I started a drag camp for kids. Soon I was receiving thousands of hateful messages

“We told our campers what we were up against. They said it wasn’t their first time dealing with bullies.”
Jennica Grienke
Jennica Grienke, Co-Artistic Director of Carousel Theatre for Kids, poses for a photograph in the company’s costume room in Vancouver, B.C. on July 18, 2023.

Early in my acting career, I performed at local grade schools in a play called People Like Vince, about a kid whose uncle is coping with depression and other mental health challenges. In the middle of one performance, a young student, probably around eight years old, stood up and said, “My mom is like that.” All these years later, that moment has always stuck with me. It was theatre at its best: a place in which young people can feel seen, safe and understood when they’re just starting to figure out life.

In my 20s, I continued to work as an actor, but as I got older, I craved more stability. I moved toward leadership roles and directing, which felt like my true calling. A couple of years ago, I got the opportunity to join the team at Carousel, a performing arts theatre for young people on Granville Island in Vancouver. I was hired as the co-artistic and managing director in 2021, with the goal to reshape and re-envision the future of the company.

Our company puts on several productions created for young audiences, like our recent adaptation of The Wizard of Oz called Oz, and we also run a year-round drama school and summer camps for kids and teens. Last season, my co-director, Dave Deveau, and I were planning to relaunch the teen Shakespeare program, but there was very little uptake—I think we got two applications. We wanted to create the kind of programming that got young people excited about theatre, so we figured: why not just ask them? We ran a few focus groups and conducted some interviews. Again and again, we kept hearing about drag.

For the older kids—tweens and teenagers—they loved the idea of creating characters and performing a number. This is a generation that has grown up watching RuPaul’s Drag Race. They were excited to explore artistic expression through costume and makeup and music. We were lucky because we had drag queens on our staff at the time, like Dave, also known as iconic Vancouver drag queen Peach Cobblah, who performs all-ages shows with his husband called Parents Are A Drag.

Our team decided to test the waters on a week-long drag camp for those 11-years-old and up. We hired some of the best local drag talent, including Rose Butch, a non-binary performer who identifies not as a queen nor a king, but a “drag thing.” Our program covered makeup, costume, choreography and performance, and the kids learned how to develop their own drag personas. One of our students opted to perform as neither king nor queen. They covered their face and hands in silver and gold body paint, donning a black and silver suit to become a drag robot. The intricacy of their choreographed movements brought our audience to their feet. It was fabulous, and we got a lot of positive feedback from parents, but for the most part, our first drag camp flew under the radar. Despite the outside world’s extreme polarization over this gender-bending art form, in our little corner, we were able to focus on fun.

A hand drawn sign saying "Welcome to the Drag Show" with pictures of drag queens and kings is posted above a corkboard.

That all changed last March. We had sent out a newsletter that included registration info for our 2023 summer drag camp. We had a lot of requests from parents of younger kids, so we split the camp into two age groups: seven to 11 and 12 to 17. I was walking out of the closing performance of Oz when I got an email from one of my staffers that only had a link. When I clicked on it, I was directed to a website with distorted pictures of our summer camp ads, as well as photos of myself and other staff members, calling us kiddie porn distributors and pedophiles while demanding that we cancel our drag camp. I was stunned and horrified. We immediately removed the staff photos from Carousel’s website, but our images were already out there. From that day forward, we started receiving vicious hate mail and cease-and-desist notices from random emails.

We hoped that if we just kept our heads down, this would pass, but then about a week later, PPC leader Maxime Bernier called us “disgusting” in a tweet and claiming that we were “indoctrinating kids … with gender ideology.” Everything got out of control from there. I am willing to accept that people have different opinions about a drag camp for young people, but the level of violent vitriol that his tweet incited was beyond comprehension. Every day, my staff members got hundreds of hateful emails and voicemails, and backlash flooded our social media accounts; some comments talked about children’s bodies in very specific and sexualized terms—and then they accused us of being child molesters. Several of us received death threats. My staff were scared to walk to their cars alone, terrified they might be followed home.

The police got involved after one of our critics copied the City of Vancouver on an email demanding that the government stop funding our work. A city security manager asked us to file a police report, so we sent them everything we had: tens of thousands of emails and voicemails and social media posts. We hired a crisis communication expert to help us manage web traffic so my staff could use their emails again. We brought on our own web investigator, hoping they might be able to track down the ringleaders, but we still don’t know who targeted us. Our theatre needed security too, and these were all significant expenses for a small, non-profit children’s theatre that was in the midst of rebuilding after the pandemic. We were fortunate when a community member heard about the backlash and launched a GoFundMe to support us. Within five days, people raised more than $20,000.

To be extra cautious, we decided not to hold the drag camp on Carousel’s theatre grounds, and only shared the new location with the parents of children who had signed up. We did more vetting than usual with parents and kids, just to be certain these were actual campers and not one of our detractors trying to access our private information. Those conversations were a real silver lining. We told prospective campers what we were up against. A lot of them said it wasn’t their first time dealing with bullies. Many of the kids who registered for our camp have felt excluded or picked on for being “different,” which is why our program means so much to them. I was nervous, but they were undaunted. I remembered their courage during my many sleepless nights, when I lay in bed imagining the worst.

Weeks before the camp started, there had been a lot of chatter on the dark web about a protest that was being planned for outside our theatre. We even had a couple of members from an alt-right group called Action4Canada show up at our offices. They snuck in behind one of our staff members and started presenting us with all of this bogus paperwork, almost like they were trying to make a citizen’s arrest. You could laugh at how ridiculous it was, but you never know. January 6 started with web chatter too.

A number of hand drawn Pride flags with supportive mesasges are posted on a pale yellow wall under a wall calendar.

Our first day of camp was in July. I was nervous, but unbeknown to us, our local theatre union had rallied other organizations—members from the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists; teachers; and even the fishmongers’ union came out to show their support. The counter-protest turned into a celebration. Everyone dressed in bright rainbow colours and danced to club hits from over the decades, while waving signs that read: “Love Wins.”

The planned “protest” itself ended up being pretty pathetic. At 9 a.m., one middle-aged man showed up across the street from the theatre, holding a sign that said drag was child abuse. Only six more protesters came out, and they were all gone by 11 a.m., which is when you have to start paying for parking. Meanwhile, a group of young people got to participate in this wonderful form of artistic expression, totally free from the burden of politics.

So many people who are against drag for kids don’t understand it. They buy into this idea that children are being sexualized, which is just flat-out wrong, and attached to a lot of other prejudices directed at the 2SLGBTQ+ community. Certainly some adult drag performances are not suitable for kids, but that’s true of most styles of art or entertainment.

Our camps are about giving young people a chance to be whoever they want to be. Some of the older campers identify as queer, but many of the younger ones aren’t thinking in those terms. They just want to experiment and have fun, play with makeup. Finding community is crucial: I’ve heard from students that our camp saved their lives. We’ve fostered an environment that emphasizes kindness and acceptance, which these kids show each other on a daily basis. When a younger camper was nervous to get up on stage, the older kids decided they would step in as a makeshift audience and cheer them on. You could see an immediate shift in the younger camper’s stage fright; after a few minutes, they were beaming as they walked down the runway. What could be more innocent and apolitical than that?

As told to Courtney Shea