When the Storybook Pride Prom for LGBT teens in Jacksonville, Fla., was canceled after online conservative backlash, a local church made sure the story had a happy ending.
The Willowbranch Library in Jacksonville originally organized the event, inviting 14- to 18-year-olds to come in costume as their favorite book characters, with a dress code of “casual, formal, or in drag — whatever makes you feel great. Be you!” Over 100 teens planned to attend.
When the event caught the attention of a conservative blogger who encouraged her nearly 700,000 Facebook followers to call the library to complain, the Jacksonville Public Library canceled the event last week amid fears for the teens’ safety — to the outrage of many local parents and community members.
Ultimately, the kids got their dance. The Buckman Bridge Unitarian Universalist Church in Jacksonville stepped in and held the prom Friday, the same night as the original event at the neighborhood’s library.
“It was the right thing to do,” Grace Repass, the church’s past president, said in a statement to The Washington Post. “The LGBTQIA+ youth in our community deserve to have their prom and we wanted to support them.”
Repass said the decision to host the prom was swift and unanimously supported by the church’s board, and she said the event featured “happy teens, grateful parents, and a lot of community support.”
“We see our church as a safe place for people who are figuring out who they are,” she said. “Our Unitarian Universalist values call us to respect the inherent worth and dignity of every person. So, it’s a matter of integrity — to act in alignment with who we say we are.”
About 50 volunteers, LGBT veterans, private security and the Jacksonville sheriff’s office were on hand to protect the kids, News4Jax reported.
Willowbranch Library originally announced the prom on Facebook on June 4. On June 21, blogger Elizabeth Johnston, who goes by “Activist Mommy,” encouraged her followers to “express your disgust that this perversion is taking place in a taxpayer funded library!” She also listed the branch’s phone number.
Johnson’s Facebook page frequently criticizes drag queens and LGBT people, and she has encouraged her followers to call libraries that host story-time events at which drag performers read to children. She could not immediately be reached for comment.
That call to action was echoed by a Florida group called Biblical Concepts Ministries, whose stated mission is “educating, motivating, and activating the body of Christ in civil and community service and public policy in order to defend our religious freedoms.” The group blasted out an “Emergency Alert” email to pastors and supporters urging them to contact the mayor and the city council to complain about the “inappropriate insanity.”
The group’s founder, Raymond Johnson, told News4Jax that “we’re absolutely opposed to anything like this.” The Biblical Concepts Ministries declared victory on Facebook over the cancellation on June 24, calling it a “Perverted Drag Queen Prom for Children."
In a Facebook statement on the cancellation, the Jacksonville Public Library said that it “promotes inclusivity and acceptance of all people, regardless of sexual orientation” but that after hearing of physical threats to the young participants, it decided to cancel.
That decision prompted protests from patrons upset that the library had capitulated to pressure from anti-LGBT activists. Some parents even suggested that the library director, Tim Rogers, resign.
Chris Boivin, spokesman for the Jacksonville Public Library, told The Post via email that Rogers “now understands how the cancellation impacted the teens who were planning to attend as well as the greater LGBTQ community. This has been a humbling and learning experience.”
But Boivin stood by the decision to cancel the event. “As a small, non-activist organization, we had never dealt with this kind of thing before,” he wrote. “With one week to go before holding a brand-new event for teens, we felt out of our element and unprepared to ensure the kids’ safety and sense of security. We had the teens’ well-being and safety in mind when we canceled, and nothing else. We did not realize how the cancellation would impact the LGBTQ community, and for that, we are very sorry.”
BeBe Deluxe, a drag queen who was scheduled to appear at the prom, wrote on Instagram after the cancellation that such events are important because “trans kids need to see themselves represented in healthy trans adults. Gay kids need to see happy gay adults. Straight kids need to learn to help make the world better for everybody."
One parent critical of Rogers, Michelle Leipuner, said that he had “caved” to online pressure and that the children had not been in danger. Leipuner said she called the library and the mayor’s office to complain and participated in a protest against Rogers last week.
Leipuner has a 14-year-old son who is gay and a 17-year-old daughter who is transgender, and the cancellation felt intensely personal to her, she told The Post. She had been excited for her son to attend the prom because it presented an “opportunity for him to go and meet people like him, different from him.” She called its cancellation a “slap in the face.”
She praised the church’s last-minute intervention because it gave her son the opportunity to celebrate pride with his fellow LGBT teens.
“He was the belle of the ball,” she said. “He had a gorgeous gold dress on. He was beautiful.”