Meet the GOP candidate who spews misinformation, wants to jail teachers and librarians, and tries to ruin events for children
On June 25, families gathered outside the Holbrook Public Library were enjoying the sunny Saturday at a Pride Month event. Children were seated under a canopy, listening to drag queen Nadia Starr read Julián Is a Mermaid by Jessica Love.
A woman approached the group, livestreaming with her cellphone.
“Who’s in charge of this?” she asked repeatedly, her voice growing louder over time, as an organizer attempted to speak with her and direct her away from the canopy.
“Do the taxpayers know?” the woman yelled. “I would like to know what’s going on. Has this person been CORI checked reading to children? … I would like to know who’s funding this and has this been CORI checked?”
The belligerent woman attempting to ruin an event for children was Rayla Campbell, the Republican candidate for secretary of the commonwealth, the state’s third highest executive office. Campbell—a Donald Trump supporter and far-right provocateur who often sports dresses with American and Thin Blue Line flag designs and has been known to grab and rip up protest signs she finds disagreeable—is part of a nationwide reactionary movement resisting the growing acceptance of LGBTQ people by spreading false claims that they are grooming children for sexual abuse.
Campbell drew quite a bit of attention to herself with her speech at the Mass GOP’s convention in Springfield on May 21. As she accepted the party’s endorsement, she said:
You can’t just sit and go, Oh, that’s terrible. Maybe somebody else will take care of it. Oh, that’s not so nice. Well, I don’t think it’s nice when they’re telling your five-year-old that he can go and suck another five-year-old’s dick. Do you? This is what they’re doing. … And I’m going to give it to you like it is, because that’s what’s happening in your schools.
Campbell has made attacking public schools and local libraries the focus of her campaign—even though the secretary of the commonwealth has no control over either. She hosts a weekly talk show on WSMN, a radio station in New Hampshire, and regularly makes false, inflammatory claims about sexual education and library books.
“They’re completely destroying their innocence. As I’ve said it before, they’re raping your child from the brain,” she said on her June 2 show. “They want them to go out and masturbate and play with other kids in sexual ways. … We’re talking about telling 10- and 12-year-olds and younger that they should try anal sex using a dental dam.”
She wants to see sex-ed teachers locked up: “This is criminal behavior and anybody teaching and OKing this type of curriculum to be in schools with underage children should be in jail.”
Campbell, who sends her children to private school, has called on parents to remove their children from public schools. On her June 23 show, she said: “We do need to start pulling our kids out. That’s the way that they’re going to learn—when their schools are empty.”
She is animated by a deep animosity toward transgender and nonbinary people.
“There are two genders. I have a son and two daughters. My son is a boy. He will always be a boy. My daughters are girls. They will always be girls,” she said at the convention.
On her May 12 show, Campbell falsely blamed discussions of gender identity in public schools for adolescent suicides. As the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline notes, supportive families and schools reduce depression and suicide by LBGTQ people.
“I’m gonna call them freaks, because that’s exactly what they are,” Campbell said. “I mean, they look like weirdos. They have black eyes. They’re sitting there with, like, multicolored hair, telling your kid that the doctor made a mistake and they don’t know what gender they are. … [If] you’re teaching this type of [thing in public schools]—that right there is child abuse. It’s grooming. It’s sex trafficking.”
On her June 2 show, the candidate spoke about “preschool teachers that are nonbinary, whatever they want to call themselves,” again referring to them as “freaks” and “weirdos.”
“[If] you tell kids, little three- and four-year-olds about your sexual life, [there’s] something wrong with you. You should not be anywhere near kids,” she said.
At the convention, Boston Globe reporter Matt Stout asked Campbell about her remarks about schools teaching five-year-old boys to perform oral sex on one another. She did not provide any evidence and instead pointed to proposed legislation that would update the standards for teaching sexual education. In May 26 posts on Twitter and Facebook, she claimed that the Healthy Youth Act, which is pending before the state legislature, would “lower the age of consent to TWELVE.”
In reality, the legislation does not mention the age of consent. The bill would require that parents be notified if sex ed is taught, give them an opportunity to review sex-ed materials, and allow them to opt out their children. It would require schools teaching sex ed to use age-appropriate, medically accurate information and to include information about anatomy, safe sex, abstinence, and consent in their curricula. It would also require sex-ed curricula to include information about gender identity and sexual orientation.
