KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — By our count, at least seven businesses in Tennessee either hosted or attempted to host drag show performances in the last five months for people of all ages.
The shows were the catalyst for phone calls, social media posts and public reviews calling those businesses things like "pedophiles", "groomers", and "pure evil."
The seven businesses and organizations faced backlash and include Ijams Nature Center, Natural Mystic, The Bird and The Book, Hexagon, Barley's Taproom and Pizzeria, and the Concourse.
Some of those shows were canceled, and others changed to 18 years old or older. Hexagon was one that did not cancel.
Hexagon Brewery is tucked in an industrial lot. It is off the beaten path but has loyal customers and good ratings. Some of those reviews say they have "the best beer," "great people," and a "good atmosphere." All of the beer is brewed in-house.
But, Stephan Apking and Katie Hansen's dream brewery took a turn.
"We had an adult drag show. Originally, it was a 21 and up venue," Apking said.
He said a few parents attending the show asked to bring their children. Many of those folks were relatives of the performers, he said. That's when they changed the event.
"We're not exclusive, we're inclusive, we allow all ages, all genders, all races sexual orientations to come to hexagon and feel safe," Hansen said.
Some groups caught wind of the Halloween-themed all-age show. After announcing it, Apking and Hansen said the phone started ringing.
"I'm a business, so I pretty much have to answer," Apking said.
"Callers were saying we were sexually exploiting children, that we were child-grooming pedophiles, and just heinous things, as far as we were trafficking children in the brewery," said Hansen.
The performers were booked. Apking and Hansen confirmed with Knoxville Police Department that the event was legal.
They also put up signs around the brewery saying "all kids must be supervised at all times."
The show went on.
Most of the performers dressed in Halloween costumes. One dressed like Dolly Parton, another like Tinkerbell, and another as a witch. Hexagon posted the live streams of the videos on its public Facebook page.
"After the event, that's when the storm really started to come through. It became recommendations that were completely heinous, calling us pure evil, and hoping we'd go bankrupt," Hansen said.
One Facebook message read "you pedophile loving groomers should be ashamed of yourselves. I pray this bankrupts you."
Another review read: "This establishment supports and promotes grooming children and pedophilia."
There's many more where that came from, Apking said.
"I would assume we're at 100+, and that's not even including Google reviews," Apking said.
For a place off the beaten path, online traffic determines foot traffic. Apking said he was worried any negative reviews would bring the business down.
"These keyboard warriors are going and writing negative reviews, they've never been here," he said.
For days on end, Apking and Hansen didn't know why; until someone sent them an Oct. 23 livestream of The Patriot Church service in Lenoir City.
In the livestream, Pastor Ken Peters said: "We are trying to shut down the drag shows. Between this church and the 'Well Church,' we have contributed to shutting down four drag shows across Tennessee. You did that. Congratulations."
Peters said they tried to shut down many shows.
"We did our best to get them to shut down the show," Peters said. "But, we never encouraged people to speak inappropriately, or derogatory over a certain Christian line. We want them to be respectful but firm."
Hexagon wasn't alone. In a two-month span, Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs office said they received more than 500 calls.
"I'd say probably at least half of those were from us. I mean, we're an active church, Patriot Church, the church that I pastor, we believe in being active," Peters said.
"It's typically always one or two stirring the pot, and then you know, they've got a group that follows them. and gets fired up," Apking said.
Now, they're trying to move on.
"If the haters need to hate, that's all they're going to do. but we've got to stop letting it affect us and do good for our community, we have to move forward with it," Hansen said.