Robert Dennick Joki had a full day ahead of him at Pride in the Valley in Warren, Ohio on June 18.
In between coordinating two sets of drag performances at the northeast Ohio LGBTQ+ festival, Joki – who performs as Starlett O’Haraa – had organized a Kids Show with drag performers delivering distinctly family-friendly fare.
“We were singing songs from animated movies, kid-friendly stuff, very happy and appropriate,” said the 43-year-old artistic director of Rust Belt Theater Company, a local queer theatre troupe.
Around 30 minutes into the family show, Joki said a white male in his 30s walked through the crowd of 300 attendees and started berating him through a bullhorn.
“The first word I heard was ‘pervert,’” Joki said. “Then he started asking why I was grooming children and indoctrinating young people.”
Joki noticed that the man was not only yelling through the bullhorn, but recording him through his phone.
“He wanted to see my reaction and I was absolutely not going to give him any kind of reaction that he was going to use,” Joki said.
Wanting to drown out the man so that the children in attendance could not hear the hateful words being amplified through the bullhorn, Joki had to think fast.
His mind went immediately to a song he himself would be performing later in the day to close out the festival: “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”
“I just started singing it without music,” Joki said.
Dennick Joki said the man with the bullhorn proceeded to get agitated by the musical response, screaming louder into the bullhorn in front of the children.
To combat the quickly escalating vitriol, the other drag performers joined in on the song, linking arms with Dennick Joki, singing loudly. The audience of 300 then started singing along until the man on the bullhorn was vocally overpowered.
“People who didn’t know the words were humming along and others were shouting the lyrics until we couldn’t hear that man at all,” Joki said.
Joki said the man was run off by a group of LGBTQ+ teenagers before security could even show up. The entire exchange lasted only minutes, with some audience members approaching Joki at the end of the song to ask if the entire incident was staged.
“I was in shock at how fast this had all happened, but I also had hours left of performances to worry about and I didn’t want the day to be ruined by that one hateful man’s actions,” Joki said.
After the rest of the day passed without incident – and quite a bit of Pride and entertainment! – Joki took a few days to process the dramatic interaction and musical response. As someone who has been involved in children’s theater for 25 years, he says he is no stranger to protests, but that no one previously had ever gotten directly in his face and said such horrible things.
“I wanted to go through it step-by-step in my mind to make sure I reacted appropriately in front of all of those children,” Joki said.
He posted about his experience on Facebook, which quickly went viral after being shared by Have a Gay Day, the Dayton-based LGBTQ+ organization.
Less than a week after the incident, he still feels emotional about the exchange, but is hopeful that the story helps other people not be afraid to speak out.
Or in this case: sing out.
“I was always taught that the only way to fight hate was with love,” said Joki. “That is definitely what we did here. And it worked.”
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