A national debate over so-called “drag queen story times” and other events featuring drag queens at public libraries gravitated down to the state of Ohio level two weeks ago, and now the controversy appears poised to make its second Athens appearance in the past year.
In conjunction with Pride Month in Athens, the Southeastern Ohio Rainbow Alliance (SEORA) has reserved space at the Athens Public Library on Saturday, June 29, for a Drag Queen Story Time. A similar event early last June drew nearly 175 people, both youngsters and adults, who packed the library space to hear children’s stories read by two drag queens, according to an Athens NEWS article that ran June 11, 2018.
That children’s story time was briefly interrupted when a library visitor, apparently there without children, loudly addressed the group, asking parents why they thought it was OK to expose their kids to sexualized content. The man reportedly was reacting to a drag queen reading to the children from a book about a little boy who wants to wear dresses but is constantly told that “boys don’t wear dresses.”
Attendees attested to the fact that the event included no sexualized content. The man was asked to leave, not by library staff, but by people in the audience.
An anonymous individual recently has been trying to stir up opposition to the June 29 Drag Queen Story Time, through The Athens NEWS’“Athens Voice” feature (for which readers submit short, anonymous comments about local issues). The first of those submissions, submitted on June 1, reads:
“Absolutely appalled that the Athens Library will allow another children’s story-time featuring drag queens this year. Condoning such perversion in a place that is supposed to be family friendly and exposing them to alternative lifestyles at such a young age is inappropriate. All good Christians should show up and let them know what we think of this disgusting use of our tax dollars.”
At the state level, Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder, R-Glenford, on June 1 publicized a letter that he had sent to the Ohio Library Council and the public library in Newark, Ohio, protesting drag-queen events at public libraries in Ohio. “I expect this to end immediately,” his letter concludes.
Earlier in the letter, Householder writes, “When I was first informed our public libraries were being used to teach teenage boys how to become drag queens, I thought it was a joke. But the joke is apparently on the taxpayers, who fund our libraries. This is a stunningly bizarre breach of the public trust, and it must stop.”
As Becca Lachman, communication director for Athens County Public Libraries, pointed out in an email to The Athens NEWSlast week, the idea that tax dollars are being spent on drag queen story times is inaccurate.
Speaking for the library system, she wrote, “The program referred to is not sponsored by the library and is receiving no taxpayer funds. A community organization is simply using the library's free meeting space for their program, like many other groups do.”
A quick look at the Athens Public Library’s June calendar confirms the fact that a wide variety of groups utilize the library’s free meeting spaces.
C. Nicholas Tepe, director of Athens County Public Libraries, echoed Lachman’s point that the Drag Queen Story Hour event “falls within our meeting-space policy as an event that is free and open to the public, as well as being of interest to a significant number of community members.”
Tepe reiterated points made by his communication director. “The key points are that no taxpayer funds are being used to support either the Athens event or any of the other events around the state, and under federal law libraries are and must remain neutral with regards to the content of programs held in our spaces,” he said. “We can no more disallow the (June 29) SEORA event than we could disallow a group with conservative views from using the space for an event just because someone who opposed their views objects; as long as the event is free and open to the public, doesn't interfere with others using the library, and the group doesn't harass patrons or staff.”
As for complaints about the June 29 event, Tepe said that so far “any complaints or concerns we have received locally have been civil, and are usually settled once the correct information is shared.”
HOUSEHOLDER’S LETTER not surprisingly received a lot of media attention, as did its result, the cancellation or change of locations of two drag-queen events in Ohio.
According to a June 2 article in the Cleveland Plain Dealer (Cleveland.com), a planned LGBTQ teen arts event a library in Newark (“Galaxy of Diversity”) was cancelled after library directors couldn’t control “misinformation” circulating about the event.
Another event, a “Drag 101” class originally scheduled at a Delaware County public library, was moved by organizers to a local comics shop after library officials reported receiving hundreds of calls and emails.
A statement issued June 3 by the Ohio Library Council, to which Householder’s letter was directed, said the Delaware County event “was canceled due to hostile threats against the library from individuals outside of the community. After consulting local law enforcement, the program was canceled to ensure the safety of all patrons and staff.”
Critics of the drag-queen story times claim they can potentially confuse and harm young children and teens, and generally are perverse and inappropriate.
An opinion piece that appeared May 30 on the website for Mission America (“Christian Commentary on the Issues), questioned the assertion that safety concerns and alleged threats led to the cancellation (and moving) of the Delaware County drag-queen event. The piece, written by the Columbus-based group’s director and founder, Linda Harvey, said such threats “would never be encouraged or supported by any conservative Ohio group, including ours.”
