Nov 05, 2023

‘Protect the Children’ Rally Clashes with Trans Rights Protesters

Reporting Texas


Joel Hayes, a musician and participant in the Protect the Children Rally at the Texas Capitol, enters the trans rights activists’ counter-protest area. State troopers later asked him to move back to the rally group. Abby L. Johnson/Reporting Texas

Dozens of people calling for legislators to protect American children from sex trafficking, ideological indoctrination and drag queen storytime competed with counter-protesters advocating for transgender rights at the Texas Capitol on Saturday. 

“We’re just Americans from all walks of life that are coming together to stand up and spread awareness about the bad things that are taking place in our country against the children,” said Denise Mauceli, a grandmother and self-identified “patriot” from Southeast Texas, who helped to organize the Protect the Children Nationwide Rally.

Mauceli said the Facebook group is not affiliated with any foundation, political party or religious group, The group organized rallies in other states at the same time as the Texas rally. The group’s Facebook account features pictures and videos of similar small gatherings in New York, Rhode Island, Kentucky and Michigan. 

As the rally participants spoke on topics of vaccine choice, spiritual warfare and sexual exploitation, the dozen or so counter-protesters played Disney music and chanted, “Trans rights are human rights.”

Erin Stahr, an Austin-based anti-fasicst activist and mother, said she attended because she worries about the impact of denying gender-affirming care to transgender youth, an issue that falls into the purview of Mauceli’s anti-indoctrination platform.

 “I want to see kids get the gender-affirming care that my daughter got and which saved her life,” Stahr said. “I don’t want to see other kids end up dead because they don’t have access to that kind of care.” 

The Texas Legislature this year banned transgender kids from receiving puberty blockers and hormone therapy. Despite an injunction placed on the law by state District Judge Maria Cantú Hexsel in late August, the attorney general appealed and the law went into effect Sept. 1. 

The Legislature also took aim at drag shows with a bill  to criminalize sexually explicit performances in the presence of children. U.S. District Judge David Hittner temporarily blocked that law from taking effect. 

Drag performer and LGBTQ+ activist Maxine LaQueene said in an interview before Saturday’s rally that efforts like the Protect the Children Rally have had a chilling effect.

“There’s a lot of venues … worried and afraid of these right-wing conservative groups coming out,” LaQueene said, recounting a South Austin drag story time last year targeted for harassment.  “Those conservative groups found out about it, and they were emailing and calling and saying they’re going to show up with guns to protect these kids from, I guess, us drag queens.” 

LaQueene recalled attempting to testify against the anti-drag bill but not being given a chance to speak after 16 hours at the Capitol.

Jason B., a counter-protester who asked that his full last name not be used, said he also spent a lot of time at the Capitol during the last session. He said he heard “a lot of misinformation being essentially parroted by the same few groups across legislatures all over the country talking about risks and basing it on science that no major medical organization considers to be worth anything and people taking that uncritically.”

“I saw a lot of impassioned speeches from legislators and from constituents talking about the necessity of trans rights, and then two seconds later, immediately watch everyone vote to pass legislation without even listening,” he said.

Some rally speakers taunted the counter-protesters. Will Johnson, the digital creator behind the conservative Unite America First platform, spoke about the differences between the biological sexes and argued that a man can never become a woman. He referred to drag queens as “dragon” queens and called the trans rights activists “demons.” 

“So we’re talking about sex trafficking of children, and they have a problem with sex trafficking of children because they like it,” Johnson said, without citing evidence for his claims. “They want children to be sacrificed to Satan, their God.”

Joel Hayes, a musician who performs under the moniker Operation 1009, performed songs about human trafficking at the rally; #Operation1009 is a QAnon conspiracy narrative about sex trafficking. He also spoke about his concerns over pedophilia amongst Texas teachers. \

After his speech, he threatened the counter-protesters, saying, “I think I’ll follow these people to their cars, get their notes and dox every one of them online. … Y’all know I have thousands and thousands of people that follow me?” 

Trans rights activist and nursing student Julia Heilrayne, who has a trans sibling, said that the rally speakers were spreading false information and that those like her who oppose such views struggle with making their message accessible and easy to understand.

“Their hate and their misinformation that is fueled by fear is spreading and harming more kids ultimately, even though they say they want to save the children,” she said.

Anna Nguyen, left, and Julia Heilrayne, right, hold up signs supporting the LGBTQ+ community. They were part of a counter-protest at the Texas Capitol. Abby L. Johnson/Reporting Texas