In their ongoing efforts to create controversy and division as a way to stir up their supporters and score political points, right-wing activists and politicians are making false claims about drag performance that have led directly to attacks on a treasured local business. Following comments from Richland City Mayor pro-tem expressing that she was “very sad” that the Emerald was having a Sunday Drag Brunch on Easter Sunday (despite the fact that they host Drag Brunch every 2nd Sunday), and her suggestion that people send a ‘polite note’ to the Emerald of Siam expressing their concern over the matter, owner Dara Quinn and her staff began receiving phone calls, emails, and social media posts filled with obscenities, hateful comments, and violent threats. On the morning of the event, the Emerald was vandalized. The next day, they received a death threat in the mail.
Claims that family-friendly drag performances somehow sexualize or groom children are patently untrue (see Drag FAQ). But the truth doesn’t matter to those who are willing to spew hatred and threaten violence towards something they don’t care to understand, hurting longtime community members — including children — in the process.
The Quinn family and their restaurant, The Emerald of Siam, have been members of our community for decades, and have contributed so much to the Tri-Cities. To target them for hosting family-friendly entertainment — entertainment that parents choose to attend with their children — because it is misrepresented or misunderstood is not only unfair; it harms our community and goes against the values of diversity and inclusiveness this community should represent.
In the midst of all the upset, Dara Quinn took the time to share her experience with me in the week after Sunday Drag Brunch. Here is our conversation.
The Emerald of Siam has a long history of featuring many types of music and performances, in just about every genre and style. And drag has been among those acts for some time now. When did you have your first drag show?
To be honest, when I was first approached about hosting drag shows, I was apprehensive because I know this is a very conservative town. I was not sure that I wanted to subject my business to conservative scrutiny, and… oh the irony, [look] what has come about years later.
Our first drag show was in October of 2019. Minus COVID year, we have had drag shows once a month for four years.
How long have you been hosting family-friendly Sunday Drag Brunch?
Our brunches were brought in later, around 2021. The evening 21+ shows had such great attendance… the Queens wanted to put on a family-friendly version due to high demand. There are drag brunches in many cities across the United States. We’ve had at least 12 family-friendly drag brunch events in the last few years, including one on Easter Sunday of 2022.
There have been a lot of accusations filled with disinformation and, to be blunt, outright lies about these drag performances. Let’s talk about some details to make sure everyone understands. Describe what happens during a Sunday Drag Brunch.
The Queens get dressed to the hilt with makeup and costume. They dance around and lip sync and collect tips that are handed to them from the audience. There is a little humorous banter between the acts.
How do your evening shows differ from the brunch shows?
Our 21+ shows can get raunchy, for sure. There are often swear words and sexual innuendo.
The family-friendly brunches are censored. There is no foul language used and there are no sexual references.
Before this weekend, have you ever had protesters or complaints about your drag shows?
In the years that we have been having drag shows, there was one time we had a set of two protestors.
What happened that prompted your manager, Tim Thornton, to go to the city council to request some help in dealing with the hateful phone calls and threats?
Out of nowhere, we started receiving multiple phone calls and hate emails/Facebook/Instagram messages expressing grief about the drag shows. I thought, Wow… maybe a local priest or pastor had encouraged his congregation to call or something, because it seemed out of nowhere with its magnitude.
Tim went to the city council to ask for support. He was flabbergasted by Mayor pro tem Theresa Richardson’s announcement that she had requested her followers to contact us with ‘polite’ grievances.
You were out of town when this all went down. Tell me what that was like to be so far away while trying to deal with what was unfolding?
I was with my family on an annual Oregon Coast retreat. The calls started two days before I left. The city council thing happened, and the debacle blew up while I was gone. Incidentally, I was also laid up sick for three days during the vacation, so through my delirium, I was informed of developments. I was so proud of Tim (The Emerald’s general manager) for taking a stand for our business while I was gone. He fielded A LOT.
Your restaurant was vandalized with hate-filled flyers and posters glued all over your front windows. When your staff arrived, members of the nearby EastLake Church were already working to remove those papers. How did that make you feel? What is your relationship with EastLake like?
EastLake Church are great neighbors. We’ve always had an amicable relationship, and I even rent their facilities to throw bigger shows. I feel blessed that Travis happened by and saw the defacement and he immediately started working on it. I got the call around 7am on Easter morning that our property had been vandalized. Our neighbors on the other side, Legacy Jiu-Jitsu, also helped us out. We have great neighboring businesses; and although they may not be interested in attending a drag show, they are supportive.
You hired additional security for this event, which can be expensive. Were you able to cover your costs for that?
