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With Leaders Locked Up, Proud Boys Embrace New Cause: Anti-LGBTQ Activism

FILE - Supporters of then-President Donald Trump, wearing attire associated with the Proud Boys, attend a rally at Freedom Plaza, Dec. 12, 2020, in Washington.
FILE - Supporters of then-President Donald Trump, wearing attire associated with the Proud Boys, attend a rally at Freedom Plaza, Dec. 12, 2020, in Washington.

Four leaders of the far-right extremist Proud Boys group are facing decades behind bars after a jury found them guilty of seditious conspiracy for their role in the January 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.

The convictions last week have decimated the group’s top leadership but have not destroyed it. Rank-and-filed Proud Boys have already moved on to their next cause: anti-LGBTQ activism.

For the past two years, the Proud Boys have waged a concerted campaign to harass and menace LGBTQ people, zeroing in on Drag Queen Story Hours and performances as their main target.

Drag story hours, in which storytellers dressed in drag read to children in libraries, schools and bookstores, were once largely confined to the West Coast but have exploded in popularity in recent years across the country.

Organizers say the events celebrate diversity, encourage reading, and inspire authenticity among children.

But conservative religious groups and far-right organizations say they are designed to “groom” and “sexualize” children.

Publicizing a drag event often causes a chain reaction. A right-wing media outlet blasts it. A local group rages and announces a protest. And far-right groups like the Proud Boys show up.

According to data compiled by LGBTQ media advocacy group GLAAD and the Anti-Defamation League, there have been 166 incidents of anti-LGBTQ protests and threats targeting drag events since early 2022. Far-right groups such as the Proud Boys took part in at least 35 of the incidents.

Sarah Moore, who researches anti-LGBTQ+ groups for both GLAAD and ADL, said the Proud Boys are one of “the most active extremist groups involved in anti-LGBTQ plus activities.”

“They attend a large number of drag show protests across the country and also participate in a number of other activities that are targeting the LGBTQ+ community,” Moore said in an interview with VOA.

Most protests have been peaceful, but some have turned violent.

Last July, a Proud Boys associate was charged with a hate crime after he allegedly vandalized a Chicago suburb bakery that was hosting a drag show.

In March, fights erupted outside an LGBTQ community center in New York where state Attorney General Letitia James was hosting a Drag Story Hour.

Also in March, a bomb threat forced terrified attendees to evacuate a Kentucky pet adoption center that was hosting a drag time story show.

The Proud Boys describe themselves as “Western chauvinists who refuse to apologize for creating the modern world.” They deny being racists or violent.

But extremism researchers say they have a violent agenda and harbor virulently hateful views of women, Muslims, transgender people and immigrants.

Before the attack of January 6, the Proud Boys were known for clashing with anti-fascist activists and showing up at former President Donald Trump’s political rallies.

Since then, they have avoided national attention and focused on local protests in defense of conservative causes.

They initially targeted vaccine mandates, the teaching of critical race theory in public schools and abortion rights.

But those issues didn’t have the “staying power” that the Proud Boys were seeking, said Sam Jones, head of communications at the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED).

“Then in 2022, for reasons that we're still teasing out, there was this perfect storm of a focus on demonizing the trans community in particular, but the LGBTQ community at large,” Jones said in an interview with VOA.

ACLED’s research captures the dramatic rise in anti-LGBT+ mobilization over the past three years: 17 incidents in 2020, 65 in 2021 and 241 in 2022.

The Proud Boys were involved in 58 anti-LGBTQ demonstrations last year, up from 13 the previous year.

The figures include protests, violent demonstrations and political violence.

The trend has continued this year. ACLED documented a total of 97 incidents through April 28, 19 involving the Proud Boys.

The attacks have alarmed the LGBTQ community.

But the Proud Boys may not be the biggest threat the LGBTQ community faces. A more pressing danger, activists and experts say, comes from the wave of anti-LGBTQ legislation sweeping across the country.

Tennessee became the first state this year to ban public drag shows, and more than a dozen other states want to impose similar restrictions.

“You don't want to overstate their influence,” Jones said of the Proud Boys. “This is also part of something that politicians are engaging in, something that large media figures are engaging in.”

What happens to the Proud Boys after their leaders’ convictions is unclear.

Some experts believe their leaders’ incarceration could weaken the group and lower their profile.

That’s what happened with the Oath Keepers, another extremist group that stormed the Capitol.

After the Oath Keepers’ top leaders were convicted last year, “their national activity just declined significantly,” Jones said.

But the Proud Boys are a decentralized group. They have more than 70 chapters across the country, each with its own power and agenda.

One factor that could shape the group’s future is their relationship with Trump’s nascent presidential campaign, Jones said.

The Proud Boys were among Trump’s most fervent supporters during the 2020 presidential campaign and, according to prosecutors, ready to unleash violence to keep him in power.

But after the botched attempt to overturn the 2020 election results, many Proud Boys felt abandoned by Trump, with some even accusing him of instigating the January 6 riots.

Will the group stick with Trump or break away from him? Will they sputter or resurface stronger? These are questions that loom over their future.