A child in a rainbow skirt smiles and holds hands with a performer at a Pride event.
Ms. Deville interacts with fan Raena Fellers of Green Bay during the 14th annual N.E.W. Pride on Sept. 23, 2023, in De Pere, Wis. The event featured drag shows, live music, food trucks, vendors and displays highlighting the history of northeastern Wisconsin's LGBTQ+ community. (Sarah Kloepping / USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin)
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This story was produced as part of the NEW (Northeast Wisconsin) News Lab, a consortium of six news outlets covering northeastern Wisconsin.

Twirling in a rainbow skirt, Raena Fellers did her best to wait patiently for her hug from JoJo Jubilee.

The performer is one of Raena’s many favorite northeastern Wisconsin drag queens. Raena, 7, bounced with excitement as emcee Ivy Viola strolled out in her larger-than-life gown to start N.E.W. Pride’s late September drag show in De Pere. She then joined other children approaching the performers, delighted to hand off dollar bills and share big smiles as queens lip-synced and danced to pop songs and show tunes.

Raena and her parents, Lisa and Kim Fellers, got the best seats in the house — center table, closest to the stage — as soon as N.E.W. Pride grounds opened. 

Within minutes of the show starting, Raena got her hug. 

“We raised her to love everybody and accept everybody,” Kim Fellers, 47, said.

The Fellers have gotten to know several of Raena’s favorite drag performers in the area. Jessica Bee also gets a hug from Raena when she performs, while Kim gets her nails done by performer Sushi Buffet and likes to support the performers’ other businesses. 

“(Raena) loves all the girls. We like to support them in the community,” Kim Fellers said of the drag performers. 

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Event saw record attendance despite anti-LGBTQ+ campaigns

N.E.W. Pride, held on Friday, Sept. 22, and Saturday, Sept. 23, offered a safe space of acceptance and support for LGBTQ+ families and allies. Organizers said this year’s two-day event at the Brown County Fairgrounds was the most well attended in the organization’s 14-year history.

The event was a success despite a monthlong effort by loud-yet-small anti-LGBTQ+ hate groups targeting its slate of all-ages-appropriate programs, performances and vendors. Local conservatives, local religious groups and national anti-LGBTQ+ groups demanded sponsors withdraw support, made threats toward organizers and performers, and demanded Brown County bar anyone younger than 21 from the event.

An attendee in rainbow attire at N.E.W. Pride in De Pere
An event attendee walks past vendors at the 14th annual N.E.W. Pride on Sept. 23, 2023, in De Pere, Wis. The event featured drag shows, live music, food trucks, vendors and displays highlighting the history of northeastern Wisconsin’s LGBTQ+ community. (Sarah Kloepping / USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin)

The threats and harassment continued through the event’s programming. A small group of protesters organized by the Wisconsin chapter of the fringe anti-trans group Gays Against Groomers recorded themselves as they held up anti-trans signs and called attendees pedophiles, perverts and groomers for bringing children to the event. Another group of protesters, evangelical Christians who responded to a call to “save souls,” prayed in a spot south of the fairgrounds. 

The volume, tenor and tone of the threats, emails, protests and pressure campaigns were much more intense this year, said JD Gildemeister, president of N.E.W. Pride’s organizing committee. The negative messages had an impact, he said, but N.E.W. Pride will continue to offer LGBTQ+ people support and acceptance. He said the group already is preparing for N.E.W. Pride 2024.

“Although we went through all of this, (N.E.W. Pride is) still going to happen again,” he said. 

‘Our rights keep going on the chopping block’

While it’s nothing new, Gildemeister said these protests are part of a wider political effort led by a dwindling but loud minority that aims to sow uncertainty, hostility and fear as acceptance of LGBTQ+ people grows. 

“All this is going on in the political landscape. Our rights keep going on the chopping block,” Gildemeister said. “It’s very frustrating. Too many people aren’t paying attention. That’s why this continues to happen, why very vocal opponents are getting the spotlight.”

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For Reiko Ramos, director of the anti-violence program at Diverse & Resilient, LGBTQ+ hostility like this ripples in more concerning directions. It advances anti-LGBTQ+ legislation at the state level and also at the hyper-local level, all the way down to local municipalities and school boards. It also permits homophobic and transphobic actions at an interpersonal level, they said.

“We can’t separate the policies from people’s lived experiences,” Ramos said. “Any time LGBTQ issues appear in the news, we often see an increase in folks with concerns for their safety, calling us for support. We see an increase in haters and their homophobic and transphobic language and behaviors. This impacts LGBTQ people in their day-to-day lives.”

Age-appropriate drag show questioned

For the last seven years, Emily De Leon has staged counter-protests at N.E.W. Pride. As she has in previous years, De Leon, who’s run De Leon LGBT Christian Ministries since 2015, stood apart from the two sets of protesters. As an advocate, she wasn’t immune to threats.

“For about two or three weeks I’ve had worries for my own safety and I’m thankful for the security staff and Brown County Sheriff’s (Office) for being present at the event,” De Leon said.

