While I Watched the Parade

While I Watched the Parade December 9, 2022

Last weekend, while I was at the parade with my daughter, my friends in Columbus were faced with white supremacist hate groups waving guns at a church.

You’ve probably heard something about the Unitarian Universalist church in Beechwold having to shut down their Christmas drag queen storytime. And I realize every word of that might sound like a punchline, but this isn’t a laughing matter.

Drag storytime isn’t everybody’s cup of tea, but this wasn’t in any way dangerous to children. It was going to be three fully clothed men in comical dresses and makeup reading picture books to the hippie kids from the church’s play-based school. That’s all it was.  They weren’t going to a gay bar for a raunchy drag show. They were going to listen to stories read by silly people in costume. If you’ve showed your children your favorite sketches from Monty Python’s Flying Circus while loudly coughing to cover any swear words,  you’ve showed them drag that was more scandalous than what was supposed to happen at the Unitarian Universalist church. If you’ve taken them to see a Shakespeare play, I guarantee you there was a lot more sexual innuendo and gender bending in the play than in this performance.

Unfortunately, we’re in the middle of an increasingly vicious moral panic here in the United States. More and more people have decided that the mere existence of human beings who do anything gender nonconforming is “grooming” their children for sexual abuse. This doesn’t make any sense as it’s not at all what “grooming” means. Grooming is when an adult trains a child and the adults surrounding that child to view them as trustworthy so the child is easier to abuse later– such as when a Catholic priest becomes best friends with a family and presents himself as mentoring their children. Telling your children that LGBTQ people exist isn’t grooming. It doesn’t make it more likely that they’ll be abused. But that doesn’t matter, because a moral panic isn’t about something that’s actually dangerous. It’s about riling the population up against a marginalized group so that everything can be blamed on them.

As the mother of a child, I think an awful lot about actual grooming, and about actually protecting my daughter. As a queer person who loves other queer people in Columbus, I can assure you that far-right hate groups with guns are more dangerous than drag queen storytime.

On the excuse of the planned storytime, three hate groups, at least two of them known to be violent,  descended on Columbus to intimidate people. They were the Proud Boys, Patriot Front, and another hate group I’d not heard of called “White Lives Matter.” The Proud Boys showed up armed with long guns, their faces covered with bandanas. They lined High Street in a neighborhood I’ve been to a thousand times.  The story hour was promptly canceled. The police were called out to keep the peace, leading to a horrifying video of one officer high-fiving a Proud Boy, which the Columbus Police have responded to by explaining he was part of a “dialogue team” sent to “defuse the situation.” I don’t think dialogue and a high five is the usual approach to a group of heavily armed masked men menacing people outside a church, especially considering what the Columbus police have been known to do whether you’re armed or not, but I’m not a police officer. Next thing I knew, some of the Proud Boys were marching around the neighborhood harassing people and others were heckling from in front of the chain restaurants near the church.

I watched the whole thing unfold from a distance, helpless, feeling as horrid as I did when the police ran amok in Columbus in 2020. I wanted to be there, but I couldn’t be. We didn’t have a cent for gas and it was the same day that Adrienne had her martial arts demonstration at the Christmas Parade. So there I was, two hours from home, standing in a drizzle in front of the Episcopalian Church, texting with my Columbus friends as the parade meandered down Fourth Street in Steubenville. I kept looking down at my phone, scanning Twitter for any updates, then swiping back to a livestream video someone was taking of the protest, then glancing up at a band or a float processing along, then back at my phone. It’s quite a way to attend a Christmas parade.

I would text something: “There are about a hundred of them! Avoid High Street from Henderson to Morse!” Then I’d look up at a float or a band and say something cheerful, which would remind me of the last parade I attended, going to Pride in Columbus with Adrienne’s Aunt Holly and Aunt Reese. And then I’d look back at the screen. I’d search Twitter again, and then I’d look back at the video livestream, taking stock of what was happening, remembering things. The Chipotle and the other fast food places on that stretch of the street are new. In my day the businesses were less glossy, and set further back from the street. There was a sandstone house on that corner that we used to pretend was haunted when I went to Catholic school; one little girl wrote a scary short story about the ghost who lived there and got published in a magazine. I wanted to write a horror story, but my mother thought they were Satanic.

