It was a mostly civil crowd that packed the Vancouver Community Library on Thursday for a public panel on Drag Queen Story Hour, a popular but controversial event making headlines locally and across the country.
More than 100 people came to hear a slate of seven speakers defend the event, including a social worker, a pastor, advocates for the LGBTQ community and a sequin-clad drag queen. Panelists said the story hour is an opportunity to ensure children and families of all sexualities and genders are reflected in the library’s programming.
“If we are doing our job, the library should offer something of interest for everybody,” library Executive Director Amelia Shelley said.
But critics claim it’s inappropriate to invite entertainers who typically perform in adult venues to read children’s stories, and say seeing representations of gender fluidity could be confusing to young patrons. Gary Wilson, a vocal opponent of the program, says he’s gathered more than 3,000 signatures from people who say they’ll vote against the library’s next levy if the practice continues.
“It’s inappropriate to … expose them to concepts like that at 3 years old or even 8 years old,” Wilson said.
Drag Queen Story Hour is paid for by Friends of the Library, the nonprofit fundraising arm that supports library programs, not the library’s taxpayer-funded budget. The series was created by RADAR Productions, a San Francisco-based literary arts organization for queer artists, and has been hosted at libraries across the world.
The library will host a Drag Queen Story Hour later this month featuring Vancouver queen Onalicious Mercury, otherwise known as Owen McHatton. McHatton joined Thursday’s panel presenting as Onalicious, and described the event as a chance for children and families to celebrate diversity and see the embodiment of imaginative play.
“When books come into our lives, we’re taught about imaginations,” Onalicious said. “When I was a kid I was a knight, I was a princess, I was a doctor, I was a fireman. I was anything my imagination wanted me to be. At the age of 36, I’m a drag queen.”
Onalicious also disputed the idea that because drag queens often perform at bars or nightclubs, they can’t perform for children, a common refrain from those concerned about the program.
“It’s also our choice as the drag queen to clean up our act,” she said. “We can judge whether this is appropriate or not appropriate. It’s common sense.”
The library did not accept questions from the audience, rather opting to pre-screen community questions to ensure the discussion remained peaceful. Still, there were a couple heated moments, such as when a question was read asking whether drag performances are akin to blackface.
Jennifer Lanier, a black actress who performs as a drag king, had a brief exchange with a white audience member who suggested to her she did not know her history when it comes to the offensive practice of nonblack performers wearing dark makeup to represent a caricature of a black person.
“I am a believer in forgiving,” Lanier later said to a question about forgiveness. “I have a boundary with it. I have a boundary for folk who are determined to ignore my right to be here.”
And at one point, an audience member booed when Mackenzie Dunham, a licensed clinical social worker who works with LGBTQ youth, told the audience that “supportive families and supportive communities save lives.”
“When we can read a story and help a young person see ‘Oh, I’m not alone in this, even if I haven’t told anyone,’ it opens up for them the possibility of community in the future and that hope for them to hold on to,” she said.
Library director Shelley said the forum “came off as we expected,” and that the system would carry on with Drag Queen Story Hour, along with its many other story hours and events for children. She also said the library plans to hire a consultant early next year to develop additional inclusive storytelling sessions, like stories in other languages, a story hour for deaf or hard of hearing children, or books targeted at communities of color.
“We’re really trying to think more broadly, but we want to do it in a more mindful way,” Shelley said.
The next Drag Queen Story Hour starts at 2:30 p.m., Oct. 27 in the Columbia Room of the downtown Vancouver library, at 901 C St. More than 100 families and children attended the last event.