HARRISBURG – Right now, this southern Illinois town is on a run of well-attended drag shows and ongoing support for a gay-owned restaurant that’s defying local religious outcry to host many of those shows.
The glittery glow of LGBTQ community in Harrisburg has encompassed Keith’s Place and its owner, along with drag performers like Faim Lee Jewls and Blanche DuBois, title-holders for the area’s Pride drag pageants.
It’s a bright spot among the Midwest’s flyover states, at a time when at least four of Illinois’ nearby states are considering bans on drag in front of minors, and other policies that fit under the “anti-LGBTQ” category.
But it also veils a clash over LGBTQ topics in Harrisburg that has been going on for almost three years, and is intensifying.
Keith’s Place is still struggling with a 50 percent drop in business since the conservative Christian outcry started. And now, that same conservative Christian coalition is rallying around people with openly anti-LGBTQ platforms who are seeking seats on the Harrisburg library board in an April 4 election.
An LGBTQ+ youth group that first received harassment when Pride Prom signs were torn down in 2021 is at the center of the conflict, attacked in letters last summer during Pride month and now cited by the Christian candidates for library board as part of the reason they’re running.
Venues that try to host the youth, including the public library and a Harrisburg church, have received letters of opposition from some local church leaders.
The situation demonstrates the harsh reality of LGBTQ+ people in rural spaces, says Wally Paynter, president emeritus of the 40-year-old Tri-State Alliance nonprofit whose Harrisburg satellite youth group is under attack. Paynter says the Harrisburg situation is real-time proof: even affirming state laws don’t mean a safe and welcoming community for youth or adults who are LGBTQ.
“In Illinois, we certainly have the laws in place to protect LGBTQ youth as much as possible,” says Paynter, who lives in and grew up in Carmi. “But in the end, we’re going to local schools, using local libraries, controlled by local school boards and library boards. There’s still harassment and discrimination. Schools are really not supportive. Kids do feel isolated.”
Drag shows at Keith’s Place thrive despite conservative attacks
At Keith’s Place Cafe, Lounge and Entertainment Center, where drag shows are now happening at least monthly, support from the LGBTQ community is helping to slightly offset the loss of business ever since the Jan. 14 drag show, “Back to the Burg.”
“It was the best time I’ve ever had in my life,” says drag king Faim Lee Jewls about the event that helped kick off a renewed support of drag in Harrisburg. The night featured Jewls and a half-dozen of southern Illinois’ top drag queens, including Jewls’ fellow Southern Il Pride drag title-holder, Blanche DuBois.
Jewls came up with the idea for the show along with their childhood friend Keith Hughes, owner of the restaurant. The two have known each other “since diapers,” both attended Harrisburg schools, and both experienced bullying while growing up in town. Both felt that holding a well-publicized drag show featuring an array of well-known local drag performers was a great gift to their former hometown.
Both felt embraced in a new way by their hometown the night of the show. Several of Jewls’ childhood acquaintances attended and congratulated them on finding their true selves. Keith’s was packed, with an estimated 250 people coming through the doors at one time or another. “We had a great show! People were able to get up and dance and enjoy themselves,” says Hughes. “We had a two-hour backlog to get a drink, and everyone was just patient.”
Other than a patron’s sugar-level emergency at the start of the night, the show was a complete success, performers and show-goers agreed.
“It was fabulous, entertaining night,” said DuBois. “Everyone had a good time, and there was no trouble. People need to realize we are lip sync [artists] with beautiful, shiny costumes, big hair and lots of make-up and lashes.”
The great vibe gave Jewls a chance to offer up their signature message of diplomacy for small-town venues. It’s a message they try to offer frequently, as the reigning Southern Il PrideFest King.
“I always take a moment and say, ‘Look around. Notice everybody’s smiling. Nobody’s upset,’ ‘ Jewls said. “I do that to have people aware of what’s around them, so they can share their experience in a positive light.”
Social media started the conservative religious attack on Keith’s Restaurant
The joy at Keith’s Place on Jan. 14 was hard fought, and Hughes’ decision to have drag shows is one he is continuing to pay for in revenue.
His Sunday after-church crowd dropped by more than half, he said, and he still receives threatening phone calls, impromptu sermons from spiritual leaders who call unannounced, and strange comments when he’s out in public.
The Jan. 14 show itself capped almost a month of social media debate and fending off attacks from people affiliated with local conservative churches.
Even before Hughes had posted a colorful online image about the event, one of those angry church-goers posted it on his restaurant’s Facebook page, along with a threat to stop eating there.
Within days, Hughes began to experience more online attacks and increasing threats of pulled business. He also received phone calls and texts from people threatening to spread rumors about him, including that he was on Grindr (Hughes is an openly gay man). One caller even claimed Harrisburg police would soon be raiding Keith’s, a rumor Hughes said he ended by reaching out directly to Mayor John McPeek, whom Hughes said assured him no such raid would happen.
McPeek did not respond to a request for comment.
Jewls joined the online discussions because they wanted to protect their longtime friend. For a few weeks, Jewls, Hughes and several others throughout Harrisburg debated and challenged comments criticizing Hughes and the drag show as immoral and promoting sexuality at a “family establishment.”
“I don’t typically argue, but these kinds of things I feel very strongly about,” Jewls said. “I will defend my drag family… Things like this are just a harsh reminder that we can never stop moving forward. There’s no such thing as rest when we’re in a community where we’re always fighting for some kind of right.”
