By Sabrina Hornung
Last month, Chris Stoner, also known as Miss Janessa Jaye Champagne, a 20-year veteran of the North Dakota drag community, was targeted in a variety of posts from the anti-LGBTQ Facebook group Protect North Dakota Kids, prior to an all-ages drag show and brunch that was set for Capital Pride in Bismarck in the middle of June.
Stoner, known for their no-nonsense approach, is not one to easily back down from a fight. What started as a joke on one of Stoner’s live streams has become a fundraising effort to benefit LGBTQ youth using the very words meant to tear them down. They mused that despite the gravity of the situation, some of the insults hurled their way were well– pretty amusing.
“I thought this is actually stuff that could be on a merch line, and it would be something that, you know, would be the greatest irony. I think that this group is calling themselves ‘Protect North Dakota Kids,’ but we could use this negative experience and turn it into something where the proceeds from the sale of this merch line can actually protect some North Dakota kids.” Stoner said.
This led to a collaboration between Stoner, Bismarck-based URL radio owner and producer of the all ages drag brunch Stacy Sturm, and Bismarck-based artist Alyssa Christensen.
But this wasn’t their first collaboration. “I’ve worked with Janessa before,” said Christensen, “with some other art projects, so it’s always fun to see what project ideas they’ve conjured up. Janessa said they wanted a darker and more mysterious tone, and sent me a rough sketch of what they were thinking for the image. So Janessa came up with the idea and I drew it up for them.”
The artwork depicted a questionable van representing the group’s lack of transparency and overall secrecy. Stoner elaborated on the absurdity of the group’s postings directed toward Sturm and Stoner.
“There was a comment – I just pulled it up here – that said they had posted this picture of these garden hoes with angry faces on them. And the caption is ‘Spiritual Jezebel is calling for an attack on our page. Here is an artistic rendering of said army.’” They went on to say, “From there, we've kind of taken little pieces from this continuing conversation and turned them into products.”
This led to another collaboration between Sturm, Stoner, and artist Melissa Gordon. The project has been in the works for a few weeks, the shirts will be printed on demand through the company TeeSpring and the charities are yet to be determined. Though Stoner stresses the importance of keeping the charities local.
“I would like to see the (Protect North Dakota Kids) page get taken down just because I don't see it as a benefit to anybody, it's dangerous people that actually want to protect North Dakota's children. And I think the merch side is great because if people buy merch that goes to, you know organizations that actually work with at-risk kids,” said Sturm.
She went on to say, “I guess at least some good has come out of it. Out of all the bad that's come out of that page. I feel like that merch store is making lemonade out of the lemons that we were dealt. And also too I feel like it's been nice to just see how much support that the LGBTQ plus community and its allies do have. Up until now. I would not have thought that there were such strong voices in support for LGBTQ plus and and and their allies. But now I see there's way more support than I initially ever would have thought. And so the love has been way more than the hate. And so I think I that's part of what's been great.”
Stacy Sturm is part of URL Radio, a locally owned internet-based URL radio broadcasting platform based out of Bismarck. Along with working 14 years with the internet-based platform, she’s a 26-year veteran of traditional radio, on top of the 14 years that URL radio has been around.
Speaking of collaborations, Sturm knew Stoner before all this from attending previous drag shows, though this was her first time working with drag performers in Bismarck, and though it wasn’t the first time there had been drag in the capital city. According to Sturm, by promoting the show she was the “Spiritual Jezebel,” according to the “Protect North Dakota Kids” Facebook page.
All jokes aside, when asked about the gravity of the situation Sturm said, “For a while, it wasn't funny. Why I really want to see that page go away, is I don't want to accidentally fuel any hate in the States, or fuel hate in somebody that could cause harm to somebody like myself or Janessa or somebody in the LGBTQ+ community, like our drag queens and kings. That scares me because it was really kind of unnerving when I was planning that drag show, the threats I got of physical violence…the police or the sheriff's office actually had to give us protection at the show. The threats were valid and they were real and it was kind of scary. And all it takes is for one over-the-top crazy person that is mentally unstable to hop on that movement. I don't want that hate out there.”
When asked how the controversy regarding “Protect North Dakota Kids” page has affected URL Radio and its following, Sturm commented, “As far as the following I think it's helped but as far as business, it's not necessarily helped. Because North Dakota is such a conservative place that I run off of advertising. So the radio station survives on advertising, so there's a lot of conservative people, and when they hear that I'm a child groomer. Like, they might not want to do business with the radio station if I contact them.”
Though in fact, Sturm as well as URL Radio has a history of working with anti-human trafficking organizations under their belts.
Though Sturm made mention of “Protect North Dakota Kids” Executive Director Keith Hapip Jr., who was recently elected to the Washburn City Council and is also an active emergency medical technician (EMT), an ambulance worker. She worries that his bias could affect the care of LGBTQ+ individuals in Mclean County; or affect another member associated with the organization, who may have a role in working with at-risk youth and who currently has a leave of absence from the organization, with North Dakota being a right-to-work state.
Sturm later invited Hapip onto her URL Radio to debate, she said, “I asked Mr. Hapip three times, would you rather have a gay kid or a dead kid? He said, “Well, we would work on prayer.”
“No, that's not what I asked you.” So his basic answer is he would rather have a dead kid than a gay kid. He would rather have gay kids just not be gay. Or pretend not to be gay. But then that's what leads to suicide.”
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