State Rep. Jim O’Day, who filed the House version of the bill, said Campbell’s comments at the convention were “homophobic fearmongering” in a letter to the Globe. “Maybe Campbell and the Mass GOP haven’t actually read the bill. They should,” he wrote.
Campbell has not provided evidence about her sex-ed claims to any of the media outlets that have interviewed her, including the Globe, the Bay State Banner, NBC10 Boston, and WBZ. She briefly corresponded with this reporter about other matters in January, but she has not responded to numerous emails and phone calls since the convention.
“I used the word that will get more of [sic] attention,” Campbell told NBC10 in defense of her remarks at the convention. “I’m just giving people the information that they should know.”
Campbell “brought down the house with a rousing speech,” the Mass GOP said in a post-convention fundraising email that made no mention of the child-sex stuff. Meanwhile, the party’s communications director Evan Lips complained on Twitter that the Globe did not report any of Campbell’s other comments.
Campbell did indeed say quite a bit more in her speech. She said she wants a voter ID law. She called herself “the biggest masshole in Massachusetts.” She criticized current Secretary of the Commonwealth William F. Galvin for being too secretive and for charging businesses excessive filing fees. She complained about masks and vaccines. She said she doesn’t “see skin color,” just “red, white, and blue.” She said she’s the first Black woman to get her name on the ballot for a statewide office in Massachusetts. She said she’s “pro-Second Amendment” and just got a “fantastic” new M1 rifle. She said she’s “pro-life.” She said that the 2020 election, in which she ran as a write-in candidate for the US House of Representatives, was “stolen” from her. She also said her “family disowned [her] because [she’s] a Republican.”
“There is a red tsunami that is growing, and we are going to crush and destroy these rotten devils that call themselves Democrats,” she said to applause. “This is a battle of good versus evil. And God is telling us, Please rise up, my people. This is your job. This is your duty. And I finally understand why God gave me such an outspoken mouth.”
During a recent appearance on Cecil Grant Jr’s Changing the Narrative podcast, Campbell shared her thoughts on hitting children: “We knew when we were disciplined, and that shaped us. Right now, it’s like, Oh, no, you can’t hit them. You’re an abuser. Like, that’s my kid—talk back, I’m [going to] knock them right upside the head, right in the mouth.”
“I’m protecting children”
Matthew Quinn, dressed as his drag persona Nadia Starr, had just started reading to the children at the event in Holbrook when Campbell approached with a small group. Quinn, who teaches at a charter school, said he is “very used to tuning out background noise … to keep the lesson going,” so he didn’t realize there was a disturbance.
A member of Holbrook United for Change, the community group that organized the Pride Month event with the library, said that at the beginning of the event, someone warned her that members of America Backs the Blue might show up. The organizer, who asked that her name not be used due to fear of retaliation, recognized Tony Federico of America Backs The Blue and Campbell. The organizer asked others to block the canopy and hold up pride flags.
Another organizer stood directly in front of Campbell, who accused the man of stepping on her foot.
“What is your problem? Why do you hate children having a nice day?” a third organizer asked.
The woman, who recognized Campbell, began using a bullhorn to drown her out: “Remember when you fought a teenager in a parking lot and lost?” She was referring to a recorded 2020 incident during which Campbell scuffled with two young women at a Trump rally in New Bedford. “You care about children but you fight teenagers.”
“Remember when you left a voicemail threatening a man?” the woman asked. She was referring to another 2020 incident during which Campell got angry at Mass GOP state committee member Brock Cordeiro for blocking her from a Facebook group. Campbell left a message for the party’s then-vice chairman Tom Mountain saying she would “find out where this little motherfucker lives and beat him a new asshole.”
Campbell yelled that she wanted the event to end. She refused to back away from the canopy.
“I’m protecting children,” she yelled repeatedly.
While Campbell was distracted, library director Kimberly Usselman ushered Quinn and the children inside.
“We did a little parade with the kids and the performer,” Usselman said. “Fortunately, none of them knew what was going on, which was my biggest concern—that the event would be ruined for the kids. But they didn’t notice. They just thought the parade was part of a story time, and they continued to enjoy themselves.”