She stood silently and held a rainbow sign that read “You’re Going to Heaven. God Loves Everyone.”

The tenor of outrage was different this year, De Leon said, due to national right-wing backlash, the volume of protesters and the new wave of safety concerns. 

Much of that, she suspects, was the result of the rallying cries of a local radio show host and Green Bay-area Republican state representatives who put out calls to target N.E.W. Pride and its sponsors and for Brown County to restrict the drag shows.

The Rev. Emily De Leon holds a sign that says, "You're Going to Heaven. God Loves Everyone."
The Rev. Emily De Leon holds a pro-LGBTQ+ sign near protesters during the 14th annual N.E.W. Pride event on Sept. 23, 2023, in De Pere, Wis. (Sarah Kloepping / USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin)

N.E.W. Pride, which has held its up-and-coming drag show for the last 14 years, drew a fresh round of negative attention when it briefly advertised its Saturday drag event as a “youth” drag show. In this context, youth performers are young adults who don’t typically have access to drag shows, which tend to take place in venues where you have to be 21 and older to enter. All performers younger than 18 get parental consent to take part in the event. N.E.W. Pride organizers take steps to ensure all music, performances and vendors include content appropriate for people of all ages.

Gays Against Groomers is a national organization with chapters in 18 states that criticizes and protests LGBTQ+ education in schools and minors attending drag shows. The group outside N.E.W. Pride at various times said it would not have demonstrated if activities had been for adults only and took issue with children being exposed to drag.

It’s not the only time the group made headlines in the area recently. The Pulaski School District recently obtained a restraining order against Gays Against Groomers Wisconsin’s chapter president, Jose “Rocky” Rodriguez, for alleged threats against school staff and facilities.

The core of protesters traveled from nearby cities like Appleton and Ellison Bay, as well as Kansas City, Missouri. One wore a T-shirt that read, “Shoot your local pedophile.” Other people from the Green Bay area joined the group for various periods of time; a couple recognized each other from social media.

The person recording the group’s live video, uploaded to YouTube, asked a woman to go into the event to record the drag show, but she said she couldn’t because security wouldn’t let her in on account of her having a gun on her. Another person went in to record the show and left after about 30 minutes to record the sponsors, vendors, political groups and support organizations set up in various areas before leaving.

Gildemeister said organizers knew the group recorded the show and said he hoped they’d see for themselves all performances and vendors provided age-appropriate content.

“They got to see firsthand that there’s nothing scary going on, that we’re a family-focused, friendly event,” Gildemeister said.

A protester holds a sign that says, "No child is trans."
A Gays Against Groomers protest is held Sept. 23, 2023, at the entrance of the Brown County Fairgrounds in De Pere, Wis., as people drive past to attend the 14th annual N.E.W. Pride event. (Sarah Kloepping / USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin)

The group interpreted the show differently.

In the video, they likened the up-and-coming drag show to a strip club, speculated without evidence that the drag queens might be pedophiles, and discussed plans to later scrutinize a young-looking drag queen’s social media pages. They suggested parents and allies who brought families to N.E.W. Pride only support the LGBTQ+ community for clout on social media.

Over two hours into the video, a parent and child draped in a pride flag walked out to the fence to hand De Leon a pride flag and give her a hug. A few protesters shouted expletives at them, called the parent horrible for “making her son gay” and accused her of having a mental illness. They also called her a slur for people with developmental disabilities. 

Organizers ramp up safety measures

The Brown County Sheriff’s Office, the Green Bay Police Department and the De Pere Police Department became aware of threats N.E.W. Pride organizers faced ahead of the event. Fairgrounds staff reported an overwhelming call volume in the weeks before the event, and Brown County Executive Troy Streckenbach’s office counted 25 calls and emails from residents and three from outside the county.

On Sept. 23, N.E.W. Pride organizers, private security and law enforcement escorted the few protesters who entered the grounds back off the premises. Law enforcement with the Brown County Sheriff’s Office made one arrest for disorderly conduct, and charges were referred to the district attorney’s office, according to Capt. James Valley. Prior to this year, nobody had ever been arrested at a N.E.W. Pride event, Gildemeister said. 

Gildemeister and N.E.W. Pride organizers took precautionary measures to ensure that none of the performances could be misrepresented. They added signs across the fairground stage for Friday night to indicate it was a 21-and-older event and removed them for Saturday’s all-ages performance. They also added more private security.

The work, planning and security cost N.E.W. Pride energy and money. The event’s security costs more than doubled from about 10% of its budget in previous years to about 25% this year, Gildemeister said. He said law enforcement agencies responded well to organizers’ concerns and threats toward the event. Keeping up with the protesters’ intrusions left organizers exhausted by Sunday, but it was a small price to pay.

“Seeing the families come through that gate that are finally able to have just a moment to themselves, is what makes it worthwhile for all of us,” Gildemeister said.

