In a room surrounded by children and parents, a man’s question stunned the crowd:

“Did you know you’re going to hell?”

He’d been just another face among many who had gathered in Retro Row’s Casita Bookstore for a Drag Story Hour event earlier this summer—until he decided to raise his hand.

The man, along with a group of similarly minded peers, had blended in with the crowd before erupting into protest halfway through the show. Shortly after the initial outburst, parents attempted to usher the men out of the small store to protect their children.

“Outdoors, he just kept shouting about how the parents are perverting their children and they might as well have stones tied to their necks,” the bookstore’s owner, Antonette Franceschi-Chavez, said.

“That was so harmful and traumatizing, had any of those children actually internalized it or registered the words that he was saying,” she said.

As gay and trans rights have once again become a lightning rod among conservatives nationwide, the scene—awful as it was—may have been less surprising in a red state, or even in a more conservative part of California. But in Long Beach?

“Reading a book to children—which is not a sexual activity, it’s not adult behavior—is the same thing as princess story time,” said Jewels, arguably Long Beach’s most prominent drag figure. “Essentially, it’s someone in a fun, colorful outfit reading a beautiful book about love and acceptance to children. So, you’re seeing the fringe attacks from across the country show up even in California—even in Long Beach—in such an ugly way.”

That’s why, activists say, the Long Beach Pride parade, which celebrates its 40th year on Sunday, is as necessary now as it’s ever been.

A history of protection

Bob Crow knows more than most about Long Beach’s 40-year tradition.

Crow, now 77, is the last living founder of Long Beach Pride. Today, he’s battling stage 4 lung cancer, but he still does what he can to participate, even if it’s just to watch organizers paint its traditional float.

He came to the oceanside city from Mobile, Alabama, in the late 1970s with his boyfriend at the time. The pair left the South in search of a community that would accept them—and they found Long Beach.

“And we broke up real soon after that,” Crow chuckled. “Too many men here.”

Crow, like other prominent and long-standing LGBTQ+ figures in the city, knows that celebrating Pride holds the same importance that it did in 1983.

While sitting on the patio of the Executive Suite, Crow reminisced with Tonya Martin, Long Beach Pride’s historian. The well-known gay club is where, in 1983, Crow, Marylin Barlow and Judith Doyle originally formed Long Beach Lesbian & Gay Pride Inc., now known as Long Beach Pride.

Bob Crow along with Tonya Martin talk about Long Beach Pride in Long Beach, Monday, June 26, 2023. Martin is a historian for LB Pride, and Crow is the last living founding member of LB Pride. Photo by Thomas R. Cordova.

At first, it all happened on a whim.

One day, Crow said he was sharing a drink with Fred Kovelle, the owner of the Executive Suite at the time, when Crow told him that he wanted to do something to celebrate the gay community in Long Beach.

“He says, ‘You decide what we’ll do, and I’ll give you the seed money,’” Crow said.

The funding took away one major challenge—but that didn’t mean everyone welcomed the festivities.

The city tried to put a stop to that very first parade by levying demands for parade organizers to pay for police supervision. But the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit, accusing the city of discrimination. After a years-long battle, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge ruled in favor of the Pride organizers.

More challenges arose the next year.

Ahead of the second Pride parade, in 1985, founding member Doyle received a death threat, but she brazenly marched into the parade regardless, donning a bulletproof vest.

While Crow acknowledged that Long Beach is a far more progressive city today than it was back then, he said it’s clear that Pride is still needed to combat prejudice that continues to linger.

Martin agreed.

“We need to show up more than ever now—we’re being threatened, we’re being shot, they’re trying to take us back, and we’re not gonna do it,” Martin said, grabbing Crow’s hand. “We’ve got to lean on each other. That’s what family does.”

Martin, like Crow, said she moved to Long Beach from Alabama in search of a more inclusive home.

“Both of us came here without a family, so Pride became our family,” Martin said. “And then the community became our family because of that freedom that we felt, that we could be ourselves, as funny as it is, inside that small little fence,” she said of the Executive Suite.

