DURHAM, N.C. -- As shootings at two electrical substations cut power to thousands of central North Carolina homes last weekend, they also sparked widespread speculation that the days-long blackout might be the latest of several attempts to shut down a local drag show meant to celebrate the LGBTQ community in rural Moore County.
Moore County Sheriff Ronnie Fields said earlier this week that police have not found evidence connecting the attacks to the drag performance that began shortly before the power went out, nor have they released a motive. However, authorities are considering the timing overlap and recent attacks on similar events nationwide as they proceed with their investigation.
Police have said the outages began shortly after 7 p.m. last Saturday after one or more people drove up to two electrical substations, breached the gates and opened fire on them. Whoever was responsible, Fields said, “knew exactly what they were doing to ... cause the outage that they did.”
Duke Energy officials said power was fully restored to the county Wednesday evening. A peak of more than 45,000 customers lost power over the weekend. Many residents said they struggled to stay warm as temperatures dropped below freezing overnight.
Regardless of whether investigators connect the two events, Sandhills Pride Director Lauren Mathers said repeated efforts to shut down what was billed as a family friendly drag performance have left the county's LGBTQ community feeling vulnerable.
She is especially worried for the safety of local queer and trans youth, who she said rarely see themselves represented in rural and right-leaning places like Moore County.
“This is my first time having this level of hate thrown at something that we love so much,” said Mathers, a Southern Pines resident and producer of the drag event. “Kids in rural communities don’t necessarily always have the same level of support, and what I hear from my kids is that there’s constant bullying.”
Naomi Dix, headliner of the Dec. 3 show at the Sunrise Theater in Southern Pines, said she and fellow organizers were brutally harassed in the weeks leading up to the show. Conservative community leaders led a protest outside the theater, spread the false narrative that it was a sex show and demanded it be shut it down, she said.
Their concerns are shared by federal officials who have been on high alert in the weeks after a gunman opened fire in a gay nightclub in Colorado, killing five people and wounding 17 others.
In a national terrorism advisory bulletin issued last week, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security warned that the LGBTQ community and critical infrastructure may be targets of violence as domestic extremists and foreign terrorist organizations encourage online supporters to carry out attacks.
The FBI posted a notice seeking information related to the North Carolina investigation, and Gov. Roy Cooper announced a reward Wednesday of up to $75,000 for information leading to an arrest and conviction.
For Dix, a Durham-based drag queen, the threats she faced leading up to the event were not isolated incidents but rather the “unfortunate reality for those working to increase LGBTQ visibility" in rural and conservative communities. Despite the backlash, she said, this will not be her last performance in Moore County.
The night of the show, private security and local police monitored the venue, Dix said. When the power went out about 30 minutes into the show, she asked the crowd of 370 people to illuminate the room with their cell phone lights as she serenaded them with Beyonce's “Halo.”
“Our job as drag performers is to facilitate and create safe spaces," Dix said. ”Specifically when it comes to Moore County, and dealing with this situation here in Southern Pines, it’s to find these areas in which there isn’t great representation of the queer community and to provide them with art and a space in which they can feel safe to express themselves.”
A recent study of threats, protests and violence against drag events from the LGBTQ advocacy organization GLAAD placed North Carolina and Texas atop the list of states with the highest number of drag events targeted this year. Of the 124 incidents documented across 47 states as of late November, at least 10 occurred in North Carolina. That tally does not include the latest demonstration in Moore County.
Such attacks on the performance art with strong historical ties to the LGBTQ community are the latest examples of “an ongoing, increasingly violent pattern" of right-wing activists and politicians using false rhetoric to stoke fear and fuel LGBTQ opposition, said Barbara Simon, head of news and campaigns for GLAAD.
Opponents of drag events catered toward families often falsely claim they “groom” children, implying attempts to sexually abuse them or somehow influence their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Lawmakers in seven states have proposed legislation this year banning minors from drag shows and prohibiting public drag performances. A bill filed last month in Texas seeks to classify drag as a “sexually oriented business” on par with strip clubs.
Serena Sebring, executive director of Blueprint NC, a coalition of progressive advocacy organizations in the Tar Heel state, said even though authorities are urging people not to jump to conclusions about the motive, she cannot ignore the persistent threats to LGBTQ communities and critical infrastructure nationwide.
“Every member of our community bears the cost of homophobia and transphobia unchecked," Sebring said. "Moore County is an example and ought to be a cautionary tale about what happens when we allow bigotry to flourish.”
Hannah Schoenbaum is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.