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Element 41, a restaurant on Main Street in Chardon, which will host a drag brunch on April 1, 2023.
For Element 41 owner Paul Mendolera, hosting a drag brunch event seemed like a simple choice.
Mendolera had been strongly supportive of LGBTQ events in the past. He had catered "Drag Me to Dinners." There were the Christmas parties, the Lake County Pride. "We've done fundraisers," he said, "multiple fundraisers."
Yet Mendolera was shocked when, after agreeing to help host a "Drag Brunch & Story Hour" event in partnership with the Community Church of Chesterland on April 1st, the decision quickly morphed into a public controversy.
"I've been getting calls and harassment," Mendolera told Scene. "People saying that we're dropping the property values, and we're 'responsible for it.' And, 'We hope your place burns down!' Now, how Christian is that? Telling somebody they hope their place burns down?"
The event —along with a companion drag story hour at the Community Church of Chesterland the same day—come at a moment of heightened awareness by performers and supported and dangerous, spiking malice from some Conservatives including extremist sects and elected officials.
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Jess Peacock / Instagram
The flyer for the show at Element 41, on April 1st, 2023.
Threats have led Mendolera to beef up security, with the help of the Chardon Police Department, as the Proud Boys and other groups plan on showing up to protest.
A similar exhibition of hatred occurred at Wadsworth Memorial Park on March 13 when dozens of far-right extremists countered a "Rock-n-Roll Drag Queen Humanist Story Hour" with Nazi flag waving and Seig Heil salutes. After the four-hour event, a quick brawl led to two arrests
. Additionally, a well-known and admitted Neo Nazi was sent back to federal prison
by a judge for a variety of probation violations after videos showed him passing out flyers in advance of the event.
Jess Peacock, a reverend at the Community Church of Chesterland and a partner host in the April 1st drag story hour, said he's not surprised at the hate being unleashed. But, after working a year in Geauga County, he is saddened by the depths of the threats. ("Don't do something God will hate, I beg of you," reads a recent message Peacock shared with Scene. "If you do this, blood will be on your hands, sir.")
"There's a whole spectrum there. I think that there are people who think that they are resisting this for the kids," Peacock told Scene. "But I think most of it is dog whistle politics, where there is just a general hatred of the LGBTQ+ community, and the rallying cry of, quote-unquote, 'Think of the kids', is just a cover for general hatred."
Veranda L'Ni, one of the drag performers at show at Element 41, said she's flabbergasted that, after hosting drag brunches for the past six years, displays of vibrant music and dancing "tailored for [an] all ages audience" can still be fodder for malicious politics.
And, like other queens in the Cleveland circuit, she's noticed a "significant increase" in "threats and disruptions" against her daytime, all-ages performances—Chardon's included. (The Element 41 event is 18+, unlike L'Ni's other daytime shows.) Threats which she routinely screenshots and reports to the Cleveland Police or the LGBT Center.
"Drag has become a flash point for hateful rhetoric against our trans community and our drag community," L'Ni told Scene. "Any shows or story hours that are family oriented are being misconstrued as some lewd entertainment geared towards children. It’s quite the opposite and quite unfortunate the haters cannot get past this."
Despite the seemingly never-ending calls from those urging Mendolera not to host April's drag brunch, there has been an outpouring in support from others in Chardon, which has long been considered an LGBTQ center of Geauga County. Regardless, Lieutenant Matt DeLisa at the Chardon Police is supplying officers.
"[DeLisa] told me, 'We have the perimeter covered. Just worrying about serving good food,'" Mendolera said.
And, following numerous messages of praise on Element 41's Facebook page, Mendolera has received the occasional drop-in from the drag or LGBTQ supporter and those wishing they'd bought a ticket in time.
One, a woman who walked in waving a $100 check, reassured Mendolera that what he was hosting was larger than one single event.
"I gave her a big hug, and I said, thank you so much," Mendolera recalled. "And she said, with tears in her eyes, 'You keep doing what you think is right.'"
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