Emotional toll of protests lingers

Mindy Frank, a Gender and Sexuality Alliance co-adviser at a high school in northeastern Wisconsin, knows firsthand the emotional toll that protesters have on LGBTQ+ youth. The alliance meetings after N.E.W. Pride require special handling, what Frank describes as “processing time.”

Many students she advises said it’s hard for them to resist arguing with the protesters, to at least attempt to persuade them that who they are is not a choice. 

“They’re just looking for a place where they can live and be free to be themselves,” Frank said. “And they can’t even come to Pride without being harassed. How dare the protesters do this?”

But for many other students, the verbal attacks on their identity turn them inward.

“The protesters got what they wanted. They made young people feel like less on the one day they should feel happy,” Frank said, biting back tears. “They go to Pride anyway, but it hurts their spirits deeply.”

‘Keeping kids alive’

With only 25% of Wisconsin families strongly supporting their LGBTQ+ children, Wisconsin specifically has some of the poorest mental health outcomes for LGBTQ+ residents in the country, Ramos said.

Brown County LGBTQ+ residents reported lower feelings of psychological and social well-being than the countywide average in Wello’s 2021 Health and Well-Being Survey.

Nearly half of all of Wisconsin’s LGBTQ+ youth — and more than half of Wisconsin’s trans and gender nonbinary youth — have considered suicide, according to state analysis by the Trevor Project

The report emphasized that poor mental health outcomes aren’t the result of their gender identity, but the mistreatment, harassment and stigmatization that follows them in society as a result.

Wisconsin’s most recent Youth Risk Behavior Survey reflects similarly troubling results for LGBTQ+ youth. The crisis requires more understanding, empathy and safe spaces, said Tom McCarthy, executive director of the Office of the State Superintendent at the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, which oversees the survey.

McCarthy called it “dangerous disinformation” when a vocal minority alleges that affirming spaces in schools “turns kids queer.” Rather, he continued, these spaces are about “keeping kids alive.”

“Acknowledging the complexities that exist across humanity is an evidenced-based way to support their learning,” McCarthy said. “As a father of a school-aged child myself, I want that approach from my school and know it will lead us to a better future.”

Frank also works as a youth apprentice coach for CESA 7 and provides training for the administrators, teachers and staff of the 38 school districts of CESA 7 on LGBTQ+ youth mental health, equity and inclusion. 

She’s noticed the spike in policies, practices and discriminatory legislation on LGBTQ+ youth across schools, whether that is banning Safe Space signs and Progress flags from being flown or the use of affirming pronouns and names, Frank said.

“There needs to be an awareness that policies and practices can and do impact the mental health of LGBTQ+ youth,” Frank said, noting that if students don’t have a model for what it means to be inclusive, or don’t feel included, it can impact their education. “We cannot expect them to focus in school when they can’t even focus on feeling safe.”

Two people stand next to a display highlighting LGBTQ+ history.
A display highlights the history of northeastern Wisconsin’s LGBTQ+ community at the 14th annual N.E.W. Pride on Sept. 23, 2023, in De Pere. The event also featured drag shows, live music, food trucks and vendors. (Sarah Kloepping / USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin)

Martha M., founder of the Bay Area Council on Gender Diversity, said she is aware hate groups often claim organizations that support trans youth are recruiting or grooming children to be trans. This, she said, couldn’t be further from the truth. She’s witnessed firsthand the lifesaving power of safe, positive peer support for trans and gender-diverse youth in the community.

“This is all done with the full permission of parents,” she said. “Does not a parent have that right?”

LGBTQ+ youth in Wisconsin say an affirming space includes people open about identities, pride flags, gender-inclusive terminology, and open and vocal affirmation for all identities, according to the Trevor Project.

“I remember as a young person not having access to community, and I was always dreaming of going to a pride festival,” Ramos said. “Even though I couldn’t go to one, it gave me hope that a world like that is possible.”

The growing crisis among LGBTQ+ people, especially young people, is what compels N.E.W. Pride each year to offer culturally relevant mental health services and resources, Gildemeister said. What the protesters called for, he said, would have deprived families access to the very help they sought at N.E.W. Pride.

“If we had an age restriction, (young people) wouldn’t have that same access and that safe place to come together and be able to ask questions and get that information,” Gildemeister said. “That’s difficult when you’re trying to navigate, especially in the queer community.”

This story is part of the NEW (Northeast Wisconsin) News Lab’s fourth series, “Families Matter,” covering issues important to families in the region.

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Jeff Bollier is a St. Louis native whose 19 years in Wisconsin almost qualify him for resident status. He arrived in the Badger State via Beloit College and began his journalism career with the Beloit Daily News. He joined the Oshkosh Northwestern in 2003 and introduced his business column, Streetwise, in 2005. From new stores opening to corporate bankruptcies that impact whole communities, Jeff has done it. His work on restaurant health inspections, an air guitar-playing state assemblyman and an aging hotel have earned plaudits from the Wisconsin Newspaper Association.