Organizers called the police, and Holbrook officer Christos Apostolidis arrived within minutes. He spoke with Campbell, who said that she was assaulted.
“Rayla explained that a black male with dreadlocks … got in her face and stomped his foot onto her right foot. I asked Rayla if she wanted to be evaluated by EMS and she declined,” Apostolidis wrote in his report. “Rayla stated that she would pursue charges at a later time on her own.” His report continues:
Rayla stated that a cross-dressed person reading a storybook to the kids at the event was morally wrong because it teaches them about sexual acts. Rayla then told me that I should CORI check … the guest storyteller. I advised Rayla that the town of Holbrook and Holbrook Town Library sanctioned the Pride event at the library. I advised her I was dispatched to the library because she and the group she was with was causing a disturbance to the event.
Sergeant Casey Surprenant arrived and told Campbell that Usselman wanted her to leave. Campbell and her group departed soon after.
Apostolidis spoke with the man Campbell accused of assault. The man denied stomping on her foot.
Usselman had advised the police department about the Pride Month event about a week earlier. She didn’t know anyone planned to disrupt it, but she was being cautious because she was aware protesters have disturbed similar events. She also called the police the day of the event and spoke with Apostolidis in person shortly before Quinn arrived, which is how the officer responded so quickly.
Inside the library, Quinn completed his performance without incident. He finished Julián Is a Mermaid and talked with the children about the moral of the story. He read a second book, Prince & Knight by Daniel Haack. Then he sang “Let It Go” from the Disney movie Frozen and took pictures with some of the children and parents.
Quinn started dressing in drag when he was about 22 and has now been doing it for about 11 years.
“I’ve always identified as male, but I had the sort of pull towards things that were also feminine growing up. I grew up with two older sisters, and I would be fascinated by their makeup,” he said.
Later, he saw the reality TV show RuPaul’s Drag Race: “I remember just falling in love with the artistry behind it and the idea of the illusion that can be portrayed through wigs and makeup and costumes. And I just thought it sounded like a whole bunch of fun and a way to express myself creatively.”
The Holbrook event was the fourth time Quinn read at a drag queen story time.
“I thought it was the perfect marriage between me doing drag and me being a teacher, and I thought I was a perfect fit for it to be honest,” he explained.
Quinn did not hear about the disturbance until after he finished performing. “I was a little bit shocked. And then I found out later that day that [Campbell] had livestreamed it on her Facebook,” he said.
He decided to post her video on his own Facebook page.
“I wanted people to know about this woman, about the message she was spreading, and about the way she was twisting what was a peaceful message of inclusivity as something deviant,” he said.
He initially set his post to private, but he decided to make it public at a friend’s suggestion. After doing so, he started to receive hateful comments.
“I can’t say that it didn’t affect me at all. It was unpleasant to read,” Quinn said. “I’ve been called a pedophile … I’ve been called a groomer, I’ve been told I need to be incarcerated by [Campbell’s] supporters.”
He said he reached out to Campbell but she did not respond to him.
In another Facebook post, Campbell called out Quinn by name and accused him of having children sit on his lap during the performance.
“That never happened,” said Usselman. “I was with [Quinn] the entire time. … There were kids that gave [him] a hug at the end, unprovoked by the performer. They just came up and gave [him] a hug because they had such a fun time. But there was nothing inappropriate going on.”
Quinn said Campbell “flat-out lied.” He continued: “This is a way for her to enrage her followers and to provide fake evidentiary support that I am some deviant groomer.”
But he’s not deterred: “I believe that what I’m doing is right. And I can’t allow people who use intimidation tactics to have any power over what I choose to do and the message of inclusivity I’d like to spread.”
Responding to comments Campbell repeatedly made at the event, Usselman said it was not necessary to perform a CORI check of Quinn because parents were present and responsible for supervising their children. She also pointed out that since Quinn is a teacher, his employer does background checks on him.
Usselman said it didn’t matter if tax dollars were spent on the event but that none were. She said Quinn was paid with donations and all other expenses were covered by Holbrook United for Change.
The group organized the event, but Usselman hired Quinn. She said that the board of library trustees and town administrator approved of the event, including the drag queen story hour. She also said she hasn’t received any complaints from Holbrook residents.
