Murphy’s Lala speaks to a crowd at Arlington’s first-ever Pride celebration telling them to “pay them no mind” in response to the Pride protestors on Saturday, June 4, 2022. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Murphy’s Lala speaks to a crowd at Arlington’s first-ever Pride celebration telling them to “pay them no mind” in response to the Pride protestors on Saturday, June 4, 2022. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Arlington Pride event delayed after mayor questions ‘drag story time’

City leaders still want the event to go forward, but organizers were shocked by concerns about background checks for drag performers.

ARLINGTON — A closed meeting to prepare Arlington’s upcoming LGBTQ+ Pride event turned sour last week, as city leaders asked organizers if they would agree to not host “drag story time” for kids as part of the festivities.

City officials say it’s about public safety and not drawing violent backlash.

Organizers say the request defeats the point of Pride — openly celebrating gay culture and expression — and it has left them “disappointed and honestly hurt by what we experienced.”

The meeting in late April was originally called to discuss permit costs for the Pride event, which had been set for Pride Month in early June, but has now been delayed to July 22.

Caera Gramore, 45, the acting president of Arlington Pride, said the meeting began with Arlington Mayor Barb Tolbert asking about how organizers had vetted drag performers to ensure they weren’t sex offenders.

Tolbert wrote in an email to The Daily Herald that the city “had been hearing various community concerns” and “asked the Pride group if they would consider not including Drag Story Time.”

“It was just really shocking, like they’re repeating talking points that (anti-gay activist) Anita Bryant was saying before I was born,” Gramore said. “And it wasn’t even about our event.”

The only drag queen specifically invited to Arlington Pride last year to read to kids, who goes by the stage name Vanity, works in the public school system, which requires a background check, Gramore said.

“And that is one of the most stringent trainings and stringent background checks you can do in the state of Washington,” Gramore said.

Gramore, a social worker, is a mandated reporter as well.

Tia Rikki leaps in the air during a drag performance at Arlington’s first-ever Pride celebration on Saturday, June 4, 2022. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Tia Rikki leaps in the air during a drag performance at Arlington’s first-ever Pride celebration on Saturday, June 4, 2022. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Who is Papagaio Hernandez?

City officials pointed to a recent increase in social media comments raising questions about drag performers.

This is where a Facebook account under the name Papagaio Hernandez enters the picture. It is unclear if someone by that name exists in Snohomish County.

In fact, the only public information on the page says Hernandez updated his profile photo on Facebook on Aug. 22, 2022. Yet the photo has telltale signs of a computer-generated deepfake: a generic mottled green background, with odd blips in the image around the possibly fabricated man’s hair and shoulders. There are no property records in the name of Papagaio Hernandez in either King or Snohomish County.

Whoever is behind the account commented on an official city post on April 9, in response to an open house for Arlington’s new Comprehensive Plan.

The account’s post reads: “More importantly the Arlington pride committee is planning on doing drag story events in the legion park again this year.”

The author claimed that “2 of the 3 drag queens were registered sex offenders” and asked what the city would do to “assure there aren’t non compliant sex offenders participating in childrens activities this year during pride month?”

Arlington’s event last year did not have three drag queens, Gramore said. And she also said she has not seen a shred of evidence anyone in drag at last year’s event was a sex offender.

Five days later, on April 14, the account posted a similar message on Tolbert’s professional Facebook page. It was responding to a new clothing business opening in downtown Arlington. The business, FauxyFurr, is LGBTQ+ owned.

That comment repeated the same “sex offender” in drag claims and demanded background checks to be part of the permitting process. No other comments on Arlington’s feeds on Facebook and Twitter over the past three months mention drag or the Pride event.

Michael Moaje makes a face while getting his makeup done during Arlington’s first-ever Pride celebration on Saturday, June 4, 2022. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Michael Moaje makes a face while getting his makeup done during Arlington’s first-ever Pride celebration on Saturday, June 4, 2022. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

‘People who don’t want us to have civil rights’

Arlington Police Chief Jonathan Ventura brought up the posts in a Wednesday interview with The Herald. Ventura was not at the April meeting — a lieutenant with the department was — but has been keeping tabs on what’s happening.

