When the stage went dark at the Sunrise Theater on Saturday evening, drag artist Naomi Dix thought it was just part of the show. But as stagehands, performers and assistants scrambled in the darkness, Dix said it became clear that something was wrong.
Unbeknownst to Dix, the power outage at the theater in downtown Southern Pines was the result of a targeted attack on multiple power substations in Moore County that left more than 45,000 homes without power this week.
And after death threats and protests leading up to Saturday’s show, Dix could not shake the feeling that the power outage might be connected to the growing number of anti-LGBT attacks and demonstrations happening across the country and outside the stage doors.
“For some time now, with not only (social) media bullying, but also physical and emotional attacks on the community, that’s where my brain went,” Dix said. “This is getting out of hand with the queer community as a whole. This is a situation that is just bigger than a drag show that is being held.”
Authorities in Moore County have not specified a connection between the attack and the drag show, and no suspects have been identified or charged in the attack.
Thursday, members of the LGBTQ community gathered at the Pinhook in Durham for a press conference to discuss the incident and their concerns. While they said it’s up to law enforcement to determine a motive in Moore County, they can’t help but draw their own conclusions based on the timing of the substation attack — in the middle of a drag show.
“We don’t know what has anything to do in connection with the drag show,” Dix said. “What we do know is that this is a larger issue — that the queer community has been targeted.”
Dix and others point to an increasingly hostile climate in North Carolina and around the country to those in the LGBTQ community. The threats have included protests outside libraries hosting drag story time and online bullying, escalating to death threats and the Nov. 19 Club Q mass shooting in Colorado Springs that killed five and injured 25 others.
Just days before Saturday’s power outage, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security issued a terrorism threat alert about the country in a “heightened threat environment,” citing the LGBTQI+ community as one of several “perceived ideological opponents” to those seeking to do violence.
Members of the LGBTQ community say they’re concerned for their safety.
“This is not a new battle,” said Stormie Daie, a Durham-based drag artist. “This is not a new fight to our community.”
Protests leading up to show
Dix, of Durham, has been a locally-based drag artist since 2014. She performs six to eight shows per week and is familiar with the controversy her presence can cause. Before Saturday, she had hosted multiple drag shows in Southern Pines without incident.
“We had no expectation this would be difficult,” said Lauren Mathers, director of Sandhills Pride and a producer of the show at the Sunrise Theater.
But this time, anti-drag protesters made it clear to Dix that she and other performers were not welcome. Dix said she received several death threats on social media. Mathers said she and crew members also were threatened over the phone.
Dix began seeing derogatory messages on social media about the drag community. At Thursday’s press conference in Durham, Dix became emotional when discussing what Moore County resident and protester Emily Grace Rainey wrote on social media about her and other drag artists.
“The narrative started that we as drag artists are pedophiles and criminals and are looking to groom children to become trans people and that we are targeting minors to rape them,” Dix said.
The Sunrise Theater took action. Dix and her cast were planning a family friendly event without age restrictions. But as pressure from protesters amplified, the venue decided to raise the age limit, making the show an 18+ event, Dix said.
“Hate groups spent weeks harassing the performers and organizers, the venue and their business sponsors, in an effort to intimidate them into canceling the show,” Apex Pride co-founder DeAnna Conrad said. “They tried to get town leadership to cancel the show. They showed up in numbers and spent hours physically protesting the event.”
On Saturday, hundreds of demonstrators both for and against the drag show gathered outside the Sunrise Theater.
Dix said the troupe was prepared for pushback. There were several law enforcement officers present to protect the cast before and during the performance as protesters gathered. Dix said there were enhanced security measures in place, including plain clothes police officers and private security at the Sunrise Theater.
Dix said the number of show supporters surpassed the number of anti-drag show protesters.
Around 7 p.m., the show began as planned, performing for a sold-out house of 370 people. Part-way through the show, coincidentally at the same moment a blackout was planned, the power went out.
“I had friends performing at this event, and I knew how scary this was for the performers, organizers and their guests,” Conrad said. “I was immediately concerned for their safety.”
Once Dix was alerted that the interruption was a result of a power outage, she came out on the stage and instructed the audience to turn on the flashlights on their phones. Dix led the audience in a rendition of Beyoncé’s “Halo.”
She continued the show without power for another 45 minutes before asking the audience to exit in groups for safety.