“I think this kind of reaction by non-Holbrook residents is why we have to continue doing this for the Holbrook residents that want things like this,” she said. “If Holbrook residents want certain programs, I am more than happy to … offer the library’s support in any way. This is one of the points of libraries. It’s [to meet] the information, educational, and entertainment needs of the community.”
Andrea Fiorillo, a Reading librarian who is co-chair of the Massachusetts Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom/Social Responsibility Committee, said the Holbrook Public Library contacted her about the incident. She was saddened by the news.
“The [committee] stands with the queer community. Massachusetts libraries proudly offer collections, services, and programs to meet LGBTQ+ needs,” she said.
“I didn’t read the whole thing”
On June 7, Campbell showed up at several libraries, recording Facebook Live videos of herself complaining about the book Gender Queer: A Memoir. In a video shot at the Thayer Public Library in Braintree, she says she found the book in the teen room. Still, she complains that children might see it. (She also mentions that the children’s section is on a different floor.)
“This book depicts sex. Porn. Child porn,” Campbell says in the video. “This is happening. This is illegal behavior. These children aren’t even old enough to consent, but it’s telling them to perform all sorts of acts.”
She adds: “We’re going to be exposing everything, protecting you, giving you the rights that you were given by God. … And we’re also going to make sure that this rubbish is removed from our classrooms, from our libraries. It’s disgusting, and all these people should be held accountable.”
Gender Queer is a comic book memoir written and illustrated by Maia Kobabe, an artist from California. The award-winning book, first published in 2019, is about how Kobabe came to identify as nonbinary and asexual.
Speaking to NBC News in December, Kobabe said: “I’ve been receiving almost weekly, and sometimes more than weekly, emails from readers thanking me for writing it, telling me how much it meant to them, saying it helped them understand themselves or that they gave it to a parent or a child or a friend or a partner, and that it helped their loved one understand them more, and that it opened up conversations they had not previously been able to have.”
Gender Queer was the most challenged book of 2021 due to its queer themes and sexual content, according to the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. The 240-page book has a few pages that talk about sex, including four pages with mild sexual imagery. The most explicit image was based on a piece of classical Greek art on display at a museum. The sexual content is on par with many of the works of classic literature taught in high school English classes throughout the country.
“It’s very hard to hear people say, This book is not appropriate to young people when it’s like, I was a young person for whom this book would have been not only appropriate, but so, so necessary,” Kobabe told NBC News. “There are a lot of people who are questioning their gender, questioning their sexuality and having a real hard time finding honest accounts of somebody else on the same journey. There are people for whom this is vital and for whom this could maybe even be lifesaving.”
Campbell talks about the Gender Queer constantly. She has mentioned it in several radio shows, social media posts, Facebook Live videos (including her video from Holbrook), and an interview with WBZ.
“I didn’t read the whole thing. I just happened to flip through and see what was going on,” she said on her June 2 show.
Campbell has suggested that because Gender Queer is a comic book, it appeals to children. “It’s in comic book motif, so anybody, like young kids, Oh, look, it’s a comic book,” she said on her June 9 show.
However, the majority of comics are aimed at teens and adults, and it’s not unusual for comics to depict sex. It’s also not unusual for libraries to stock comics.
Campbell has also claimed that Gender Queer is being shelved in the children’s sections of numerous Massachusetts public libraries. On May 24, the candidate showed up at a press conference held by Boston Mayor Michelle Wu. Campbell was “yelling and holding up a picture book that depicted images of people, well, ‘committing sex acts,’ as they have us put it in the newspaper,” Boston Herald reporter Sean Philip Cotter tweeted. The book was Gender Queer, Cotter said.
The official Twitter account for the Mass GOP said that Campbell got the book out of the children’s section of the “Randolph Public Library.” The library in Randolph is called the Turner Free Library—and it did not have any copies of Gender Queer at the time of the tweet, let alone in the children’s section. A librarian said that if the library previously had a copy but withdrew it from circulation or lost it, it would still be listed in the catalog, which it was not at the time. (The library has since ordered a copy.) Mass GOP communications director Evan Lips did not respond to numerous requests for comment.
