For more than a year, Drag Queen Story Hour has carried on as a family-friendly offering of the King County Library System, attracting about the same amount of attention as puppet shows, Mandarin and Arabic story times, and Stay & Play.
The activity is just as it sounds: Drag queens resplendent in colorful, sparkly costumes read to kids and their parents. The point, organizers say, is imagination and play, and allowing young children to glimpse a world free of prescribed gender roles. No “boy clothes.” No “girl clothes.”
But a couple of weeks ago, ahead of a Teen Pride event at the system’s Renton branch that featured a drag performance, irate callers jammed the phone lines.
After a mention on local conservative radio and an appeal from so-called “Activist Mommy” Elizabeth Johnston to her 640,000 Facebook followers to condemn the event — as they had with other Drag Queen Story Hour events around the country — the Renton library staff was overwhelmed. If patrons wanted information on a book, they’d have to wait or stop by in person.
Supporters struck back. On Thursday, the last DQSH of the year, timed to close out Pride Month, more than 400 kids and parents showed up at the Fairwood branch in Renton to hear drag king Thadayus read “Julián Is a Mermaid.”
With finger-length false eyelashes, black eyeliner, a glittery beard and a shimmering, neon-green and-blue outfit accessorized with platform shoes, he stood primed to perform.
“Find fishes swimming in the water,” he sang, along with Fairwood Children’s Librarian Bernadette Salgado, to which the children responded, “Bubble! Bubble!”
“Those of you who came here against some hatred in our community, I want to thank every one of you,” Thadayus said to the crowd.
He explained to the overflow audience spilling out of the library’s meeting room to the main floor that “drag” is a form of entertainment where people of any sexual orientation dress up and perform in highly stylized ways.
At one point, King County Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht walked to the front of the room and said, that as a member of the LGBTQ community, “it’s inspiring to see everyone out here.”
Outside, competing shouts of “love” and “shame” boomed around the entryway where about 300 story-hour supporters outnumbered roughly 75 protesters.
“I decided to come today because I think what these people are doing are wrong. This is everything I stand against,” said a young man who would identify himself only as a Fairwood community member. “We need to protect our children.”
Tori Jesse, who stood with the supporters, brought her daughter to story hour because, she said, it helps teach compassion and acceptance.
“I think we have to go beyond tolerance and lean towards understanding, and we don’t understand without exposure. Having that exposure with these programs allows us to see different people and be aware of different mentalities that make us more accepting,” said Jesse.
She joined others to form a “welcome wall” that partially blocked children from seeing some of the protesters’ signs, such as those depicting adolescents dressed in drag, reading “They’re going to be grooming the next generation.”
Drag Queen Story Hours are held at the Des Moines, Skyway, Renton and Fairwood branches. Library staff coordinated the events after patrons expressed an interest, according to Salgado.
“We want to give a voice to all in the community,” said Julie Acteson, community relations and marketing director for the King County Library System. Readers receive $150 from private donations to Friends of the Library.
Founded by queer writer Michelle Tea in San Francisco, such story hours are held around the country, and now have 42 official chapters.
As they’ve grown, so has opposition.
Nationally, tactics promoted by Johnston, such as blitzing library phone lines to force cancellation of story times, has become common place.
In the past, the Seattle Public Library system — which started the story hours in 2013 — has received relatively mild backlash. But hostility has ratcheted up at King County libraries.
Locally, groups such as MassResistance Washington, have organized against the story times. The national group, based in Massachusetts, bills itself as “pro-family.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center calls MassResistance an anti-LGBTQ hate group — citing instances where its leadership has connected homosexuality with pedophilia, violence, and disease.
The Washington state chapter has called for a no vote on future library levies until all DQSHs are discontinued.
Others have joined them in that call.
Lynn Meagher says she takes offense at drag queens in libraries.
“A quick Google search of drag queens … will lead a child not into a world of all things sparkly and fancy, but a world of porn, explicit adult entertainment, drugs and mean-girl culture,” said Meagher, who said she has nothing against the LGBTQ community or drag queens.
“Drag queens in no way have diminished abilities to interact with children and teens in age-appropriate ways,” says Polly Trout, whose child attended and helped plan Saturday’s event.
Performer Kylie Mooncakes, who appeared at a library Pride event, said that “to be involved in all ages and for the youth is wonderful, as a lot of performances usually take place in bars. I love doing things that are more positive, and geared toward empowerment and inspiring youth.”
Trout said most detractors are ignorant.
“I wish it were true that queer teens were getting the sex education and social support that they need and deserve at home and at school. KCLS is doing what libraries are meant to do — providing a safe place for people of all ages to self-educate about what matters to them,” she said.
Studies show LGBTQ youth aged 12 to 14 are more likely to die by suicide than their heterosexual peers, facing such issues as family rejection, bullying and harassment. Acceptance of the community is also declining among 18- to 34-year-olds, according to a GLAAD survey.
“Libraries are a bastion of democracy and we’re here for everyone,” said Regional Library Manager Amy Eggler, noting that in addition to defending story hours, she has defended the right of the Proud Boys, a group that has advocated the shutdown of the government, to reserve public library rooms.
Just behind her, a smiling toddler holding a small rainbow flag and a parent’s hand, exited to claps from hundreds of lingering supporters who softly shouted, “love.”