Rainbow Defense Coalition members pose with County Executive Marc Elrich and Councilmember Kristin Mink. Credit: Kristin Mink

Friday marks International Transgender Day of Visibility, and while anti-transgender legislation is being introduced across the country, Montgomery County experienced a week of vocal support for LGBTQ+ residents from the County Council, school board and a local grassroots organization.

The Montgomery County Council adopted a resolution on Tuesday reiterating the county’s intolerance for anti-transgender acts and voicing support for LGBTQ+-friendly events such as drag story hours as “important and joyful ways to celebrate the diversity of our community.” The council and several of its members tweeted out notes of thanks and celebration for the county’s transgender and nonbinary community on Friday.

Councilmember Kate Stewart (D-Dist. 4) reiterated the importance of allies using their voices to denounce transphobia when it’s voiced in the county, telling MoCo360:

“It’s really important to condemn anti-trans hate, to show solidarity and make sure people understand that has no place in our community. At the same time, we need to make sure we truly are an inclusive community where people who are trans can come live and thrive.”

She added that the county still has “a lot of work to do” in that regard, specifically mentioning a need for more easily accessible healthcare for transgender residents seeking to medically transition.

Children’s access to LGBTQ+ books in schools has also been protested at recent school board meetings by some parents calling for greater control or condemning such materials in the curriculum. At a meeting Tuesday, board member Lynne Harris and student board member Arvin Kim doubled down on the district’s commitment to reflecting its diverse student population in school curriculum.

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“We cannot opt out of diversity and inclusion,” Kim said. “Let me be clear: Diversity is a necessity to a comprehensive education, so inclusion must stay.”

At the grassroots level, activists who formerly gathered under the name of the national group Parasol Patrol have rebranded as the Rainbow Defense Coalition. The group, which unofficially organized in July 2021, organizes teams to attend local drag queen story hours with the mission of ensuring children enjoy an uninterrupted event in case of protesters.

The Rainbow Defense Coalition partners closely with Loyalty Bookstore in downtown Silver Spring, where story hours are held on the third Saturday of every month. Loyalty’s founding owner Hannah Oliver Depp said the reason they continue to host these events stems from a desire to bring books alive for children.

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“We host Drag Story Hour because it’s fun,” they said. “One of the reasons our store exists is to provide a safe space where books can come alive for kids. Drag queens are incredible performers and storytellers, and the kids love them.”

When a national hate group called the Proud Boys showed up to Loyalty’s February story hour and began instigating violence, members of what’s now the Rainbow Defense Coalition shielded children’s view using parasols and flags, and drowned out the group’s obscenities with upbeat Disney music.

“It’s basically like a big party we throw for the kids and their families to shield them,” said member Alexis Harper, a Silver Spring resident and student at Howard University. “Our job isn’t to instigate or engage. It’s to make sure people get back and forth to their cars safely and that kids don’t get yelled at or traumatized by these hateful people.”

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Before organizing under the new name, the group associated with the national nonprofit Parasol Patrol, which provides similar services across the country. Rainbow Defense Coalition members say the decision to branch off under a new name stemmed from a desire for clearer lines of communication coupled with a desire to reflect the grassroots nature of the group’s activities.

Members are quick to say that they are not protestors or counter-protesters—their sole purpose in attending events is to protect young attendees from any unwanted interruptions to their story hour.

“We’re not protesting. We’re just defending the kids,” Harper said.

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The group offers de-escalation training to attendees prior to each event. As their team has grown, members say they’ve become more organized when it comes to roles and planning. County Council member Kristin Mink (D-Dist. 5), who helped start the group before she was elected, described the Rainbow Defense Coalition as a “non-hierarchical, smooth-running operation” and said volunteers can turn out in the hundreds for an event if need be.

“There are way more of us than them,” she said of the anti-LGBTQ+ protesters. “I think that tells you what the sentiment really is here in Montgomery County—which is that support for the LGBTQ+ and transgender communities runs deep and strong.”