Mayor Wu’s press conference was about the drug-addiction and homelessness crisis in the area of Boston known as Mass and Cass. It had nothing to do with schools or libraries—and nothing to do with library books in Randolph, which Wu has no control over. The Boston Public Library does have its own copies of Gender Queer; it shelves them in the graphic novels section, not the children’s section.
In a May 26 tweet, Campbell shared a picture of a page from Gender Queer along with another picture of books with Taunton Public Library stickers. “It’s called Children’s SECtion with a C, not SEXtion. Hands off our kids! Here are the books we found mixed in at a public library that they say ARE NOT THERE,” she wrote.
The Taunton Public Library shelves Gender Queer in the young adult section on the second floor. The children’s section is in the basement.
On her June 2 show, she said she first saw the book at the Avon Public Library: “In the children’s section. It’s in graphic novels right next to Captain Underpants and Diary of a Wimpy Kid. And yeah, it was right there on display.”
Campbell began reading comments from her listeners and said that the book is in libraries in Brockton, Reading, Wakefield, and Weymouth. “You could just keep going on with all of the towns that it’s in. It’s there. And it’s on display,” she continued.
None of the libraries mentioned by Campbell shelve the book in the children’s section. With the exception of the Avon Public Library, none of the libraries keep the book on the same floor as the children’s section.
A search of the catalogs for all of the library networks listed on the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners’ website did not turn up any examples of Gender Queer in the children’s sections of the hundreds of libraries that are part of these networks.
At the Pride Month event, Campbell told an attendee that the Holbrook Public Library has “child pornography,” citing Gender Queer. The library does not have a copy of the book.
In a Facebook comment, she also accused Matthew Quinn of reading the book during the story hour. Quinn pointed out that it would have been impossible to read a book that long in an hour, that children do not have the attention span for the book, and that it’s above the childrens’ reading level.
Local librarians are not intimidated by Campbell and other would-be book banners.
“Public library collections and spaces are just that: public. Libraries provide access to a wide variety of ideas and content for all community members,” said Andrea Fiorillo, co-chair of the MLA’s Intellectual Freedom/Social Responsibility Committee.
She continued: “We encourage readers and parents to make up their own minds about what is acceptable for themselves and their families. [The committee] stands against censorship efforts. Reading is one means of understanding complex issues. Censoring books will not make complex or controversial issues disappear.”
Those thoughts were echoed by Celeste Bruno, the communications director for the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners.
“The [board] recognizes an individual’s right to question library materials they find offensive,” Bruno said. “Living in a free society, that’s a right we all enjoy under the First Amendment. We also enjoy freedom from censorship. Providing access to information and viewpoints to those seeking them without judgment is an important part of a library’s mission.”
Campbell’s attacks on libraries appear to be motivated by confusion about the role of the secretary of the commonwealth. In a May 27 Facebook post, she said that William Galvin, the current secretary, “is on the board of trustees @ ALL STATE LIBRARIES!”
“Is he approving all of the stunning kids [sic] literature?” someone asked.
“Correct,” Campbell responded.
The secretary is on the board of trustees for the Massachusetts State Library, which maintains collections of state records and historical documents. The State Library is not responsible for the books in local libraries.
Campbell has also claimed that public schools are teaching Gender Queer to children. In the hours of radio shows and other media reviewed for this article, she has not specified any schools by name.
Campbell, the sole Republican running for secretary of the commonwealth, will face one of two Democrats in the general election: the incumbent, Galvin, who is seeking an eighth term, or his primary challenger, Boston NAACP president Tanisha Sullivan.
Reached by email in January, Campbell said: “You can rest assured I will follow all laws and statutes on the books. I can read quite well. I will follow what the constitution says. Massachusetts has the oldest constitution on this planet so I intend on following it to the letter.”
This article is syndicated by the MassWire news service of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. If you want to see more reporting like this, make a contribution at givetobinj.org.
Andrew Quemere is the author of the Mass Dump, a newsletter about public records. Follow him on Twitter @andrewqmr.
Andrew Quemere has been making public records requests in Massachusetts for more than a decade. He writes The Mass. Dump Dispatch, a newsletter about public records. Subscribe to read about the latest developments in government transparency. Follow him on Twitter @andrewqmr.