Hughes took down those interactions though he continues to respond directly to critics. He continues to hold successful drag shows every month along with other entertainment such as independent singer/songwriters, bands, karaoke and fundraisers for more traditional groups like St. Jude’s. But he no longer advertises the drag shows fully and instead has chosen to limit their advertisement to private networking, a move that has limited attendance but also protects Hughes and his business partner, Jeremiah Potts, from the persistent negative phone calls.
Potts and Hughes also changed the establishment name to Keith’s Place instead of “restaurant, ” so it could more fully advertise all of the entertainment it’s offering. The team is also pondering whether to turn Keith’s Place into an LGBTQ+ bar, but they’re concerned about whether the region could generate enough support to sustain an LGBTQ bar.
Youth group, library, church now targeted in ‘hostile rural atmosphere’
Meanwhile, drag continues to thrive throughout much of southern Illinois. In the past month, Jewls has performed at shows in Carbondale, Carterville, Herrin, Marion and Murphysboro, Drag shows had actually been going on for more than a decade at various spots in town, including Faye’s Tavern and some spots that have since closed.
Now, Harrisburg has yet another frontier for the town’s growing culture battle over LGBTQ-related topics. It’s the upcoming April 4 local election that includes the local library board.
At the heart of these attacks is an LGBTQ+ youth group that began meeting in Harrisburg in 2022.
That youth group, the Tri-State Alliance, has been around for 40 years and is based in Evansville an hour to the east. It’s now asking for donations of support in the face of new attacks it’s receiving. It says in a letter of appeal that Tri-State needs help to keep serving about 20 youth in Harrisburg’s “hostile rural atmosphere.”
The attacks on Tri-State’s youth group are coming through letters circulated by two people’s campaigns for the Harrisburg Library Board.
Emily Sumner and Miranda Hust are both self-described “conservative Christian” candidates who describe their campaigns as missions to reinstate Christian values in Harrisburg. Both say in letters that they decided to run for the library board after noticing Pride events last year at the library that involved the Tri-State Alliance Youth Group. Both promise to stop LGBTQ affirming events from happening at the library if elected.
Sumner and her husband Nathan first began speaking out against the youth group last June, when Nathan Sumner accused the library and youth group of “grooming” over a Pride month event. In a February campaign letter, Emily Sumner called the library’s collaboration with Tri-State an “absolute disgrace.”
Hust first spoke out against the youth group last year, too, in a letter to the library. A campaign appeal she sent in January uses the inaccurate term “transsexual” to refer to the LGBTQ youth group and accusing both the library and group of “promoting gay and transsexual lifestyles.”
The tension is making it hard for the Tri-State Alliance Youth Group to find a place to meet regularly. A church that hosted the group also received attacks. Currently, the youth group is meeting at the city’s recreation center.
Robinson said the ongoing attacks have “taken a toll” and leaves Tri-State and the youth feeling unwelcome and unsafe. The tension has been building since October 2021, Robinson said, when signs for the group were torn down by local youth.
Religion, leftovers of Trumpism seen as driving anti-LGBTQ attacks
A common theme in the attacks on Keith’s, the library, and the youth group is religion.
All of the criticisms and threats to the youth group, public library, Keith’s Place and drag performers are coming from people affiliated with conservative churches. Paynter says the main source of attacks are the First Baptist Church in Harrisburg, and the Harrisburg Ministerial Alliance, a coalition of conservative churches in the area. Religion is the blatant motivation for the library board campaigns of Sumner and Hust.
Robinson says she has also witnessed churches in the are with explicitly anti-LGBTQ images hanging in their lobbies, including one with LGBTQ people in a sea of flames. As a Harrisburg native herself, Robinson says an anti-LGBTQ religious environment in the city is nothing new. She recalls being “outed” by a high school “ethics” teacher as a freshman, scorned in front of her classmates for what the teacher openly labeled in class as a sinful lifestyle.
She believes the anti-LGBTQ furor now swirling through Harrisburg would have arisen even without the Tri-State youth group. “The overall context is the legislation being proposed around us. Today’s conservative dog whistle legislation is the books; that drag shows are sexual and not for kids; and that we’re groomers, that LGBTQ people are trying to corrupt and recruit kids. Even if these groups hadn’t started, he would have gotten harassed.”
Pastors with First Baptist Church, and a leader of the ministerial alliance, did not return calls for comment.
Jewls believes four years of Trump’s divisive rhetoric emboldened a conservative element in southern Illinois. “We never expected in our lives to see the hatred and behavior we see now,” says Jewls, who like Robinson, Paynter and Hughes grew up in Harrisburg. “People felt like Trumpism gave them some kind of validation to speak how they felt in a cruel and unusual way. Our whole world fell part. We’ve lost a lot of good ground in our political stance, and it’s opened up doorways for people who just kind of came out of the woodwork.”
Paynter believes the ongoing attacks on aspects of the LGBTQ+ community are making Harrisburg “less safe.”
“I don’t think the church leaders are calling for violence,” Wally says, “but I think they’re sowing seeds of hate that help foster an environment of hostility and possible physical confrontations. And that is a big concern. I think they’re making the community less safe and trying to take away our safe spaces for both youth and adults to go. And our supporters.”