With his thumbs in his pockets, Wilson Gavin stood at the front of the crowd, leading them in a videotaped chant that would quickly go viral: “Drag queens are not for kids.”
As the president of a conservative group at his Australian university, the 21-year-old had steered protesters into a public library in Brisbane, where they barged into a room full of families for “Drag Queen Story Time.” Inside, the group faced off with a sequined, costumed performer who had been reading the audience a children’s book.
Kids asked what was happening. Parents called the police, and a handful filmed the confrontation. As that video spread across social media, politicians chimed in — most of them condemning it as a hateful act.
The next day, Gavin, who was openly gay, took his own life.
That rapid succession of events has turned a young man’s death into an emotional and political firestorm: Some have pointed to an overwhelming “social media mob” that came after him. Others have talked about disproportionately high rates of suicide among LGBTQ youth, or a culture they say that lacks acceptance.
And others still have urged that it is inappropriate to make any kind of political statements at all.
“To me, this incident transcends politics. It is about humanity, and about recognizing that everybody has it,” Johnny Valkyrie, one of the drag queens at the library event, said in an interview with The Washington Post. “I only wish I could tell him I love and support him.”
In recent years, Gavin had emerged as a young voice for conservatism in Australian politics. Despite his sexual orientation, he opposed same-sex marriage and actively campaigned against the issue in 2017, when it went up for a national referendum.
In 2018, he defended the role of the British monarchy on “Outsiders,” a political talk-show whose hosts have described themselves as “Trump’s Aussie mates.”
“I’m a lover of all things traditional. I’m a lover of all things beautiful,” he said on the show. “And there’s nothing more traditional in this country than the monarchy.”
Satyajeet Marrar, a fellow member of the Australian Monarchist Society, said Gavin was an “outspoken young man with a good heart.”
“Despite holding opinions that some people disagree with strongly, he would defend them with conviction,” Marrar wrote on Facebook. “Brave and admirable traits while most of us in this generation spend years obsessing over what others think of us.”
At the University of Queensland, Gavin became president of the school’s Liberal National Club, which branded itself as the local chapter of Australia’s right-wing political party. Although the national organization disaffiliated itself from the university club in December, members maintained ties with at least one member of Parliament and sought out opportunities for political action.
On Sunday, their target was a drag queen presentation at Brisbane Square Library. Much like in the United States, these family-friendly readings — meant to foster free expression and the inclusion of LGBTQ people among children — have emerged as a sort of cultural flash point of sorts.
In Brisbane, however, the city council had endorsed a drag queen story time at the public library. So Gavin and the UQ Liberal National Club organized a protest to “defend LNP values against a corrosive gender ideology,” it wrote on Facebook, according to ABC Australia.
“This event is designed to indoctrinate and sexualise young children. Our kids deserve better than this! Why is this moral filth being paid for by the taxpayer?” the post stated. As of early Tuesday, the group’s page appeared to have been deleted, and the club did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Post.
One mother at the event, Jenny Griffin, said that one of her children, who are 6 and 8, started to cry out of fear and confusion. “I’m angry at the audacity of these young people to be harassing and kind of threatening,” she told ABC.
Many elected officials and commentators seemed to agree with her. As videos of the confrontation spread across social media, politicians on the left and right criticized the fiery protest.
Online, Gavin defended the action as part of the fight against “politically correct rubbish,” but even supporters distanced themselves from the demonstration.
On Monday, less than a day later, police told Australian media that Gavin had taken his own life.
Almost instantaneously, his death sparked an outpouring of sentiment both emotional and political: Various corners of Australian society interpreted his death as radically different tragedies.
George Christensen, a conservative member of Parliament, used it as an opportunity to attack “broken” social media and announce he would be deleting his account. On the platform, he called it an instance of “Twitter keyboard warriors [piling] on an individual for a political protest.”
Mark Robinson, another right-wing politician and the sponsor of the UQ club, said Gavin was “treated terribly for “taking a principled stand to protect children from inappropriate sexualisation.”
As current State patron of the UQ LN Club, I’m deeply saddened to hear of the death of Wilson Gavin. Wilson & his friends took a principled stand to protect children from inappropriate sexualisation & gender fluid ideology. For that he was treated terribly. Wilson, RIP!
For other Australians, however, Gavin’s death was instead a sign of the mental health issues affecting LGBTQ youth — and the homophobia they said was instilled and spread by those on the Australian right.
Drew Pavlou, a friend of Gavin’s at UQ, remembered him as a “very decent and kind person” who may have also been coping with such issues.
“He had his struggles and made mistakes, and it is a tragedy for us all that he ultimately succumbed to his suffering and pain,” Pavlou wrote on Twitter. “Today is a reminder of all we must do to affirm to young marginalized Australians the intrinsic worth and value of their lives.”
I was friends with Wilson. Away from the social media storms and headlines, he was at his core a very decent and kind person that cared for others. I had the great privilege of seeing that side of him in life. He was hilarious, a complete riot to be around
Valkyrie, the 23-year-old drag queen, told The Post that while Gavin’s death transcends politics, the influence of certain political views — namely, those like Christensen’s — had left a noticeable mark on the situation. The drag queen and activist said he himself had attempted suicide 13 times during his adolescence, while coming out and coming to terms with his identity: he is both transgender and gay, he said.
“Wilson may have contributed to the incident which harmed myself and others, but I forgive him and I understand that he was troubled,” said Valkyrie, tearing up on the phone. “I only wish I could tell him I love and support him.”
On social media, he offered him up a message anyway.
“What you did on Sunday was unacceptable,” Valkyrie wrote. “Who you were was not.”
CW: Suicide, Wilson Gavin
Wilson, I love you.
Wilson, I forgive you.
Wilson, I see you.
Wilson, I pray for you.
What you did on Sunday was unacceptable.
Who you were was not.