With generous donations from our community, we were able to cover the extra costs. The donations overflowed and we have a nice chunk of money that we are donating to The Trevor Project, which is a nonprofit organization that provides support for LGBTQ+ teens.
The community responded with love and support, standing out front while a sold-out crowd filled your restaurant, outnumbering the protesters that showed up. How did that feel? What would you like to say to your supporters?
Let me tell you, Ted: the event was amazing. I was so delightfully surprised with the amount of support that we got from the community. I would guess at least 150 people came out to show their support, who did not even have tickets to the show, to be a loving shield from the protestors. It was heartwarming, and the show was an absolute blast.
I’d like to personally thank each and every person who was supportive, whether they were here or not. We have also received many phone calls of support and people stopping by to donate for security, buy a meal, or just simply to say, “Hey, we are embarrassed for our community about the hate you have been receiving.”
You held the brunch as scheduled. Were there any problems?
The only problem was we did not have a bigger space, because I would have loved to welcome everyone in. There were a handful of protestors, including some that hold positions in local office. One of my team members heard [a protester] say, “I have guns on me. It’s ‘shoot first, ask questions second’.” And that was scary, but I would say that, overall, love won.
The day after the brunch, you received a death threat in the mail. I can barely imagine how that feels for you and your staff, and I admire your courage in the face of all this hate. I know that this is now under investigation, and I certainly hope they find the person responsible. You are probably limited on what you can say, but can you tell me anything more?
Yes, receiving the letter was jarring. The return address alone — “John Shooter, AR-15 Die St. Pasco, WA” — was very threatening. I did not want to open the letter. I kept it sealed until I could find a person of the law to open it. I had no idea what [I would] find inside. Although I don’t want to quote exactly what it said, so as to not impede progress on the investigation, inside was a letter essentially saying that if we hosted drag queens, people will die. The police did consider that a threat (they said the return address was just an implied threat) and say they have sent it to the detectives. I also reported all I knew to the FBI and forwarded them pictures of the envelope and contents.
Have you had any direct contact with Theresa Richardson, the council member who encouraged people to send you a ‘polite note’?
Theresa friend requested me on Facebook around the time of the city council meeting (I’m unsure if it was before or after). After seeing what she had said at the council meeting and toiling about it for several days, I did reach out with an olive branch to her as I was sure that she was not enjoying the debacle either. I have to say that my feelings towards her have changed since I sent her this note, because after I sent it, she asked Steve Lee whether he would be surprised to find out the vandalism was caused by myself so that I could “play the victim”. And furthermore, she has not apologized for her encouragement to the community to give us grief.
Editor’s note: Here is an excerpt from Dara’s message to Theresa:
Hi Theresa, thank you for the friend request.
I just hope you are not taking personally any ugly retort from my supporters. I know you are a lovely person and this whole mess came about when you were just expressing what you feel is right. Unfortunately, your constituents also followed your advice in contacting us, but so many have chosen to do so in very threatening ways. It has fueled a huge debacle which I’m sure neither of us want to be a part of.
I just want you to know that I hold no ill will toward you and I hope you feel the same. My ultimate wish is that people will understand that our event is not harmful to children and that there are parents who have made their decision whether or not they want their kids to experience these events, just the same as they do for any event/movie/book/YouTube video or whatever. … I see you, and know you mean well, and I hope that none of this brings you sadness, anger, or fear, as I do not wish those feelings upon anyone.
What do you wish people knew about this experience that they probably don’t understand?
I want people to know that I, my business, and peers would never ever do anything to harm children and if I thought that this event was in any way harmful to children, I would not host it.
How can we, the members of this community, support you and the Emerald in the face of all this hate?
Come to a show. Buy Thai food. Spread love.
Dara, from the bottom of my heart, to you and to all your staff, thank you for being an absolute rock of inclusive and loving support to the artists, musicians, dancers, performers, and the marginalized people in our community. We are better because you and the Emerald are here. Stay strong.
Thank you, Ted.
Dara and a large group of supporters attended the April 18, 2023 Richland City Council meeting to speak about the impact to the Emerald and to request an apology. You can see the video of the council meeting at https://richlandwa.new.swagit.com/videos/224279. I followed up with Dara the next day.
Since we talked last week, you and a group of supporters gathered at the Emerald and marched to city hall to attend the council meeting on April 18. How has the community responded to your request for support?
Hi Ted, thank you for the follow up. Getting to the city council meeting and speaking my piece was a huge weight lifted. Once again, the community came through. I am guessing 150–200 supporters showed up at the Emerald on a Tuesday evening to march with us to the city council meeting.
What was it like walking with so many people who support you, your business, and the inclusive community you engender?
