groups are opposing drag story time and a drag show that will be held at Plainfield’s first Pride Fest in October, which Candi is helping organize.
“We’re experiencing it in Plainfield right now,” said Candi, who lives in Plainfield and has been doing drag for five years. “And so we’re familiar with Downers Grove and what happened in Lake in the Hills.”
Pride Fest vendors have been harassed, she said. Approximately 100 people attended a meeting last Wednesday held by the Plainfield Park District, which is sponsoring the festival, to talk about the inclusion of the story time and show in the programming. Another meeting will be held Sept. 28, a Park District official told the Tribune.
The negative attention has caused Candi and Ginger to reconsider how they promote their events, with the pair scheduled to have a drag story time at UpRising Bakery soon.
”I don’t think we’re advertising for it. Because it seems to be, if they can’t find it, then …,” Candi trailed off with a shrug. “Not that they’re not searching.”
In the meantime, the drag queens said they feel fortunate to have evaded hostility for their Chicago drag story time at Jerry’s Sandwiches, known as Jerry Tales.
“We’re lucky enough that we haven’t really received that amount of pushback for our show. But I am hearing more and more about things like that happening,” Ginger said. “And honestly, I think it’s actually kind of really sad. Because I think that what’s happening is, instead of coming in and experiencing what the show is about, there’s a lot of judgment happening from the outside.”
On Sunday, Ginger and Candi were dressed in attire that echoed the story time’s theme of “Planes, Trains and Automobiles.” Candi sported an all-pink flight attendant outfit while Ginger wore a NASCAR racing outfit. Both strutted around in heels, their faces covered in glittery makeup. They call drag an “art form.
A small boy curiously peered into Jerry’s Sandwiches through a window while the children — and adults — inside cheered and waved small flags, answering questions and eagerly participating as Ginger and Candi read them stories and walked in between tables.
At the end of Jerry Tales, the drag queens thanked families for letting them “teach kindness” to the children and “expand young minds at a young age.” Then they made balloon animals for the kids to take home.
Robb and Katherine Beasley brought their 5-year-old son to Jerry Tales, in which they regularly participate. This time, they also brought two friends to the show.
“We have a great time. It’s so much fun,” the mother said. “The kids all love it; it’s so participatory and inspiring and fun, and we love the way they change the themes and their makeup and their costumes every month. It’s a lot of fun. We highly recommend it.”
“I don’t see what’s inappropriate,” she added. “It’s inclusivity, it’s costuming, it’s makeup, it’s expressing yourself. It’s so interactive, and if you see every kid here, they are having the time of their lives.”
Ed Yohnka, director of communications and public policy at the Illinois chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said family friendly drag shows help build community, especially to those who feel they don’t fit in.
“When these kinds of events are public and welcomed, and supported by our community, I think what it does is it sends a signal — maybe not even to just people who want to live a drag lifestyle, but who are different or outcast in some other fashion — it sends a signal that there’s a community that supports them,” he said.
Drag queen Aurora Divine — who has been performing for 12 years — was scheduled to host the drag bingo at the Downers Grove Library, which was supposed to coincide with National Coming Out Day, before the event got canceled.
“I had a feeling that was coming. I really wanted it to happen. I was very sad that it was canceled,” she said. “But I absolutely respected the choice that the library made. No one should feel unsafe or threatened to go to a public space, even play bingo.”
She said she personally did not receive any threatening messages. Rather, people reached out to her with words of encouragement and messages of support.
“I had one person message me that said, ‘I wish that they would have had something like that’ when they were growing up,” she said. “And that is the thing that hurts — because it was canceled, the younger generations don’t have that outlet to feel (like) themselves.”
Aurora has had some experience performing drag in her hometown of Peru, Illinois, and in the city as well since she moved to Chicago five years ago.
“Anywhere you go, there’s always pushback,” she said. “Everywhere you go, if it’s rural, city, it doesn’t matter.”
“There is a difference between doing drag bingo in a bar and doing drag bingo for family-friendly events,” she added. “We cater to our audience. It’s a performance that we do, so we cater to where we are.”
A lot of the pushback, Ginger said, comes from a confusion between drag shows for adults and drag events for kids.
“There seems to be a lot of confusion as to, like, drag has to be sexual. And that is not true at all. Our show specifically, we don’t wear revealing clothing. We don’t use profanity. We don’t do songs that are not children-appropriate. So, basically, what I would say is go experience a show and see for yourself, how magical it can be.”
Despite the cancellation of the event at the library and the criticism such shows have received, Aurora remains hopeful.
“I really wish it could have happened,” she said. “Hopefully it will happen in the future. Hopefully the town can accept that it will happen in the future.”
Chicago Tribune editors’ top story picks, delivered to your inbox each afternoon.
The drag queens said they would challenge people who have protested family-friendly drag shows to learn more about them and even attend one on their own.
“I would say, to someone who is questioning drag bingo — if it’s family-friendly or not — look it up first. Look up drag bingo at a bar and look up other options of family-friendly drag, not just drag bingo,” Divine said. “There is drag story time. The most, the biggest (family-friendly) event is drag story time. It is catered to children of all ages. I did a drag story time once. It is great. I love it.”
Ginger and Candi Forest said they believe fear of the unknown plays into the criticism.
“It just seems that people don’t understand and they don’t want to learn and come to experience what a joy these shows are and the joy on these kids’ faces,” Ginger said. “It’s very fun. It’s very wholesome.”
And the performers are trying to focus on that joy.
“We just want positivity and we’re just trying to put good out there,” Candi said. “That’s, I think, the best fight against all of this negativity. We’re just trying to bring some silly to the world.”