“Our protection,” Crow said in reply.

“And we wanted that for everyone,” Martin said.

The three founding members of Long Beach Pride from left to right: Marilyn Barlow, Bob Crow and Judith Doyle.
The three founding members of Long Beach Pride from left to right: Marilyn Barlow, Bob Crow and Judith Doyle. Photo courtesy of Long Beach Pride.

The roots of Pride

For Robert Garcia, who served as Long Beach’s first openly gay mayor before becoming the first openly gay immigrant to serve in Congress, Pride isn’t just a celebration—it’s activism.

“This year, particularly this 40th anniversary of Pride for us, across the country, you have to remember some of the roots of what Pride is all about,” Garcia said. “It’s activism. It’s protest, and we have to bring some of that back.”

For Garcia, moving from a city that has long been lauded as a safe haven for the LGBTQ+ community to a subversive national stage has been challenging.

“To go from there to a place like D.C., where half of the Congress and a lot of the folks there are extremists that don’t believe that gay people should have rights, that don’t believe in displaying the Pride flag, that put up awful signs in front of their offices about trans people, has been really hard,” he said.

Garcia recalled one of the most uncomfortable moments he has experienced recently while sitting in a committee meeting with Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene. According to Garcia, Greene told a lesbian mother that because she wasn’t biologically related to her child, she wasn’t a mother.

“She literally said to her face, ‘You’re not a mother,’” Garcia said. “It’s those kinds of things that happen, where I’m like, I’m stunned that somebody could actually say those things. … One of the things I do out there, because I think it’s necessary, is to push back on that.”

This year, some 492 anti-LGBTQ+ bills, a record number, have been introduced nationally, according to data from the American Civil Liberties Union. In the same timeframe, 45 anti-LGBTQ+ bills have been signed into law nationally, according to the Human Rights Campaign.

Although much of the legislation attempting to strip rights away from the LGBTQ+ community has been cropping up in red states like Texas and Florida, Garcia says residents of blue California should still be on high alert.

“When folks are losing basic rights, you know, in places like Texas and other places across the country, that should concern us.”

The need for celebration

The disturbance at Casita Bookstore was a visceral reminder of that.

The store was forced to close early that day.

“We had to draw the blinds and lock the doors because some homophobic [expletive] thought it would be great to come into the story time and yell at children while they were enjoying a beautiful story being told to them about being different and accepting themselves who they are,” Franceschi-Chavez, the store’s owner, said through tears in an Instagram post that day. “Hopefully we’ll see you at the next one, they’re not going to hold us back.”

It’s incidents like these that keep some community members on edge.

“It’s such a queer-inclusive community that these attacks are happening in,” she told the Post after the incident.

In response, Franceschi-Chavez said, the neighborhood jumped into action.

“We had neighbors coming out to help create a barrier, random strangers walking down the street saw what was going on and jumped in to keep them from coming back in the store,” she said.

For Jewels, the recent rise in those kinds of attacks has been alarming.

“Drag has existed as an art form for hundreds of years and it’s really interesting that just in the last year it has become a political tool and it’s being demonized,” said Jewels.

Jewels performs during a drag show at Hamburger Mary’s in Downtown Long Beach Wednesday, June 28, 2023. Photo by Brandon Richardson.

“Essentially, we all do drag in some way, shape or form,” she said. “When we wake up, we get dressed and we present ourselves to the world. In my opinion, drag is freedom, it’s the freedom to be who you want to be in that moment, to celebrate life, to celebrate the freedoms we have in the U.S. to be ourselves and so it is horrifying to see that freedom used as a scare tactic by, you know—a very vocal minority in our country.”

But to Jewels, the way to respond, as Long Beach has done for 40 years, is not to shy away—it’s to celebrate the beauty of the LGBTQ+ community.

“It’s not just the LGBTQ community, but also our greater city in general who gets together and celebrates with this fabulous parade,” she said. “It’s one of the best feelings to be in a beautiful city that celebrates diversity every day—and especially on Pride.”

Staff writer Brandon Richardson contributed to this report.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct Tonya Martin’s title.