He knew there’d be trouble when he heard Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene utter his name. “He may pick you up for a ride,” Greene intoned in a live video in June. “Then he’ll dress in women’s clothing and read stories to your kids and sell sex toys to college students.”
Benjamin Gentry—who goes by Courtney Chanel Stratton as a drag queen and works at the Rome, Georgia, adult store the Love Library—was scheduled to perform at Rome’s inaugural pride festival nine days later, reading books to children. Greene represents Georgia’s 14th district, which includes Rome.
Greene showed a picture of Stratton on screen, the queen’s curly blonde hair framing sumptuous eyelashes and a glittering necklace. Off camera, Greene’s producer intoned, “His real name is Benjamin Gentry, and the bad news is that he’s a ride-share driver in Rome, Georgia.” She flashed a picture of Gentry’s Facebook profile on screen and suggested people send him a friend request. That same day, Greene, who is poised to win another term in Congress in next month, tweeted to her nearly 1 million followers, “Protecting your children from drag queen child predators is not a hate crime.”
Gentry learned what was happening quickly. The death threats began right away. “If I catch any one of these sick perverts around my grandkids, they will die,” a typical user wrote on Gab, the far-right social network. Gentry knew Greene’s claims about predatory drag queens were absurd. But it was less clear what to do about them.
“It’s not every day that you get targeted by a political figure, so it’s like, how do I handle this?” he told me. “It sent me into a really deep depression, and I just didn’t want to do anything. I’d just go to work and stay at home because I’m like, ‘What if I go out and someone attacks me?’”
Gentry quit driving for Uber. He wouldn’t even go grocery shopping. But he had spent months planning pride with the other founding members of Rome’s committee, and he and the others were faced with a conundrum: Should they cancel the city’s first-ever pride—or proceed and find out what happens when Marjorie Taylor Greene tells people you’re a predator going after their children?
Gentry is 22 and has spent his whole life in Rome. Growing up a low-income gay kid there could sometimes be “hell,” he said. In elementary school he had a teacher, Mrs. Moss, who stood up for him. But when he got to middle and high school, no adults did. At his public high school, when he got called to the assistant principal’s office after fighting back against a bully, the principal told him, “You knew what you were choosing when you chose this lifestyle, so you can’t get upset and react the way you do.”
Gentry started doing drag at 18. He drove to the nearest big city, Atlanta, and competed at talent nights. “I was a busted fucking mess my first two years,” he said, when he was flitting between drag personas in Atlanta and Chattanooga. Now he has settled on a persona that is “glam camp,” a regular in Rome as part of the drag group Sizzling Sisters.
In 2018, Gentry was part of an informal pride celebration at a Rome bar spearheaded by Justin Deal, another young man from the Rome area. About 150 people came. The next year, another pride event saw 350 people show up.
By 2021, Deal, Gentry, the leader of PFLAG Rome, and others believed that Rome was ready for its first real pride. They formed a pride board and spent months coordinating a three-day event, which included a march, a church service, and a drag queen storytime. Twenty-five local businesses agreed to sponsor it. The city commission officially declared June Rome’s pride month.
Then came Greene’s live stream. Gentry told the others about the threats. Some supporters questioned whether it was a good idea to go forward. Someone claiming to be a Rome citizen wrote to them, “Go back to Portland!”
One day while Gentry was working at the sex shop, he picked up the phone and the caller said, “I don’t have a question about a product. But is it true that y’all are sponsoring this deplorable event that’s happening, the drag queen storytime?” Gentry responded, “Actually, you’re in luck. This is the host of that. How may I help you?”
“’How can you do such a horrible, disgusting, despicable thing,’” Gentry recalled her saying. “I’m like, does this bitch think she’s Cher in The Witches of Eastwick?”
The call continued. “Finally, I was like, ‘This line is being recorded right now,” he said, “and she hung up.”
Fliers announcing an anti-pride rally circulated with a red slash mark through Gentry’s face. A flag outside the sex shop was slashed and burned.
