Far-right protesters interrupted a Florida art center’s family-friendly drag event over the weekend, displaying flags and signs with neo-Nazi symbols and leading volunteer organizers to temporarily secure the venue.
On Saturday evening, December 3, a group of men associated with NatSoc Florida showed up outside ART/ifact Studios in Lakeland, where the local LGBTQ+ charity Rose Dynasty Foundation was hosting a “Celebration of the Arts.” The event featured drag performances, live music, and an art sale, with all proceeds going to Rose Dynasty and the local nonprofit CampOUT. Children under five were admitted for free, and programs were curated for an all-ages audience.
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As visitors arrived, the men began taking pictures of the premises and performing the Nazi salute, yelling slurs at children and chanting “Heil Hitler,” according to sources present and videos posted on social media. Photos from the event show men wearing white bandanas over their faces while waving Nazi and Christian flags, holding signs with hate symbols, and projecting messages on an adjacent building stating that “pedophilia” must be “punishable by death.” Another sign equated the Jewish Star of David with the communist hammer-and-sickle symbol.
Lakeland police quickly arrived on the scene, but no arrests were made. A police report reviewed by Hyperallergic clarifies that the protesters were “not Lakeland residents” and traveled there specifically for the event.
“When responding to calls involving protestors, our officers are there to ensure the safety and security of those at the event while also ensuring those demonstrating are allowed to protest and exercise their first amendment rights permitted by law,” a police spokesperson said. “Should an officer witness activities that violate the law, action is taken.”
According to Ellen Chastain, a museum professional who volunteered for the art exhibition, several event organizers quickly mobilized to guard the doors and cover windows while reassuring the arriving guests.
“I can only describe their response to the Nazis outside as shock,” she told Hyperallergic. “I don’t know that many of us have ever knowingly seen a self-identifying Nazi.”
Chastain claimed the protesters were there for more than two hours and temporarily shook everyone in attendance, but the event continued as planned.
“No one bothered to entertain the group’s wild rhetoric,” she said. “All in all, this experience was a huge reality check for many of us.”
Rose Dynasty founder Jason DeShazo, who performs as Momma Ashley Rose, claims this is their first event to be protested in this way. In an email to Hyperallergic, DeShazo described the incident as “heartbreaking” but reflective of ongoing anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric in mainstream media.
“This is an example of how the climate that we are in today has pushed extremists and given them a voice,” DeShazo said.
The Lakeland incident is just one among many far-right protests against drag events in the last week, including a rally in Fort Lauderdale; a sabotaged performance in Moore County, North Carolina; a canceled storytime event in Columbus, Ohio; and attacks on Lincoln Center attendees in Manhattan. In spite of this, ART/ifact reaffirmed its commitment to supporting Florida’s queer communities.
“As an arts collective and venue, we celebrate every single one of our resident and visiting artists, as well as our guests,” the gallery said in a statement. “We do not condone Saturday’s acts of hate, nor will we shrink in light of them. We will continue to be a safe space for our LBGTQ+ community to gather, create, and be the beautiful works of art they are.”