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Club Q, Pulse, and an Ohio firebombing: Why these drag queen survivors are sharing their stories (exclusive)

Drag queens Hysteria Brooks (L); Veranda L'Ni (C); Tiara Latrice Kelley (R)
Photos courtesy of Qommittee

Drag queens who survived the Club Q mass shooting, the Pulse Massacre, and a Ohio church firebombing tell The Advocate about a coalition they've formed to support drag artists in the face of violence.

Right-wing extremists continue to attack drag in the ongoing culture war against LGBTQ+ lives, and these queens have become all too familiar with the violence.

Now, they're working to create a world where no artist has to experience what they did, all through the new coalition, Qommittee.

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Pulse Nightclub

Tiara Latrice Kelley remembers the sounds of gunshots and screams to this day.

The drag queen describes June 12, 2016, as "the night that marijuana saved my life." She and a few friends had planned to go to Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, where she had previously performed, but instead ended up getting stoned and falling asleep. The group only awoke when their phones began "blowing up." One message from a friend still sticks with Kelley almost eight years later.

"Did you make it out to Pulse? If so, run."

That was how the performer learned of the deadliest attack against LGBTQ+ people in U.S. history. The Pulse Massacre claimed the lives of 49 people, leaving over 50 others injured. The gunman, Omar S. Mateen, was killed in a shootout with police that night, but not before inflicting lasting trauma on the southern Florida community.

Kelley said she was "confused" when she first received the warning messages. It was the sounds of "hundreds" of sirens that compelled her group "to go up there to see what was going on."

"When we first got there, they were already starting to carry victims out," she told The Advocate. "There was still the standoff, so the whole area was quarantined. There was still shooting and screaming."

The incident was part of the reason that Kelley and her husband decided they wanted a "change of pace." They then moved across the country to Colorado, where Kelley landed a job as a producer at a local LGBTQ+ establishment, Club Q. Just two weeks after Kelley signed her contract with the venue, tragedy struck again.

Kelley and her husband meant to go to the bar the night of November 19, 2022, but stayed behind after she became sick from her dialysis treatment. The two began receiving phone calls from her colleagues just after midnight, warning about an active shooter.

"The first thought that I had was, 'There's no way this is happening again,'" she said. "With Pulse, I was shocked and I was angry and I was upset. But with Club Q, I was numb, because there's no way that this has happened again."

Club Q

When Hysteria Brooks arrived at Club Q that night, paramedics were already transporting victims into ambulances.

The drag queen had just finished a show in downtown Colorado Springs when she made her way to the bar. Despite not being scheduled to work at Club Q that night, Brooks decided to go in anyway. When she arrived, the "scene that was unfolding" in front of her would forever change the queen, as well as the mountain city.

“They were triaging people in the parking lot," Brooks said. "They were pulling people out of the bar, triaging them, and then throwing them into ambulances to be transported."

The mass shooting at Club Q claimed five lives, leaving several others injured. The shooter, Anderson Lee Aldrich, would later plead guilty to five counts of first-degree murder, 46 counts of attempted first-degree murder, and state-level hate crime charges. Aldrich has since been sentenced to life in prison.

Related: In Search of a Safe Space, Club Q Shooting Survivors Look for Ways to Push Forward Without Fear

Brooks said she and the other employees were promised financial support and access to mental health resources by the owner of Club Q, who later "completely went back on all of his words" and instead fired most of the staff through a Facebook post. Even after her local legislators offered help, Brooks said most of the resources went through the owner, and did not reach the employees.

Brooks and Kelley are now part of a coalition of artists ensuring that no queen or king will be without support, as drag performances and queer establishments across the country continue to endure threats from right-wing extremists.

These groups, often falling under the label of White Supremacists, target drag shows on the fallacious basis that the art form is inherently inappropriate for children. They accuse performers, without evidence, of pedophilia and "grooming" — simply for dressing flamboyantly or femininely during their shows.

Community Church of Chesterland

For Veranda L'Ni, the trouble started when right-wing groups caught wind of her performances.

They began by targeting a Drag Queen Story Hour at a public park in Wadsworth, Ohio, on March 11, 2023. Everything went "haywire" when "the alt right groups showed up," L'Ni said, with crowds overtaking the park and replacing the children's literacy event with Nazi salutes and "very specific names and derogatory terms.”

