Last Sunday morning Neil Paul, co-owner of Tertulia Bookshop in Westport, Co Mayo, received a strange phone call.
“I hear you’re reading pornographic material to young children,” the woman on the other end said. Mr Paul gave her short shrift and hung up the phone. A few minutes later the shop received another call, this one from an activist who monitors right-wing activity in Ireland.
Mr Paul was told the bookshop’s details were spreading across certain Telegram groups and it was being accused of grooming and sexualising children.
“Please contact this business to confirm that the parents of Ireland will NOT stand for this ongoing mental & sexual of Children anymore!!,” one message read.
The deluge of calls started immediately afterwards and continued for days. By Tuesday afternoon Mr Paul estimated the shop had received 60 calls from people who had seen the message, most of which he let go to voicemail.
There were also emails and social media posts calling the owners disgusting and comparing them to child abusers.
Tertulia Bookshop, which opened in 2019 as “an inclusive social space and eclectic bookshop”, became targets due to their decision to host a “Drag Queen Story Hour” event as part of Mayo Pride celebrations.
Originating in San Francisco in 2015, Drag Queen Story Hours are events for children where a drag performer reads stories. “The idea is to expose kids to different kinds of gender presentations,” Rachel Aimee, founder of the New York chapter of Drag Queen Story Hour, said in 2018, “to see beyond the blue-and-pink gender binary that kids often grow up learning about.”
They have grown in popularity both in the US and internationally. At the same time Story Hours have become lightning rods in the US’s culture wars, with conservative and far-right groups comparing them to child abuse and accusing their organisers of “grooming” children.
Last week members of the Proud Boys hate-group stormed an event in a California library and shouted homophobic and transphobic slurs at organisers. Police said they were investigating it as a hate-crime incident.
This is the second year Tertulia Bookshop has held such an event. After their first event last year, which was held outside due to Covid-19 restrictions, they received some abuse, mostly in the form of negative reviews on Google by people who had never visited the small shop on Westport Quay.
But that was nothing compared with the reaction this year. As news of the event spread online, one Telegram group advised its audience to “photograph every parent that brings their child. Tear their life apart because I guarantee if they are happy for this abuse to happen, they will have done other abuses.”
“Men of Ireland, please go to this show in Mayo and stop it,” said another group, which was originally set up to oppose Covid-19 restrictions.
“We were prepared for some of it this year but it just seems there’s more out there now,” co-owner Bríd Conroy said.
“What’s most disconcerting is they were posting pictures of our bookshop on their channels and asking people to come out against us. We’re a small business. They’re picking on us because they can.”
As well as being concerned, the owners are confused by the reaction. “It’s a man dressed up as a woman reading Peppa Pig for Christ’s sake,” Mr Paul said.
All children are accompanied by a parent, in line with shop policy, Ms Conroy said.
After the abuse started the owners consulted local gardaí, who urged them not to be deterred. A garda would be present at the shop on the day of the event to make sure nothing happened, they were assured.
“It’s all a bit sad at the end of the day. But they can be dangerous as well,” said Mr Paul.
Late in the afternoon on Saturday, about a dozen protesters gathered outside the bookshop ahead of the event. There is no evidence any of those present were involved in the phone calls and online messages targeting the shop. Some of those present held placards and some took photographs of people entering the shop.
Once all the attendees were inside, Mr Paul and Ms Conroy locked the door and drag performer Aunt Annie entertained the children. Outside, the protesters soon found themselves outnumbered by Pride attendees who had come to the shop to show their support.
Gardaí were present and, aside from a few tense moments, there were no incidents.
One protester demanded to know if prominent LGBT campaigner Rory O’Neill, aka Panti Bliss, had “Garda clearance”.
“I’ve Garda clearance to tell you to go f*** yourself,” Mr O’Neill replied.
People have a right to protest, Ms Conroy said afterwards, pointing out that the majority of demonstrators were not from the Westport area. “We get amazing support locally.”
It has been a stressful week for the proprietors of Tertulia. “On the other hand, the amount of people who have supported us has been incredible. So a lot of good has come out of it,” said Mr Paul. “But I still wouldn’t wish it on anyone.”