When Jonathan Hillman was growing up in rural Wisconsin, he says he frequently felt “small.” He was a boy in a family of dirt track racers who played with Barbies, who would pull his turtleneck up over his head to make a pretend wig when he was playing with the kid down the street. Like many queer kids, he was often bullied, so dress-up and performance were a kind of refuge for him. “It made me feel bigger,” he recalls.
Fast-forward to 2018, when Hillman was brainstorming ideas for children’s books at his MFA program. Though he does not perform in drag himself, he had attended a lot of drag shows and was a big Ru Paul’s Drag Race fan, and he had the idea to write a book featuring a magical wig, as a way of exploring the fun and imagination of the drag community. “To me, the ethos of drag is so similar to the experience of playing dress-up and donning this character so much bigger than you, and finding power in your imagination,” he says. “Adults lose that sense of whimsy. Drag queens are the only people in the world who haven’t.”
After years of workshopping, revising, and getting rejected by publishers, the book, Big Wig, about a small child who dresses in drag as “BB Bedazzle” as part of a neighborhood talent competition, was published by a Simon and Schuster imprint last February. He wrote the book not only for his past child self, but for kids today who struggle as he did. “I wanted to show kids a kinder world than the one i grew up in and show queer joy,” he says. “I wanted to show a child dressing in drag and being uplifted and supported by their community.”
For a while, response to the book was fairly quiet, which didn’t surprise Hillman, as children’s book authors — particularly debut authors during pandemics — rarely get a lot of splashy press. Then he noticed on Friday that someone had tweeted a picture of the Big Wig book cover, with the caption “The far right let me know about this book, so I went out and bought it to make a bigot mad.” “I was like, what is going on?,” he says. He was shocked to find that Pizza Hut, which had just featured his book as part of an LGBTQ+ Pride Month initiative for its literacy program Book It, was trending on Twitter, with people threatening to boycott Pizza Hut for recommending Big Wig. The next day, he was on Fox News.
As discussed this week on Don’t Let This Flop, Rolling Stone‘s podcast about internet culture, it had all started when the far-right account Libs of TikTok tweeted out a screengrab of an email sent by Pizza Hut to promote its Pride Month celebration, accusing Pizza Hut of grooming children to perform drag. What followed was a flurry of backlash from right-wing commentators targeting not just Hillman’s book, but the company itself. “Pizza Hut has gone full woke, now we must make them full broke,” conservative author Brigitte Gabriel tweeted. Far-right troll Jack Posobiec went even further, dramatically intoning, “They took everything from us.” Australian commentator Nick Adams attempted to start a Boycott Pizza Hut movement, encouraging people to go to Papa John’s instead (Papa John’s CEO John Schnatter was famously ousted from the company for using the n-word on a conference call in 2018). One Twitter user, @tinyweinerbabe, compiled all of the diaper-wetting responses from pundits, tweeting a screengrab of all of them with the caption, “Pizza Hut has fallen.”
Hillman himself, despite having a relatively small social media presence, started to receive a barrage of hate-filled emails, presumably from those on the right who had tracked him down via his author page. He received a handful of death threats, including an email “saying that anyone who could come up with a book like this should be castrated and hung,” he says. Then the Amazon review bombing started, with people on the right spamming Big Wig’s ratings with one-star reviews and accusing Hillman of being a “groomer.” He has been particularly appalled by accusations that there is something inherently sexual about drag, or that his book is aimed at sexualizing children.
“I wrote this book from the perspective of a child playing dress-up,” he says. “Sexualization never crossed my mind. For me, it says a lot about the people saying ‘pedophile’ and ‘groomer.’ It is this grotesque vision that arose in their fearful imagination.”
The campaign against Pizza Hut is not the first time those on the right have tried to rally people against the “woke” GOP, espousing blatantly transphobic and homophobic talking points while doing so. Just a few weeks ago, State Farm was subject to a similar campaign after a consumer advocacy group went after the company for partnering with the GenderCool Project and donating books about LGBTQ+ issues to libraries and schools. Following the backlash, State Farm withdrew its support from GenderCool, writing in a statement, “This program that included books about gender identity was intended to promote inclusivity. Conversations about gender and identity should happen at home with parents. We don’t support required curriculum in schools on this topic. We support organizations providing resources for parents to have these conversations.”
pizza hut has fallen pic.twitter.com/P24MxnWmbE
— ?????? (@tinywienerbabe) June 3, 2022
Pizza Hut, to its credit, has not to date backed down or issued a statement about including Big Wig in its literacy initiative. (Hillman says he has not heard from Pizza Hut at all about the campaign, though he has heard from his publisher, who has been supportive.) But conservative attacks on LGBTQ+ acceptance, compounded with accusations that drag is a form of “grooming” children, is embedded deep within the GOP’s history. Drag Queen Story Hours at libraries across the country have been subject to violent threats and harassment for years, leading to many such events being cancelled; efforts to silence voices normalizing the LGBTQ experience have ramped up in the past year or so, with members of the GOP establishment even proposing bills banning minors from entry to drag events.
Yet while Pizza Hut, not Hillman himself, may have been trending on Twitter, it’s activists, educators, and artists like him who are largely bearing the brunt of this anti-LGBTQ backlash. “For me the strangest thing about all of this is, the book directly speaks to it — being made to feel small and being bullied,” he says. Throughout the past few days, he has been repeating his favorite drag queen Jinkx Monsoon’s anti-bullying mantra — “water off a duck’s back” — to help himself get through it. “As an adult I have the responsibility to use my voice for that kid that I was,” he says. “So I do feel like I have to rise to the occasion, and turn this into an opportunity to get this book in the hands of kids who need it.”
At the end of the day, that may be exactly what will happen. As a result of the controversy, Big Wig has risen up the Amazon charts overnight, and Hillman’s fellow MFA program members have banded together to try to counteract the one-star reviews and report the hate comments. Right before we got on the phone, Hillman had gotten off a call with his publisher discussing in part how to further promote the book for Pride Month.
Yet the experience of facing harassment simply for trying to teach tolerance of gender nonconforming children, or to make kids like him feel seen, has obviously been highly concerning for him. “As idealistic as I was in writing this book, that it would be purely celebratory, there’s a long fight ahead — especially for kids living in states where the law says gay people don’t exist,” he says, citing Florida’s Don’t Say Gay bill as an example. “I’m too opstimistic to say we are backsliding. But there’s a loud megaphone for the people who don’t want everyone to be able to live their own reality and want everyone to conform to their own rigid model [of living]. The fight for our right to exist is far from over.”
As for the kids he’s writing for — the ones growing up also feeling small — that’s the feedback he’s primarily concerned about. “Every time I read it to kids, they say read it again,” he says. “That’s the best review I’ve gotten.”