One protest attendee, a member of White Lives Matter Ohio and the local Proud Boys chapter, would soon after throw a Molotov cocktailat the Community Church of Chesterland, where L'Ni was scheduled to do another story hour. Aimenn Penny, 20, pleaded guilty to using fire and explosives to commit a felony and violating the Church Arson Prevention Act, and was sentenced to 18 years in federal prison.

L'Ni was “floored” when she heard the news of the attack, which left her asking herself: "At what lengths are these groups or individuals willing to go to create harm?”

“All this craziness as a 20-year-old," she said. "These groups talk about drag performers ‘indoctrinating’ children, and here we are with a 20-year-old who's been fed information that is leading him to believe that bad things are happening at drag shows, and that he needs to do something about it."

Introducing Qommittee

While the threats are "scary," L'Ni has not been frightened off, but instead motivated to do something about them herself. She, Kelley, and Brooks are among ten drag artists impacted by violence who have signed a call to action for Qommittee, a network of drag performers and allies that seeks to provide the community with vital resources.

“The more I kept reading the stories, and the more phone calls between all the entertainers and the safety coordinator, the more and more angry I became. It just lit a fuel in my fire," L'Ni continued. "It just made that anger turn into determination.”

For Brooks, the coalition is about community building. In the aftermath of the Club Q shooting, she said that she "saw the community band together like I'd never seen before," and she wants to see that again as states propose and enact anti-drag bills. To the queen, such legislation is directly responsible for attacks like the one she experienced.

“It's the rhetoric that causes things like this to happen," she said. "People are fed. Hate is not something that you're born with — hate is something that's taught. The hate that Aldrich had in his heart for gay people, for queer people, was fueled by all of this anti-trans, anti-drag queen, anti-queer rhetoric that we're seeing in the legislation that's trying to be passed throughout this nation.”

The FBI recently warned that Pride Month events this year could face threats from "foreign terrorist organizations." Brooks and L'Ni both noted that the violence they faced was conversely from domestic actors — terrorists hailing from their own backyards.

“If you look at everything that's gone on in these past few years, most of the people that have committed domestic terrorist attacks have been people that are from the U.S.," Brooks said. "They're home-bred.”

L'Ni emphasized that “It's coming from inside the house.” She said the threats have "traumatized" many in the community, and have even made her feel unsafe to attend Pride events in her own home.

“It weighs on one's psyche. It weighs on you emotionally that these people are out for you," she said. "They're not out for the families or the kids — they’re specifically out for the drag performers. That's scary in itself. It's like a bad horror movie.”

The first steps

As Qommittee launches, the drag artists maintain that more support is needed. It doesn't just have to be monetary, as Brooks said that “uplifting queer art, uplifting local drag artists, and just hearing what they have to say" can go a long way towards understanding. L'Ni also suggested to "go and support your local drag artists, go to their shows, tell them how much that you care about them.”

“The community is meant to showcase not so much the hardships, but the positive role models that drag performers really are," L'Ni said. "Drag performers are not here to take on the baggage of those who are homophobic or transphobic. Our job is to be an entertainer. Our job is to make a better community for our LGBT family out there, no matter what city we're in.”

To Kelley, the most important thing people who "claim to be an ally" can do is "speak up," and "not just on the Internet or behind your keyboard," but in your community.

"The rhetoric that is happening in so many places is so dangerous," she said. "And these type of events will probably continue to happen as long as that rhetoric is allowed to be spewed."

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Ryan Adamczeski

Ryan is a staff writer at The Advocate, and a graduate of New York University Tisch's Department of Dramatic Writing, with a focus in television writing and comedy. She first became a published author at the age of 15 with her YA novel "Someone Else's Stars," and is now a member of GALECA, the LGBTQ+ society of entertainment critics. In her free time, Ryan likes watching New York Rangers hockey, listening to the Beach Boys, and practicing witchcraft.
Ryan is a staff writer at The Advocate, and a graduate of New York University Tisch's Department of Dramatic Writing, with a focus in television writing and comedy. She first became a published author at the age of 15 with her YA novel "Someone Else's Stars," and is now a member of GALECA, the LGBTQ+ society of entertainment critics. In her free time, Ryan likes watching New York Rangers hockey, listening to the Beach Boys, and practicing witchcraft.