Drag queen story hours have made libraries the latest front in the United States’ wrenching national dispute over gender roles and sexuality.
In Leander, city officials first canceled the story hour, which was to be hosted by the library, in late May before a progressive and LGBT-friendly church in the area, Open Cathedral, stepped in to host it. The church will hold the event in a conference room it booked at the library.
“A lot of people are upset we canceled, and a lot of people are upset we had it planned,” Priscilla Donovan, the library’s director, told reporters at the time. “But it’s starting to tip more toward people who are disappointed we canceled it.”
Now rumors are flying about whether right-wing groups, including those that lean toward the extreme, will be greeted by anti-fascist protesters in front of the library as people in drag read stories to children inside.
At least one group, MassResistance, a self-described “pro-family” organization that the Southern Poverty Law Center characterizes as an anti-LGBT hate group, has targeted drag queen story hours around the country. Its chapter in Texas has organized a protest Saturday, when the event is supposed to be held, according to its Facebook page. Christian groups and media companies have spotlighted the event as well. And at least one liberal group, ATX Resistance Action, has organized a counterprotest to support the event.
Ryan Hart, 38, the minister and founder of Open Cathedral, said in a telephone interview that the church was surprised by the reaction to the event.
“We thought this would be 10 kids and three moms,” he said. But 2,000 people flooded the website to express interest in the event, which is RSVP only, he said. He expects about 150 people to attend.
“It’s about a community that’s looking to say out loud that we love our kids,” Hart said of the positive response. “It’s about a community that has more diversity than politicians realize. And it’s about a world that’s changing and people who want to be more loving than people saying, ‘Be quiet and sit down.’ . . . We’re honored to be called into the middle of that.”
The organization Drag Queen Story Hour started in late 2015 in San Francisco just as the country’s reinvigorated right wing was coming into form. But it has found many fans with chapters in areas outside traditionally liberal cities; it now has outposts in places like Milwaukee; New Orleans; Charlotte; Mobile, Ala.; and San Marcos, Tex.
Its founders have described it as a reaction to the harsh political landscape of the past few years, in which painful debates about issues like identity, sexuality and race have animated the country’s politics.
“I think it is partly a reaction to the political landscape of the U.S. right now and a need for more queer programming for children,” co-founder Jonathan Hamilt told the BBC about the organization’s popularity in more conservative areas.
And it has inspired dozens of other libraries and groups across the country to host their own events, as Travor Bach reported for The Washington Post.
In recent months, the events have sparked opposition in places like Simpsonville, S.C.; Binghamton, N.Y.; Spokane, Wash.; Huntington Woods, Mich.; and Houston, where organizers canceled the long-running event after a lawsuit, the disclosure that one of the former readers was a registered sex offender and the arrest of a protester who was carrying a licensed gun and refused to leave the event.
The debate about the story hours has also entered the op-ed pages, including a polemic written by New York Post op-ed editor Sohrab Ahmari for the religious journal First Things and a rebuttal from New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg.
“There are times where the rights of religious believers and those of a pluralistic society conflict: when, for example, conservative Christian bakers are asked to make wedding cakes for gay couples, or some ultra-Orthodox Jewish parents are ordered, against their own convictions, to vaccinate their kids,” Goldberg wrote. “The existence of Drag Queen Story Hour is not one of those times. Conservatives are not being subjugated because they can’t stop other people from holding a public event that offends them. It’s telling that some of them think they are.”
In Leander, the event drew harsh words from the city’s mayor, Troy Hill, who castigated the library’s staff for choosing “to wade into social issues water without approval from City Staff.”
“Since then it has led to the predictable outrage and divisiveness that is the reason to avoid these issues,” he told television station KVUE.
Mike Neu, a spokesman for the city of Leander, said officials expected that many of the demonstrators Saturday would be coming from outside the city or even the state.
“We don’t know if it will be one group or several groups,” he said.
The library’s closure was reported by the Austin American-Statesman.
Open Cathedral is a member of the United Church of Christ, which has a history of activism on issues such as abolition, women’s rights and LGBT rights, Hart said. One Christian news organization called it an “apostate Texas ‘Church.’”
Hart said he didn’t think it was a coincidence that the culture war had found its way to the staid and respectful world of libraries.
“I realized that revolutions always start with books and libraries,” he said. “People feel so deeply isolated in our society — that’s true of a lot of groups, whether it’s straight white men, people of color or immigrants. And I believe that people want to be included no matter what, and that’s what we’re trying to do with the kids of this community.”