Rachel, 38, looks forward to "family day" every week, when she gets to spend uninterrupted time with her husband and 5-year-old son.
On Saturday, June 11, Rachel, who asked that her name be changed to protect her and her family’s identity, and her husband and child made their way to the San Lorenzo Public Library in San Lorenzo, California, with plans to enjoy the hour-long Drag Queen Story Hour before going out to dinner.
Panda Dulce, the drag queen leading the reading hour, kicked things off with an opening song. Rachel and her family sat in the back.
"He was so happy to hear the stories," Rachel said of her son. But in the middle of the opening song, there was an interruption.
Five members of the Proud Boys, a far-right white supremacist hate group with anti-LGBTQ+ affiliations, entered the library, according to a statement released by Alameda County Sheriff's Office. One man wore a t-shirt with an image of a large AK-47 in the middle, the words "Kill Your Local Pedophile" plastered above it in yellow.
"Everyone in the room just kind of froze," Rachel explained. "It was like the air got sucked out of the room, because we didn't know what was going to happen."
'I’m still frozen, days later'
Like Rachel's son, Panda Dulce, 33, who asked that she only be identified by her drag name, was looking forward to story hour. A former teacher with 10 years of experience and a masters in social work, Dulce sees the events as an opportunity to educate children while being her authentic self.
"I have volunteered for over half my life alongside my autistic twin brother, Kevin, for the Special Olympics," Dulce told TODAY Parents. "Drag Queen Story Hour is a way that I can continue to work with youth, while being a clear role model for queer and non-queer youth alike."
Dulce had perfected her look throughout the day — combining black and orange jerseys and fastening orange tassels to her wig in preparation for the San Francisco Giant's Pride Night game, which she planned on attending later that night.
"It also felt like a great opportunity to reach a community that might not necessarily have the privilege of drag representation," Dulce added. "So it was important to me and I was excited. Then they all marched in, single file."
Dulce immediately went into a "fight, flight, freeze response."
"My heart was hammering," she said. "I froze, and I think I have not left that state. There's a part of me that's still in that room, and I don't think I'm ever going to get it back."
After entering the building, Dulce said the group started hurling homophobic and transphobic slurs.
"They asked, 'So, who brought the tranny?'" she said. "They called me a groomer, a pedophile and 'it.' They said I rape children. They asked why parents would bring their kids to a pedophile."
As parents intervened and children cowered in fear, Dulce says she realized there was no way to deescalate the situation unless she left the room.
"The security guard escorted me out and to the back while the librarians called the sheriff," she added. "The Proud Boys were asked to leave multiple times and did not. They asked people, 'Where did it go? Is it still in the building? Let’s go find it.'"
In a statement posted on Facebook, the Alameda County Sheriff's Office confirmed deputies responded to a disturbance at the library, saying the five members of the Proud Boys were "described as extremely aggressive with a threatening violent demeanor causing people to fear for their safety."
The Sheriff's office is investigating a possible hate crime, as well as conducting an investigation into the annoyance and harassment of children.
'You're the one scaring the kids'
"The kids looked concerned, confused and panicked," Dulce said. "One child buried their head into their dad's chest, unsure of what to make of the raised voices and sudden conflict."
Rachel says her 5-year-old son immediately grew scared, shrinking behind her.
"I stood up and walked towards another room, with my son behind me, and told the men, 'You're the one scaring the kids,'" she said. "We got the kids out of the room and into a reading area. My son was still upset, but my husband and I took turns distracting him while one of us stood by the door and put our body between the men and the kids."
Eventually, deputies arrived and after speaking to parents, library workers and Dulce, asked the Proud Boys to leave.
"One officer told me it was like 'herding cats to get them to leave,''' Rachel added.
After exiting the building, Rachel says the men started "chanting with a bullhorn right outside the door," so the parents attempted to lead the children in a story time song to "drown out the sound." Eventually, deputies pushed the men further back, and Dulce was able to return to the story hour.
"The librarians asked me what I wanted to do, and as scared as I was I didn’t want them to have the satisfaction of knowing they could effectively disrupt our program," Dulce told TODAY. "I told them I wanted to finish the story time."
Dulce told the children and their parents that she was sorry the story hour "turned out this way," and that "sometimes, when you're different, people are afraid of you."
"I told them not to let those people dissuade them from being themselves," she added. "The kids were confused — I could tell they knew something big had taken place, but were still processing it all."
Dulce read the children the book "Families, Families, Families!" by Suzanne Lang, about different family structures featuring zoo animals.
Once the story hour was over, Dulce called her partner in San Francisco, who drove to San Lorenzo to bring makeup wipes and what she described as "boy clothes."
Dulce was afraid that if she left in drag, she would be targeted.
"It felt like being in the closet again," Dulce said. "I never thought I'd have to go back. I came out when I was 12 — it was not easy. When you're growing up as a boy in the United States, you're told femininity is unacceptable. And so you think all these aspects of yourself that come naturally to you need to be put in a box where nobody else sees it.
"That's why drag is healing — you're opening that box and it's celebrating everything in it," she continued. "It's refusing to compress or hide. You try to be as big as possible because there's a part of you that has not been able to breathe for so long. And I was forced to put it all back inside."
Driving home from story time, Rachel knew she needed to discuss what had happened with her son.
"We were anticipating leaving and having a conversation about diversity, inclusion and accepting people who are different than us," she explained. "We ended up having those discussions, but also had to have difficult talks about what bullying is, and civil rights and that we must be brave."
She said that while she has encouraged her young son to "look for the helpers," in that moment, "we were the helpers."
"We discussed how we act and how we move forward, and that we're not going to be pushed around by people who want nothing but to hate people," she added. "Luckily, he seems to be handling it well. I checked in with his teachers yesterday, and he didn't talk about it so I don't think there's any lasting trauma."
Still, Rachel said for now it's best the family of three spend some time at home.
"The only inappropriate action that happened that day was from the people who crashed the event," Rachel said. "Their argument is that they're 'protecting kids' while they're the ones putting the kids in danger. It's not fair, and it makes me really worried. I'm scared."
On the same day, 31 members of the white nationalist group Patriot Front were arrested outside a Pride Month event in Coeur d’Alene for "suspicion of conspiracy to riot," according to the Coeur d'Alene Police Chief Lee White. The members wore masks, allegedly had shields and "gear and plans for disruption," according to White.
Next year, Rachel and her family will absolutely be attending Pride Month events, despite what they endured and other threats to the LGBTQ+ community and allies.
"It would be easy to stand by," she added," but we're not going to change what we believe in based on bullies."
For Dulce, sentiments like Rachel's and the support and love of the LGBTQ+ community are, despite her trauma, giving her hope.
"I have been receiving a lot of messages of support and well-wishes, which was very heartening," she said. "Somebody sent me pictures of a Pride March that happened in Central Valley where they marched for me, and never in my life did I imagine that would happen.
"Receiving these messages does make me feel like people are still engaged," she added. "They're not entirely tuned out, and we won't lose sight of our mission, which is to stop hate in its tracks."