Far-right protesters have regularly targeted the UpRising Bakery & Cafe since they started hosting drag shows. Photo via UpRising Bakery’s Facebook.
It was early evening in August, around 5 p.m., and Corrina Bendel-Sac, 31, was closing up at the bakery she runs at a strip mall in Lake of the Hills, an Illinois suburb.
She got into her car, and as she started to make her way home, noticed something unusual. Another car was following her. No matter how many turns she took or how hard she tried to lose him, the car remained at a steady pace behind her vehicle. Bendel-Sac began to panic.
Rather than go home and reveal her home address that she shares with her kids, Bendel-Sac drove to a different neighborhood, pulled into a stranger’s driveway, and then called the cops to say she was being followed.
Bendel-Sac had reason to be concerned. Ever since mid-July, when she announced plans for a family-friendly drag brunch at UpRising Bakery and Cafe, Bendel-Sac’s found herself in the middle of a rapidly escalating harassment campaign from far-right extremists, conspiracy theorists, and MAGA-types.
When news of the upcoming “Starry Night Drag Brunch” got out, Bendel-Sac was bombarded with threatening phone calls and messages trying to get her to cancel the brunch. A roving band of local culture warriors, called “Awake Illinois” (who recently described their activism as “a civil war” that’s “mostly being fought by moms”) and the Proud Boys, organized a protest against the event.
Then, on the eve of the brunch, a man with ties to the Proud Boys from a town 62 miles away allegedly smashed up the bakery, broke windows, and graffitied statements like “F–s rape kids” and “Christ is King” on the walls. “This hero deserves a medal,” far-right personality Lauren Witzke wrote after police arrested 24-year-old Joseph Collins in connection with the vandalism. “These pedophiles deserve to rot in a cell.”
Despite continued hostility from the far-right, Bendel-Sac has remained undeterred and continued to host family-friend drag events at the bakery.
“We’re lovers, not fighters,” said Bendel-Sac. “We’re a little bit badass, and people are coming out to support us. A lot of people want us to be that safe space for everyone.”
Today, there’s a growing semi-permanent encampment of far-right protesters outside the UpRising Bakery—and each weekend it seems to get bigger, Bendel-Sac says. “Every weekend, it’s ridiculously tense,” she told VICE News over the phone as she was making brownies. “Outside, you have Westboro Baptist Church people, you have people putting ‘Jesus is King’ flags out, you have Trump flags, anti-LGBTQ flags.”
She’s gotten death threats and rape threats by phone, letter and email. People have compiled dossiers on her, collecting information like what pets she owns or where she’s gone on vacation.
They’ve filed record requests with the school district that her kids attend. The protesters outside have called her a pedophile, and threatened to call child protective services on her. “People have gone to great lengths to target my kids,” Bendel-Sac said.
Members of her family have since moved in with her, to offer additional support, and she now carries a taser wherever she goes. She’s also currently raising money to hire a security detail for future drag events.
Since the beginning of this year, the far-right have waged a conspiracy-fueled campaign targeting family-friendly LGBTQ events, including drag brunches, drag queen story hours, or Pride celebrations around the country. They’ve used tired narratives bashing the LGBTQ community as inherently predatory, and incorporated QAnon themes about evil satanists operating child sex trafficking rings, to claim that bringing kids to those sorts of events is tantamount to “grooming.” This campaign has recently expanded to smear doctors specializing in gender affirming healthcare, openly LGBTQ school teachers, and the transgender community, and has joined neo-Nazis, Proud Boys, anti-vaxxers, MAGA types, and GOP political figures, in a rallying cry of “Protect Our Kids.”
Bendel-Sac’s vision for UpRising Bakery when she opened in 2017 was a place where everyone felt welcome and that celebrated diversity. The way she felt she could communicate that message was by catering to a wide-range of dietary restrictions through her baking. “We offer the exact same options, the same exact menu, same pricing, for all diets,” said Bendel-Sac. “Vegan, gluten-free, keto, sugar-free, all of that.”
In late 2021, she decided to start hosting events at the bakery with the hopes of bringing in a little extra cash, and deepening bonds with the community. “Due to COVID, it was getting harder for us to make ends meet. Pastries were not paying the bills,” said Bendel-Sac. “We have a really large space here, and bakeries tend to die down and close around 4 p.m.” So, she began holding karaoke nights, live music, and art classes.
“Starry Night Drag Brunch” was going to be UpRising Bakery’s first drag event. Bendel-Sac, who identifies as bisexual, said she was aware of the firestorm raging nationwide over family-friendly drag events, but thought hosting the brunch would be a good way to “engage the community, and reach out to a new part of the community to let them know we were here.”
After the bakery was vandalized, Bendel-Sac was forced to cancel the drag event. But by the next day, they’d reopened, offering a limited menu for customers. Supporters came from all over, and were queued outside.
A week later, Bendel-Sac received another blow—this time from the Lake of the Hills’ village council. She got a letter notifying her that her business was not zoned for entertainment events, and that if she continued to host such events she risked fines and a suspension of her business and liquor licenses.
Bendel-Sac was furious. She posted a video to her Facebook, standing in front of the boarded up windows that had since been covered in supportive messages from the community, explaining that two upcoming events— “Disney Karaoke” and ‘Resumé Writing Workshop”— had been canceled because of local government’s threats. In the video, she asked why, if she’d been holding events at the bakery for nearly a year, was it the drag brunch that ultimately prompted Lake of the Hills to take action. In a statement, the village said that they learned that Bendel-Sac was improperly holding such events after she advertised the drag brunch and “received strong negative criticism.”
Bendel-Sac’s video garnered 32,000 views, and attracted the attention of the ACLU’S Illinois chapter, who helped her come to an agreement with local authorities. In early August, Illinois’ Gov. J.B. Pritzker visited the bakery, and added his name to the signatures covering the boarded up windows.
“We must come together to combat the rising tide of hate against our LGBTQ+ neighbors and friends, including the recent hateful attacks at UpRising Bakery and Cafe,” Pritzker said. “Hate has no home here.”
From there, Bendel-Sac began hosting drag events with increasing regularity. She said she felt a responsibility to stand up to the hostile climate and show that she wasn’t going to back down easily.
“I am admittedly a pretty stubborn person,” said Bendel-Sac. “If you’re going to continue to hurt this community, and hurt these people, and not see the wrongs you’re doing and the hate you’re perpetuating, then I’m going to use my strength and my knowledge and my platform to fight back.”
As the number of protesters outside the bakery each weekend grows, so do the number of counterprotesters. Some counterprotests have been organized by the local Parasol Patrol chapter, which is a network of LGBTQ activists whose tactics involve using rainbow umbrellas to create a division between far-right agitators and whatever group or business they’re targeting.
Local police, who Bendel-Sac says have been very supportive, have been a near constant presence at the bakery and have started putting up barricades on weekends to keep protesters and counterprotesters separate.
Bendel-Sac fears that the situation may continue to escalate. “Especially with elections coming up, and tensions are rising every day, it’s pretty obvious,” said Bendel-Sac. “Even the police are getting more irritated with it, and the community is for sure. They live here and they’re tired of it, and now they’re starting to act out too.” For example, Bendel-Sac has noticed that some residents have started swearing at the protesters if they drive by, saying things like “get the fuck out,” “grow the fuck up”, or “get a fucking job.”
Bendel-Sac has asked the counterprotesters to stay peaceful. “I go out there regularly and ask the people on my side to make sure they are not interacting or fighting back with words or anything else,” said Bendel-Sac. “Just pretend they’re not here. Just pretend you’re here to party in rainbow and that’s it.”