Gentry decided it wasn’t safe for him to perform at pride. He told the board. They debated whether to cancel drag queen story hour altogether. Then one board member, Camilla Carter, 41, stepped in. Carter insisted that the story hour go on. “Maybe we need a more seasoned queen to do drag queen story time,” she said, referring to herself. “Because honestly, everything that people have been saying to them I’ve heard from family, so it’s just like water off a duck’s back.”
Like Gentry, Carter is from Rome. She got married to a woman in her early 20s and had two kids. When Carter got a divorce and came out as gay in her late 20s, her mother didn’t talk with her for years. (Carter asked to use only her drag name in this article for her family’s privacy.)
The rest of the board welcomed Carter’s offer, and they came up with a plan: reschedule the story hour and hold it at another location. They didn’t alert the public until the last minute. “Safety was the top priority,” Deal said, but “we knew it was important to not back down to that fear and misinformation.”
Carter asked her employer, Summit Hill Foods, makers of Better Than Bouillon, whether they would sponsor the ride. They agreed to. Soon, Carter’s face appeared on a protest flyer too.
“I just kind of put myself in the line of fire,” Carter said. “My character is an old lady. So we laughed about it, because it was like, what can they find to say? That I’m sexualizing children? I’m the least sexy thing you could see.”
Then another threat emerged. An organization reached out to the pride committee warning of an anti-Semitic group that had been on the rise in the area who they feared might show up at pride. (Perhaps the organization had seen the anti-Jewish comments that had appeared under Greene’s post. “Fuck Israel and the filthy Jews behind this depravity,” one person wrote.) The board quadrupled the number of officers at the event from two to eight.
The day of the rainbow march, the group anxiously awaited the tide of protestors near Rome’s gazebo where attendees were flocking in adorned in rainbow skirts and hoisting signs that said “Have a Gay Day.”
Soon the pride organizers saw Greene’s impact: protestors showed up, brandishing signs that said “Stop Indoctrinating Kids” and waving American flags. But there were only 12 or 15 of them. “They were honestly pretty peaceful,” he said. No members of the anti-Semitic group showed up.
By the time of the story hour, in the afternoon, the protestors had left. Carter wasn’t worried. “I kept a smile on and I went for it,” she said. “I expected to show up with my little chair and sit over in the shade with about 10 kids and read my book. And when I got over to the park. The whole hill was full of families and kids”—about 100 people total. With her gray wig atop her head, wearing grandma glasses and a rainbow skirt, she cracked open The World Needs More Purple People, by Kristen Bell and Benjamin Hart. “Purple is a magic color when red and blue work together,” Carter read.
Greene’s attempt to target her constituents had largely failed—barely anyone showed up beyond comments online. But soon, Greene told another story.
Five days after Rome’s drag queen story hour, she posted a video. “Well, we had a big victory,” she said. “It got cancelled.” She went on, “Guess what? People around here we don’t want our kids confused about gender. And we don’t want men who are selling sex products and all kind of disgusting filthy things to people to dress up like a woman and read gender-confusing books to kids.”
Greene insisted that most of the people at Rome pride were from out of town, based on research from a member of her team that showed many vehicle tags in the area came from outside the city. Deal’s survey data at the event showed opposite. “If she had lived here longer than an election cycle, she would know that if you’re from Rome, and there’s an event at Heritage Park, you never park at Heritage Park,” Deal said.
In Rome, plans for next year’s pride celebrations are already underway. It’s going to be even bigger. Carter now holds drag queen story hour weekly at a local taco shop. “We had twice as many people show up for storytime this past Thursday,” Carter said. The attention Greene drew wasn’t always in the direction she wanted. (Greene didn’t respond to questions for this article.)
Even so, Greene’s star is rising. She’s likely to be among a new group of far-right Republicans who deny the 2020 election results and may have more power than ever in Congress.
Though few showed up in person to threaten her constituents in Rome, Greene likely achieved her political end. Her comments sparked an online storm, an inflamed base mostly far from Rome. Around the same as the celebration, Greene claimed she would introduce a bill to make it illegal to “expose” children to drag queens—and quickly sought donations off of her comments. She’s now among the top 10 fundraisers in the House this election cycle.