It was heartwarming and felt safe. [There were] people I knew, people I didn't know… we even had people come from out of town to support. We had people from all walks with us — a priest, politicians, families, gay people, straight people, trans people, mothers, fathers, drag performers — you name it, they were there. (Well, except for bigots and assholes.)
Tell me a little bit about how your group was received by the staff at city hall. Did they expect such a large crowd?
The City Attorney said that it was the largest attendance she has seen in 10 years. They had extra security from the RPD on patrol and we were briefed by the sergeant before the march as to a couple of rules to follow, and he assured us that our safety was a priority. We even had a little traffic control by RPD, which was greatly appreciated as our group was several blocks long. The staff at city hall was very cordial. They plainly explained some ground rules before the meeting and made it easy for us to attend and get a chance to speak.
I know you, Tim, Justin, and others spoke. What message were you trying to communicate? What did you ask of the council?
The main messages were that we are all people sharing this town and, as Justin so eloquently said, that Mayor Pro Tem Richardson and her supporters do not have the monopoly on family values, and that not every family is the same. We are all trying to get along here together and that using her position in the community to encourage people to complain to a local business holding what we consider a family-friendly event is not acceptable.
Some of the community spoke, too, and explained that, to them, a drag show feels safer than a church group. And as I stated, as a mother, business owner, and community member, I would never hold an event that is dangerous to our children. There were so many great speakers at the event. I thought it was beautiful and needed. I encourage anyone interested in the public comments to go to the City of Richland’s website and watch the video record.
How did the council respond and how did that make you feel?
The council was silent, which was not encouraging, but I understand that it is not part of the process to respond during public comment.
There were also some speakers who were defending Mayor Pro Tem Theresa Richardson. Were there any particular commenters that you’d like to respond to here?
Welp, forgive me; as I think I said before, I am not one to engage in politics, but as far as I know, Legislator Brad Klippert's remark about church and state not being separate is incorrect. There were some supporters for Theresa as a person who said she is a good person, etcetera, and I don't doubt that they have cordial interactions. Theresa is just a person, too, and I believe she made a mistake trying to do what she thinks is good and right. But mistakes deserve apologies, which we have not received. I could also go on about how a kid-friendly drag event REALLY means kid-friendly, but I feel that to say that to Tumbleweird readers would be preaching to the choir.
Well, you might be surprised at some of the demographics of our readers. You never know who is listening. What’s next for the Emerald? Has this experience changed anything?
Well, I can't wait for this debacle to end. We do continue to receive nasty phone calls and letters, including another that we are reporting to the authorities, as it is threatening. Yet we continue to get support from the community, too. As a good friend of mine who is involved in politics told me: “This is just the beginning.” Ugh.
The bright side of this whole situation is that it brought into light what a strong community of sound-minded and open-minded people we have here. People who believe in fairness and love. And it has brought to light that we need to change some things around here for the better, for our community, and yes, FOR THE CHILDREN. It is not good, this hate that has been emanating around. It needs to be quelled by love, and people in office who will not use their positions in society to spread misinformation about things they do not know about, and leaders who support local business and ALL of our community members, not just a select few.
We need people in office who support the City of Richland's vision statement, which states: “Richland is a progressive, safe, and family-friendly community that welcomes diversity.”
There will be a discussion at the Emerald on April 29 at 2pm about how to run for office.
Thank you again for taking the time to answer my questions. And thank you for all you do for the City of Richland and our diverse, loving, inclusive community. You are the community values we aspire to be.
Thank you, Ted. You are definitely one of the good apples.
So are you!
• Tim Thornton's “Footloose for drag shows” post, and video of Richland City Council meeting (4/4/23), in which a community member spreads misinformation about drag shows and the Mayor Pro Tem suggests that community members express their ‘sadness’ about Drag Brunch to the Emerald of Siam (which they did, via threats and vandalism): fb.com/584735500/videos/pcb.10167352994740501/166592072950886 (See also: Response to comments from a Licensed Mental Health Counselor)
• Steve Lee's post urging citizens to ask Richland City Council to address the fallout from the 4/4 Council meeting: bit.ly/SteveLeeRCC
• Tri-City Herald editorial challenging Richland leadership to take a stand: tri-cityherald.com/article274540586.html
• Richland City Council meeting (4/18/23), in which many community members speak about the fallout from the Drag Brunch vandalism, misinformation spreading throughout the community, and the city's response (or lack thereof): richlandwa.new.swagit.com/videos/224279
Ted Miller has been part of the local performing arts scene for over 25 years. He currently serves as president of the Washington State Community Theatre Association.