Organizers of a weeklong LGBTQ+ pride event in Chattanooga say they're facing harassment and death threats after a former candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives circulated an out-of-context video on social media of children at a youth-oriented activity Saturday.
Republican Robby Starbuck, who was removed from the GOP primary ballot for a Nashville area congressional seat earlier this year under Republican rules about bona fide candidates, posted a video taken Saturday at Chattanooga Pride's Youth Pride Event at WanderLinger Brewing Co.
The moment that appears to have attracted the most attention on social media shows a girl running her hand along the front of a performer's sequined costume. The performer was dressed as Ariel from "The Little Mermaid."
"It's NOT hard to redirect a kid away from that area if they grab near your crotch," Starbuck wrote. "We have to stop this madness!"
Some commenters assumed the performer was a man.
"The individual portraying Ariel is not a drag performer but a biological female that does princess parties all over Chattanooga," Chattanooga Pride said in a statement issued Monday. "Her tail was made out of a reversible sequin fabric, which is why the younger child was touching it. What the video did not show was the performer redirecting the child by shifting to the side.
"In addition, some of the clips circulating about one of the performers (she is also a biological female) was from a completely different event, that was not affiliated with Chattanooga Pride. This event was also marketed as 18 and up. Due to this, no minors were present.
"The lady that posted the video did not specifically call to action any kind of hate or violence; however, her followers are. Our board members have been threatened with violence and death. At this time, we are not available for an interview. We are working with professionals in the area to come up with a game plan for security to ensure that none of these threats become reality."
Gin Von Tonic was one of the performers Saturday and is vice president of Chattanooga Pride. She told the Chattanooga Times Free Press in an email Sunday that the Youth Pride event is a reoccurring activity for the local LBTGQ+ community and allies. Many families attend, and organizers always provide a speaker, arts and crafts, a drag queen story time and a family-friendly drag show, she said. Organizers brought in the Disney princesses there to dance with children.
"We want to provide a day for families to come be educated, entertained and feel a part of a safe space," Von Tonic said. "Unfortunately during yesterday's event, there were some individuals undercover who were a part of a far-right hate group. They recorded the event and took (it) out of context, later posting about it online and gaining a lot of traction, calling our event a place for 'groomers and pedophiles,' when nothing of the sort occurred."
Chris Dial, one of the owners of WanderLinger Brewing Co., said by phone on Monday that his business has also been receiving death threats and complaints. That included a message from a man in Australia who said he was going to boycott the brewery.
WanderLinger Brewing Co. has been open for four years, Dial said, and makes its space available for groups interested in holding events. Those groups have included Chattanooga Pride. The video filmed Saturday, Dial said, appeared to have been taken by a supporter of Starbuck and seemed designed to attack businesses like his that host events involving the LGBTQ+ community.
"One of the worst parts is, it feels like it's targeted hate in my opinion," he said. "The pictures that they took and the videos that they're using, they're claiming things that aren't even accurate."
In addition to the actress portraying Ariel, he said, commenters singled out Von Tonic, who is also a biological woman, for a leg kick she performed during a dance set to Dolly Parton's "9 to 5."
"The families that were in attendance had no issue with what occurred," Dial said. "They've supported us on social media, defending their choice, their children and Chattanooga Pride."
Starbuck said by phone Monday that he received the video from a concerned citizen and his motivation for sharing it had nothing to do with the sexual orientation of the people involved or their gender. Instead, Starbuck said he wants to ensure children aren't presented with inappropriate behavior. He also stressed that he condemns any intimidation or threats of violence.
"Any adult that has been to a drag show has seen that there's a very sexual basis," Starbuck said. "They're very raunchy and obscene in many different ways, and that's the allure for a lot of people. I don't understand why anybody would want those exposed to kids."
Overall, Starbuck said, he's trying to reinstill moral lines, referencing outrage over reports from conservative media about Vanderbilt University Medical Center offering gender-affirming surgeries.
"I don't care once you're adult," he said. "You can do whatever you want. Make yourself happy. Not my problem and not my thing to go pick at. But when we're allowing children to make irreversible decisions, that's something where I feel like there's a clear, innate moral line where adults have to stand up and say, 'Hey, someone has to stop this.'"
In a social media post Sunday, Hamilton County Mayor Weston Wamp criticized an event at the Big Chill & Grill, which hosted "Brunch with the Dolls" as part of Chattanooga Pride Week. A video Wamp shared shows children holding out dollar bills for performers.
"This isn't hard," he wrote. "Parents shouldn't take kids to drag shows, and business owners shouldn't host drag shows aimed at children. It's a shame this is happening on Ironman weekend when the best of our area is on display. For those visiting: no, these aren't our values."
Wamp told the Times Free Press by phone Monday that he started getting inundated with concerns from residents who he assumed saw the video Starbuck posted.
"As a dad of little kids I thought it was really sad to see little girls with dollar bills in their hands at a drag show," he said. "There's stuff made for adults, and there's stuff that's not. From the far left to the far right, I think that there's a lot of agreement that little kids and drag shows don't go together. I don't think that's a dog whistle at all. I think it's a very mainstream statement."
Big Chill & Grill owner Scottie Bowman did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday, but Matt Adams, a Democrat who ran against Wamp during the 2022 general election for mayor, criticized Wamp on social media.
"You are the mayor of every resident, Weston, not just those who would be riled up by this rhetoric," Adams wrote on Twitter. "You talked a lot about unity during the campaign. This is far from unity. This is an insult to all of us who identify as queer and our allies."
Note: An earlier version of this story contained the real name of the performer Gin Von Tonic.