Harvey’s piece continues, “The positive outcome is that this depravity – a male who poses as a female “drag queen” to instruct impressionable youth to follow his deplorable example – has been widely publicized, and central Ohio kids now know that a large segment of the community stands against it. And this behind-the-scenes corruption no longer carries the seeming endorsement of county government and taxpayers.”
The piece says it’s likely that similar events, “along with the outrageous ‘Drag Queen Story Hours,’ are occurring at local libraries across the country, and many people plan to investigate these situations at the local level.”
In a response to Householder’s letter, the Newark Pride Coalition, which was co-sponsoring the now-cancelled “Galaxy of Diversity” event in Licking County, countered the house speaker’s stated concerns about tax dollars:
“We appreciate Speaker Householder’s concern for the use of public funding. We are also happy to share that this event is fully funded by an independent non-governmental grant, which was acquired by the Newark Ohio Pride Coalition. As such, a total of $0 of public money is being used for this event.”
The letter noted that the event was “aimed at celebrating the individuality of our local LGBTQ+ and allied teens in preparation for the Newark Ohio Pride Festival on Saturday, June 8. While there is an optional make-up tutorial in this program, the primary focus is an arts and crafts project that allows our local teenagers to celebrate their identities, while simultaneously exploring their artistic abilities. Second, this event also facilitates an educational, public health component in the form of a safer sex program.”
The optional make-up tutorial apparently is what Householder referred to in his letter as an event to “teach teenage boys how to become drag queens.”
In Householder’s letter, he insisted that opposition to drag-queen events at public libraries is not a First Amendment issue. “Let me be crystal clear,” he wrote. “This isn’t about banning books or banning thought or any other red-herring argument. This is about right and wrong. This is about being good stewards of the public’s money.”
The Newark Pride Coalition, however, countered Householder’s assertion.
“…We ask that the Speaker remembers that the Supreme Court of the United States long ago affirmed the liberties of freedom of expression and speech for members of the LGBTQ+ community.... We are also happy to remind him of the decades of American jurisprudence, which affirm that freedom of expression is a fundamental civil liberty despite one’s sexuality or gender identity/expression.”
The Ohio Library Council’s Board of Directors’ aforementioned statement responding to Householder’s letter, stated that “a significant amount of misinformation has been distributed regarding recent LGBTQ events at public libraries in Ohio.”
After noting that “libraries are open to all and dedicated to serving the needs of everyone in the community, including Ohio’s children,” the OLC board noted, “With such a wide spectrum of information and ideas available, it is not surprising that some programs may not align with everyone’s personal values or perspectives. However, under federal law, public libraries do not discriminate nor regulate the content of speech… As public institutions, Ohio’s libraries are guided by federal law and are content neutral when it comes to freedom of speech in their facilities.”
LYNDSEY FOUGHT, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR of the Southeast Ohio Rainbow Alliance, on Tuesday disputed the idea that there’s anything perverse about the Drag Queen Story Times held by SEORA at the Athens Public Library.
“I’d like to emphasize that a drag queen reading a story to children is no different than any other person in costume reading to children,” she said. “Mickey Mouse does it, the Easter Bunny does it, and queens do it.
She explained how the story-time events work. “We have queens choose a book they’d like to read, out of a selection the library has in stock. All of these books are available in the children’s section, and they teach children about the importance of being oneself and that being different is OK,” she said. “Research shows us that the risk of depression and suicide is greatly reduced when children are supported (namely supported by their family when they come out as a member of the LGBTQ community). Diverse voices help us all understand one another.”
Fought said she doubts any of the would-be protesters have taken the time to read the books that are read at Drag Queen Story Times. “Their own bigoted outlook is driven by hate with no understanding of what a Drag Queen Story Time is,” she said.
Fought mentioned last year’s Story Time at the Athens Public Library, in which “the room was at capacity with tons of children and their families eagerly participating in story time.
“We had one heckler/protester who was angrily shouting into the room. The families in the room shut them down quickly, and they left the premises. A bigot shouting hostilities into a room of children is a safety risk, full stop.”
This year, she said, SEORA has “invited a few people” to help with security “so the families won’t need to step in as they did last year.”
She said the June 2018 Drag Queen Story Time “was a rousing success, and since the day after that event we have had families and children alike request more Story Times.”