Moore County outages connection
One of the primary organizers of the anti-drag show protests was Rainey, a former Army psychological operations officer turned conservative activist. Rainey has hosted anti-LGBT protests and demonstrations in the area before, drawing attention from FOX News host Tucker Carlson. He featured Rainey in his docuseries about the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, where she led a group of about 100 people to the “Stop the Steal” rally in Washington that preceded the mob attack.
Saturday night, about 9 p.m., Rainey posted on her Facebook page: “The power is out in Moore County and I know why.”
The next day, Moore County Sheriff Ronnie Fields said officials had not been able to make a connection between the drag show and the substation attack. And while he did not mention Rainey by name in a press conference, he said the information she posted online about the outage wasn’t true. He added that law enforcement officers “had to go and interview this young lady and have a word of prayer with her, but it turned out to be nothing,” The News & Observer reported.
Rainey gave her own account of the visit from law enforcement, posting on Facebook, “I told them that God works in mysterious ways and is responsible for the outage.”
The protest and her comments led LGBTQ advocates to call for an investigation into whether the drag show and the outages are connected.
“While we don’t know the precise motivation behind this attack, extremists in Moore County had been protesting a drag event to be held in the community at the exact time that power stations were damaged by gunfire,” said a statement by Equality NC.
Serena Sebring, executive director of Blueprint NC, called the shooting an act of “domestic terrorism,” a term that local and state officials have declined to use about the Moore County attack until a suspect and their motives can be identified.
“It is critical we name this what it is,” said Sebring at Thursday’s press conference. “We have questions about how it is that days later we still have no answers.”
History of anti-LGBT protests
In November, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) reported that North Carolina is one of two states with the most attacks against drag events in the country this year; Texas is the other.
In June, the town of Fuquay-Varina refused to acknowledge Pride Month, leading residents to organize their own Pride event. Fuquay-Varina and neighboring Holly Springs have not adopted a non-discrimination ordinance that would provide protections to people who identify as LGBT.
Also in June, the town of Apex removed a Drag Story Hour event from their official Pride Month line-up, citing threats of violence. The event was later sponsored by Equality NC and proceeded as planned.
On Oct. 30, members of the Proud Boys, a right-wing hate group, threatened performers at a drag brunch in Sanford.
The recent alert from the Department of Homeland Security says the country “continues to face a heightened threat of violence” much of which is “driven by extremists seeking to further a political or social goal or act on a grievance.”
The alert cautions “threat actors could exploit several upcoming events to justify or commit acts of violence. These targets could include public gatherings, faith-based institutions, the LGBTQI+ community, schools, racial and religious minorities, government facilities and personnel, U.S. critical infrastructure, the media and perceived ideological opponents.”
Although Dix said these attacks are deeply painful to witness, she hopes they serve as inspiration to further fight to protect the LGBT community and their rights.
“It’s a wake-up call for the country in general,” Dix said.
Sebring called the substation attack a “Which side are you on?” moment. She said it is “critical” that people condemn anti-LGBT attacks and demand more of lawmakers.
“Moore County is a cautionary tale about what happens when we allow bigotry to flourish and when people of good conscience don’t speak up,” Sebring said.
While the investigation in Moore County is ongoing, organizers say they will continue to plan drag shows and drag story hour, despite their concerns and potential dangers.
Conrad said Apex Pride will host a Holiday Celebration featuring Drag Story Hour on Dec. 17. Security is at the top of her priority list, and she has been in frequent discussion with her planning committee, town officials and local law enforcement to ensure the event goes on without incident.
“We will have extra volunteers, and a safety plan in place that includes the presence of law enforcement as a precaution,” Conrad said.
Other major drag shows in the Triangle will be held in the coming months at both the Durham Performing Arts Center and Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts in Raleigh. Both venues have routine security checks, but did not comment on the presence of enhanced security for drag events.
Pinhook, an LGBT-friendly venue in Durham, is also planning to host a drag performance on Dec. 10, however it is unclear if this event will take place due to performer illness — not threats of violence.
Conrad said hatred and violence “hasn’t slowed things down.” She encourages others to educate themselves about LGBTQ issues so they can become allies and speak up when misinformation or “hateful rhetoric” is disseminated.
“Our goal is to regularly host inclusive events for our LGBTQ+ families and allies, to keep them connected and to support them,” Conrad said. “We won’t back down or give in to bullies and hateful rhetoric.”
Dix adds that public support, whether it’s on social media, in-person or through donations to groups like the Human Rights Campaign, can help lift up the LGBTQ community.
“These little things go a long way,” Dix said.