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Despite arson attempt, drag events to go on in Geauga County

Despite an arson attempt at the Community Church of Chesterland over the weekend, the church is sticking by its planned drag storytelling event this Saturday.

"To not do this, to back down, to cancel, is to give credence to this idea that a small number of people in this country get to tell the rest of us what to do,” said the Rev. Jess Peacock.

Peacock arrived at the church on Saturday to see broken glass, pieces of burnt cloth and some burn marks on a side entrance door of the church. The church’s marquee was also damaged.

The church, which is known for being welcoming to LGBTQ+ people, is hosting a “Drag Story Hour” this Saturday. Peacock is confident that the arson attempt is in protest of the event.

“I don’t see how you can’t connect the dots,” Peacock said. “The minute we started advertising it we were getting calls, voicemails, emails, attacks on social media, in the hopes, I’m assuming, that we not do this.”

 Element 41 owner Paul Mendolera won't cancel drag brunch despite threats to the restaurant.
Gabriel Kramer
Ideastream Public Media
Element 41 owner Paul Mendolera said he won't cancel drag brunch despite threats to the restaurant.

In addition to the storytelling event, the church is partnering with Element 41, a restaurant in nearby Chardon, to host a drag brunch on the same day.

Element 41 has a history of supporting LGBTQ+ people and owner Paul Mendolera said he’s received harassment, bigoted messages and threats to burn down the restaurant because of the drag brunch. He and Peacock are adamant that it won’t be canceled.

Mendolera said religious pamphlets are regularly left at his restaurant. This one was found wedged in the restaurant's front door Monday.
Gabriel Kramer
Ideastream Public Media
Mendolera said religious pamphlets are regularly left at his restaurant. This one was found wedged in the restaurant's front door Monday.

“It’s just hate that people are showing. It’s pretty sickening,” Mendolera said. “We stand behind our kids and our family and our friends and our loves ones to know that we are here for them and we are sticking up for them. And for the people who don’t have a voice, that are afraid to say anything, our door is always going to be open.”

Mendolera has been frustrated with misinformation going around about the drag brunch, which is only open to patrons who are 18-years-old or older.

“Somebody told me that we were having children here and we were going to teach them how to dress in drag and then entertain, which is 100% not true,” Mendolera said. “There will be no nudity, no stripping down, mostly lip syncing, joke telling and just entertaining.”

Mendolera put up curtains in the restaurant’s front window to keep a visual divide between protestors and drag brunch diners.

The church and the restaurant have increased security measures for the brunch. Mendolera said the local police department was helpful in informing him of their planned measures for Saturday.

Mendolera put curtains up in the restaurant for the drag brunch.
Gabriel Kramer
Ideastream Public Media
Mendolera put curtains up in the restaurant for the drag brunch.

Geauga SOGI (Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity), a local LGBTQ+ support group, said it is thankful for the bravery and commitment of the restaurant and the church to keep the events going.

“The courage to plan this program and they’re not backing down," said Geauga SOGI board president Chris Steigerwald. “It’s still unbelievable to think that people who are not doing anyone else harm should be threatened and treated in that way.”

Geauga SOGI vice-president Minna Zelch said LGBTQ+ people in Chardon and Geauga County, and their family members, are already on constant alert for hatred. She said these displays of hatred toward these events make it even worse.

“We never get a chance to breathe is what it feels like,” Zelch said. “It’s going to make them think, ‘See see, I can’t be who I am. I can’t be open and honest and I have to hide who I am.’”

There is a screenshot making the rounds on Facebook that suggests a group called “Thee Cleveland Proud Boys” will be holding a “Rally Against Groomers” in Chesterland the same day as the these drag events. A flyer for both the drag brunch and the storytelling event appear in the screenshot.

Mendolera said he’s gotten messages threatening protests.

This flyer has been making the rounds on social media.
Minna Zelch
Geauga SOGI
This flyer, signaling a protest of drag events in Geauga county, has been making the rounds on social media.

“Somebody else said that, '100 people will be protesting your restaurant with our concealed carry permits in hand,'" Mendolera said.

The Community Church of Chesterland, affiliated with the United Church of Christ, has had other vandalism incidents since Peacock started working there a year ago. There was a dead animal propped on a door handle and multiple pride flags stolen from the property. Before getting damaged over the weekend, the marquee read: Please don’t steal flags. Happy to give you one.

The Chester Township Police Department is still investigating the arson attack.

“Several items of evidentiary value were located at the scene, and subsequently secured for further processing,” Police Chief Craig Young said in a written statement.

There are two drag brunch opportunities at Element 41 Saturday. Both sold out quickly after tickets were made available.

“Despite the pushback,” Peacock said. “What that tells us is there is a desire and a need in this county, in this region, for queer affirming events, for queer affirming culture, and we want to create space for that.”

Gabriel Kramer is a reporter/producer and the host of “NewsDepth,” Ideastream Public Media's news show for kids.