At one point I accepted that conspiracy theory pamphlet from the scruffy men, and stuck it in my purse with the more normal religious tracts. Then I went back to Twitter and worrying about Beechwold. The person manning the livestream was going back and forth recording the faces of the angry protesters. Some of them had signs claiming they were doing this to protect children, as if the children from that church weren’t in infinitely more danger from far right groups with long guns than from performers in silly costumes reading a book.

At some point, whoever was manning the livestream moved. They weren’t looking at the Proud Boys anymore. They were facing the buildings across the street, on the other side.

There was a gaggle of counter protesters there, standing up to the hate groups. A few of them were waving the LGBTQ Pride Flag and the Transgender Pride Flag. They were shouting something, but I don’t know what. Cars would sometimes put on the brakes and I’d sometimes see a window open– heckling? Encouraging? I couldn’t say.

Behind them was that enormous, jet-black isosceles triangle I had seen up close thousands of times: Our Lady of Peace Catholic Church.

We belonged to that parish for years. I attended their horrid Catholic school with the awful students and the evil gym teacher from third grade until halfway through fifth. That was the place I had my first confession, because the other school I attended hadn’t made us go to confession before First Holy Communion in second grade. That was where I’d thrown up all over the floor just before lunch, humiliating myself. That was where the bully backed me into the weird corner between the brick wall and the gymnasium steps and tortured me.

That was the place I fell in love with Beautiful Julia.

That was the first place I ever heard the word “gay,” not as an archaism in books but as an all-purpose pejorative the bullies used to call people. Someone said I was “gay,” and I repeated it to my mother, and she was angry and said I wasn’t to talk like that.

Looking at that church, I felt sick.

I wished I dared ask Our Lady of Peace herself to drop her mantle over the counter protesters and protect them, but I’ve always been a little afraid of the Virgin Mary. After all, she never protected me.

At some point Adrienne came marching by with her martial arts dojo, demonstrating a routine with a long staff called a jang bong. They were all in their martial arts uniforms plus jaunty blue Santa hats, kicking and twirling the staves in unison. This joyful display of martial skill was quite a sight to behold– especially after I’d been watching a livestream of grim angry adults brandishing guns between two churches.

I glanced back at Our Lady of Peace, with those courageous protesters risking their lives waving Pride flags outside. Standing up against bullies, in a different way, with much higher stakes, and I loved them for it.

I checked in again with my friends.

After the parade I took Adrienne and her two best friends on a tour of the downtown Christmas decorations and historic Fort Steuben. We ended up in Beatty Park. Adrienne has felt too grown-up to play at a playground lately, but in the presence of her friends she relaxed. She rocked back and forth on a bouncy vehicle shaped like a giant grasshopper. A choir sang Christmas carols in the distance. It all felt so perfectly happy and safe– gay in the archaic sense, I guess, the way Christmastime is supposed to feel.

I looked back at my messages and texts, and found that Proud Boys had moved on to drink at a bar on the other side of town. I warned my friends.

“I’m just talking to Aunt Holly and Aunt Reese in Columbus,” I said as pleasantly as I could.

Adrienne wanted to know when we’d go and visit them. We’re going soon. There’s no one I’d rather be with in the Holiday season.

This isn’t a safe or a just world to bring children into. In fact, it’s rotten, and I fear it’s getting more dangerous all the time.

Still, the children come. And we do our best.

That is also something to think about at Christmastime.




image via Pixabay 

Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross, The Sorrows and Joys of Mary, and Stumbling into Grace: How We Meet God in Tiny Works of Mercy.




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