“The organizers asked, ‘Well, specifically what seems to be the problem?’ … and (the answer is) some of the social media posts that we’ve been watching shared that their big problem, or the biggest voiced concern through social media, was drag story time,” Ventura said. “Somehow, that information being shared turned into, ‘The city had a problem with (drag performers).’”

Tolbert wrote in an email that the city brought up the posts “not to regulate content rather to help with the safety of the event.”

Tolbert framed it as a public safety issue. Ventura did as well.

“The question was asked not because we opposed (drag performers), but due to the controversy and organized opposition that the event created last year, and the city’s interest in public safety for participants, the public, and the event occurring at the same time,” Tolbert said in an emailed comment.

The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation found 166 incidents of anti-LGBTQ+ protests and threats at drag events since 2022, and 25 so far this year. Many right-wing activists have latched onto political rhetoric that drag performers sexualize or corrupt children.

“Drag queens are groomers,” read a sign flown by protesters at last year’s event.

Pride, meanwhile, is rooted in remembering the Stonewall riots of June 1969 — since memorialized as Pride month. LGBTQ+ people have historically been targets of vigilante violence or anti-gay legislation for being open about their identities. Pride is a celebration of people loving and expressing themselves, without fear of being silenced.

Several threats against Arlington Pride were investigated by police last year, Ventura said. The event proceeded without any issues or delays and drew more than 300 people.

But due to the threats, the city wanted to have Arlington Pride provide either a security service or contract with off-duty officers. Along with insurance, it would cost the group around $3,500. Ventura said the police budget does not allow for events to not have their own security.

Gramore sees the cost as another barrier for the event, which relied last year on contributions from its organizers.

“It’s not our people that we’re worried about, that we need extra police,” Gramore said. “The extra police would be needed if people who don’t want us to have civil rights show up, causing trouble.”

Gramore said the group is being charged more in Arlington than they would in other towns. Marysville, Everett and even Seattle all charged less than half of what was being requested by Arlington, she said. Marysville, for example, charges a maximum of $500 for “expressive activity special events,” per its city code.

Pride coordinators said they filed record requests with the city of Arlington to see what permits have cost other organizations.

They also filed a request for instances when the city required permit holders to undergo a background check or vet performers. The city’s response, shared with The Herald by Arlington Pride, revealed no instances.

Devlin Lynn Phoenixx throws cash in the air while performing at Arlington’s first-ever Pride celebration on Saturday, June 4, 2022. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Devlin Lynn Phoenixx throws cash in the air while performing at Arlington’s first-ever Pride celebration on Saturday, June 4, 2022. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

‘If we can rebuild trust’

Some local church leaders have also expressed concern about drag events, Tolbert confirmed.

“Yes I did hear from Church leaders in Arlington,” Tolbert wrote in an email. “That discussion, the Social Media content and the phone calls and contacts from Community members in total were part of the discussions with Pride.”

In response, Arlington Pride filed a request seeking communications between church leaders and the city.

“If the ministers are uncomfortable, why should I care?” Gramore said.

What happens next is unclear.

Arlington Pride delayed the event to give more time to prepare and fundraise.

Both Ventura and Tolbert said they want Arlington Pride to go forward.

“I support an inclusive safe community that welcomes all people,” Tolbert said in an email. “As we live in challenging and polarized times, we must discuss openly ways that can bring people together. I am proud of Arlington for hosting the first ever Pride event last year, and support the 2023 event.”

Ventura was frustrated in how the police department was being portrayed online.

“The police department, we’re not there to tell you what to do at your event and what not to do at your event, as long as it’s within the legal realm,” Ventura said. “So that’s the part where I think we’re a little bit hurt and offended that this has been put out there. Personally, it kind of feels like this is almost fabricated in a way to try to get more people to attend the events somehow.”

Gramore feels a lot has been damaged.

“If we can rebuild relationships, if we can rebuild trust, I would absolutely love to do that,” Gramore said. “I just feel like a lot of trust was broken.”

Jordan Hansen: 425-339-3046; jordan.hansen@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @jordyhansen.

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