Sean Connell remembers having homophobic slurs directed at them on the morning of Dec. 10 outside the Fall River Public Library, where the local LGBTQ pride committee was hosting its monthly drag story hour.
Dozens of masked individuals had crowded the library entrance, shouting at attendees and attempting to enter the building, and accused Connell and other organizers of grooming children.
“When I first pulled up, they were directly in front of the library, on the sidewalk, with a giant sign that said, ‘Drag queens are pedophiles,’” said Connell, who uses he, she, and they pronouns, and is president of the Fall River Pride Committee. He told the Globe that protesters in “tactical gear” called him disgusting, a deviant, and shouted “that I should kill myself.”
The clash represents the latest in a pattern of increased hostility around drag story hours, a popular offering at Massachusetts libraries, which have become an issue in the nation’s culture war. But despite aggression from the hard right, Connell said Fall River’s pride community intends to keep hosting the programs — as soon as January, even if it means relocating — to help normalize LGBTQ families and support queer children.
And as the events continue, Connell and Fall River officials are preparing for the number of protesters to grow. December’s was the 14th drag story hour held at the library, but only the second to draw the ire of far-right activists. Connell said the first time was in November, but only four picketers showed up — a fraction of the December crowd.
The protesters, some wearing arm patches with a modified version of the Celtic Cross on them, identified themselves as members of the Nationalist Social Club, or NSC-131, a self-proclaimed “pro-white, street-oriented fraternity” recognized by the Anti-Defamation League as a neo-Nazi group in New England. The group has a history of targeting similar events.
This summer, the group’s founder, Christopher R. Hood Jr., was arrested while protesting a drag queen story hour in Jamaica Plain. Later, an NSC-131 demonstration prompted the cancellation of another story hour in the Seaport.
As protesters clashed with organizers on the Fall River Library steps in December, Angel DeCosta, who goes by the stage name The Gothfather, continued to read holiday stories to the children and families inside, speaking over muffled chants that bled into the space and threatened to overtake the usually family-friendly atmosphere.
“Unfortunately, they could hear some of the screaming while they were inside,” Connell said. “But despite that, I think inside went very well.”
In the weeks since, some residents have taken to social media to voice support for the performers and pledged to counter any future protests. But Connell said the community’s overall response has been mixed.
In a statement posted on his Facebook page, Fall River Mayor Paul Coogan wrote that the protesters “who are not from Fall River, traveled here to disturb an event.” But Connell said some locals, including commenters on that post, have seemed “thankful the Nazis were there,” even if they did not participate in the protest themselves.
Fall River’s next drag story hour is slated to take place Jan. 14 — Connell will be reading as her drag persona, Ms. Gloria — and although the committee is anticipating another morning of conflict, Connell said it has no plans to cancel.
“We’re going to keep holding these events, despite the hostility, because we deserve to have our stories told,” he said. “To make sure that people understand that we’re not going to back down. We’re not ashamed of what we’re doing. We’re not going back into the closet.”
The committee is calling for counter-protesters to attend, and is working with library administrators, city officials, and local law enforcement to help prevent any clashes between demonstrators and attendees from escalating to violence.
The Fall River Police Department did not respond to requests for comment on how it would handle the next story hour.
Mayor Coogan told the Globe that the city hopes to have earlier notice about potential disruptions moving forward. He said police were not aware of any planned protest until the morning of the December program.
Police arrived as a “large commotion” broke out on the library steps — an incident filmed and posted online — but could not differentiate between NSC-131 and counter-protesters, according to a police report filed that afternoon. The report states that a white man on the steps appeared to have “fresh red marks on his face” but declined assistance.
“What happened the last time just caught us off guard a little bit, but I think overall the police did a good job of keeping the peace,” Coogan said. “If there is going to be any protest, we respect freedom of speech, but they’re not going to threaten people, or get in people’s faces, or cause an upheaval. We’ll do our best to make sure everybody stays in their lane.”
Connell, who said police “dropped the ball” at December’s event, hopes to see a quicker, more direct response if violence breaks out in January, and added that organizers are hoping not to overwhelm the library, which has remained a supportive partner.
Still, Connell is worried that heightened tensions could make parents and guardians more reticent to bring their children, even if story-time supporters outnumber the opposition.
“People in the community tell us how they want to come, but they’re worried about their safety,” Connell said. “They don’t want their child to have to see this kind of level of hatred.”
For those that do come, though, Connell said Fall River’s drag story hours will to continue offering support for queer adults and children alike. He said the committee plans to continue hosting them through the new year, even if details — such as the location — need to change in response to hostility.
“If we retreat and crawl back into the closet because it was such a calamity, that just goes to show that these hateful tactics can win. They’ll just be more emboldened from there,” Connell said. “We really want to make sure that the queer kids coming up are armed with the knowledge and resilience that they’re going to need.”