Last Sunday morning, Neil Paul, co-owner of Tertulia Bookshop in Westport, Co. Mayo, received a strange phone call.
“I understand you read pornographic material to young children,” said the woman on the other end of the line. Paul told her where to go and hung up. A few minutes later, the store received another call, this time from an activist who monitors right-wing activities in Ireland.
Paul was told the bookstore details circulated via certain Telegram groups and he was accused of grooming and sexualizing children.
“Please contact this company to confirm that the parents of Ireland will NO longer stand up for this ongoing mental and sexual condition affecting children!!” read a message.
The flood of calls began immediately afterwards and lasted for days. By Tuesday afternoon, Paul estimated the store had received 60 calls from people who had seen the message, most of whom he forwarded to voicemail.
There were also emails and social media posts calling the owners disgusting and comparing them to child molesters.
The Tertulia Bookstore, which opened in 2019 as “an inclusive social space and eclectic bookstore,” was targeted for its decision to host a “Drag Queen Story Hour” event as part of Mayo Pride celebrations.
Founded in San Francisco in 2015, Drag Queen Story Hours are children’s events where a drag performer reads children’s stories. “The idea is to expose kids to different kinds of gender representations,” Rachel Aimee, the founder of the New York chapter of Drag Queen Story Hour, said in 2018, “to look beyond the blue-pink gender binary that kids often grow up learning about.” .”
They have gained popularity both in America and internationally. At the same time, story hours have become lightning rods in America’s culture wars, with conservative and far-right groups likening them to child abuse and accusing their organizers of “nurturing” children.
Last week, members of the hate group Proud Boys stormed an event at a California library, berating the organizers with homophobic and transphobic slurs. Police said they were investigating hate crimes.
This is the second year Tertulia Bookshop has hosted a Drag Queen Story Hour. After their first event last year, held outdoors due to Covid-19 restrictions, they received some insults, mostly in the form of negative reviews on Google from people who had never visited the small Westport Quay shop.
But that was small compared to the response this year. As news of the event spread online, one Telegram group advised their audience to “take a picture of any parent who brings their child with them. Tear up their lives because I guarantee if they rejoice in this abuse they will have committed other abuses.”
“Men from Ireland, please go to this show in Mayo and stop it,” said another group originally formed to oppose Covid-19 restrictions.
“We were prepared for a lot this year, but it seems there’s more out there now,” said co-owner Brid Conroy.
“Most disturbingly, they posted pictures of our bookstore on their channels, urging people to stand up to us. We are a small company. They pick on us because they can.”
The owners are not only worried but confused by the reaction. “This is a man dressed as a woman reading Peppa Pig for heaven’s sake,” Paul said. All children will be accompanied by a parent as per standard business guidelines, Conroy said.
After the abuse began, the owners consulted the local gardaí, who urged them not to be discouraged. On story hour day, a guard would be present at the store to make sure nothing happened, they were assured.
“At the end of the day it’s all a bit sad. But they can also be dangerous,” Paul said.
Late Saturday afternoon, about a dozen protesters gathered outside the bookstore ahead of storytelling. There is no evidence that any of those present were involved in the phone calls and online messages targeting the deal. Some of those present held up placards and some took photos of people entering the store.
Once everyone was inside, Paul and Conroy locked the door and drag performer Aunt Annie entertained the children. Outside, the protesters soon found themselves outnumbered by the Pride attendees who came to the store to show their support.
Gardaí were present and apart from a few tense moments there were no incidents.
A protester wanted to know if prominent LGBT activist Rory O’Neill, also known as Panti Bliss, had “Garda clearance”.
“I have permission from Garda to tell you to fuck yourself,” O’Neill replied.
People have a right to protest, Conroy said afterwards, noting that the majority of the protesters were not from the Westport area. “We get great support on site.”
It’s been a busy week for the owners of Tertulia. “On the other hand, the number of people who have supported us has been incredible. So a lot of good has come out of it,” said Paul. “But I still wouldn’t wish it on anyone.”