A past drag event featuring performers from Memphis Proud (photo courtesy Sairen Moss)

A Memphis museum was forced to cancel a family-friendly drag show and dance party when around 30 armed protesters showed up outside. Members of the far-right extremist group the Proud Boys reportedly joined a group of religious parents gathered in the parking lot of the Museum of Science & History (MoSH) on the evening of Friday, September 23, resulting in a last-minute evacuation just before the 7pm start time.

Memphis Proud was the first planned drag performance for MoSH, known by locals as the Pink Palace for its colorful marble facade. Featuring performances from local queens such as Sairen Moss, Shaklina, Barbie Wyre, and Trixie Thunder, the event was a culmination of MoSH’s Summer of Pride and celebrated the closing of Rise Up: Stonewall and the LGBTQ Rights Movement, a traveling group exhibition curated by the Newseum. MoSH leadership faced conservative backlash for this programming in the weeks leading up to the event and has yet to decide on rescheduling.

“After four months of educating the public to the fight for equality and acceptance and celebrating our LGBTQ+ community with our Memphis Proud and Rise Up exhibits and events, the Museum of Science & History shares in the disappointment that Friday’s event was canceled,” a MoSH spokesperson said in a statement sent to Hyperallergic. “However, the safety of our guests and staff members is our primary concern.”

Originally formed by VICE co-founder Gavin McInnes in 2016, the Proud Boys self-identify as “Western chauvinists” and claim to represent “anti-white guilt” and “anti-political correctness.” Members of the fraternal organization, which has local chapters all over the country, have shown up at Drag Queen Story Hour events and yelled slurs at performers while wearing screenprinted t-shirts comparing drag queens to pedophiles.

Performer Sairen Moss noticed cars with tinted windows just outside the main gate. As attendees were ushered out by police, Moss observed a group of armed men in black shirts and masks, which seemed contradictory to the protest’s original intent.

“The hate that swarmed and surrounded the show is appalling,” Moss told Hyperallergic. “People are worried about the kids yet you bring guns around them without a second thought. This proves that we as a community still have so much work to do. The Proud Boys were armed and trying to do who knows what, and the lack of protection from the police in this situation is also just fucking deplorable.”

In a text message shared with Hyperallergic, a MoSH staff member who requested anonymity claimed that the protest originally brought around 15 unarmed demonstrators, many of whom surveyed the building to check for unlocked doors and windows to gain access, but tensions escalated quickly as more people arrived.

“While we were trying to figure out how to react, a van showed up with 20 more of them, all armed,” the staff member said. “Whether the police couldn’t or just wouldn’t do anything about them, I don’t know. All I know is we had some 30 armed bigots on our property trying to break in, and that was when our director made the decision that we needed to evacuate.”

Sairen Moss was scheduled to perform at MoSH. (photo courtesy the artist)

Proud Boys openly espouse misogynistic and neo-fascist talking points, with members allegedly collaborating with the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Many of them are also current or former police officers. While Memphis Police Department (MPD) were present at the protest, a spokesperson denied Hyperallergic’s request to view a police report.

“MPD was asked to assist,” the spokesperson wrote in an email. “No incidents occurred, and no arrests were made.”

While guns are banned inside the MoSH building, laws around open carry are unclear in the surrounding area. Executive Director Kevin Thompson told local news that this was the first incident of its kind there, leading museum leadership to reflect on its safety policies. For Moss, however, this kind of intimidation was largely ineffectual.

“There will always be queer, gay, trans, and all the in-betweens in the world,” Moss said. “And to the people with nothing but hate, bigotry, and ignorance in their hearts, you will NEVER kill our pride!”

Billie Anania is an editor, critic, and journalist in New York City whose work focuses on political economy in the cultural industries and the history of art in global liberation movements.