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Feb. 7, 2023

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Opposition to drag queen story hours roils FVRLibraries

Vancouver library's events highlighted diversity, equity and inclusion

By , Columbian staff writer
Published:
4 Photos
The Vancouver Community Library in downtown Vancouver.
The Vancouver Community Library in downtown Vancouver. (The Columbian files) Photo Gallery

For over three years, the monthly Fort Vancouver Regional Library Board of Trustees’ meetings have spiraled out of control.

Between February and December of 2019, the Vancouver Community Library held three drag queen story hours — events where performers dressed in drag read children’s storybooks featuring tales of inclusion and acceptance.

Proposed from within the community and widely attended, the event was an early piece of FVRLibraries’ dive into hosting events that highlighted diversity, equity and inclusion.

Soon after the events started being previewed on social media, however, an opposition group started forming: claiming without proof that the story hours were harmful to children and that they contributed to “gender confusion” — a concept that’s widely used to discriminate against and invalidate the LGBTQ community.

Month-by-month, the group has shifted its stance and its goals: moving to ban books, claiming without proof that supporters of drag queen story hours were “groomers.” Its members boast that they’re gaining control of local policymakers and are threatening to vote against levy measures.

Since the meetings returned to an in-person format in March 2022, library employees and community members have expressed concern that the rhetoric used by protesters has grown more and more discriminatory and targeted to the point that they said they no longer feel safe meeting in person.

“Lately it’s gotten increasingly hostile, volatile — demanding is probably the best word,” said Jane Higgins, who chairs the FVRLibraries Board of Trustees. “We’re losing sight of the fact that we are conducting a business meeting, this is the only time each month we’re all together.”

What is drag queen story hour?

In 2019, FVRLibraries hosted over 2,300 story time sessions across its 15 locations in Southwest Washington. The events invite families into the library to have a reader go through a popular or informative storybook.

Three of those 2,300 events featured performers dressed in drag, reading stories highlighting gender inclusion to families who choose to attend. Known as drag queen story hours, they were paid for by the Friends of the Vancouver Community Library, not taxpayer dollars. Each event, according to library officials, maxed out library capacity.

“We got overwhelmingly positive feedback, we even turned people away because (the auditorium) was so full,” said Amelia Shelley, FVRLibraries’ executive director. “We anticipated pushback and had seen opposition elsewhere but didn’t let that deter us. We felt that the planning we had put into the program and how it was being executed was effective and well-done.”

The series was one of FVRLibraries’ first steps into approaching the integration of equity, diversity and inclusion endeavors into their programming. Prioritizing efforts like hiring more multilingual staff and conversation circles for language learners, however, have fallen by the wayside as protesters have kept a focus on the drag queen story hours — even though there hasn’t been such an event since 2019.

In October, following a particularly hectic September meeting, board chair Higgins moved to remove drag queen story hour as a topic for public comment. Higgins had previously made changes to meeting structure to keep them productive, such as pushing all vocal comment to the end, so that those waiting to comment would have to hear each and every thing the board was prepared to hear and evaluate that evening. The effort, however, didn’t stop protesters from focusing on drag queen story hours.

“We used to have people who would come on a variety of topics during public comment,” Higgins said. “But now more and more of them are saying that they’d love got come talk to us about this or that but that they aren’t comfortable with the mob in the hallways.”

After reviewing state laws and court interpretations, however, Higgins realized she couldn’t limit the topic in conversation — if they were to do so, they’d have to end public comments altogether.

“If I were to exclude the one topic, I’d have to exclude all topics and we’d have no oral testimony at all,” she said. “I thought, that defeats the entire purpose. So if I had to ban it all, I wouldn’t.”

What opposition looks like

In early 2019, Gary Wilson, one of the group’s persistent leaders, posted a message on Facebook and created a website — called Keep The Library Safe for Children — urging people to join him in condemning the events.

At first, the group requested that FVRLibraries hold background checks on all performers — a request that was granted and implemented soon after.

The group then claimed that certain books that are in the library’s adult section are available to children, and that other books highlighting nonbinary storylines or LGBTQ+ characters are efforts of “groomers” trying to take advantage of young children. The term is widely used to falsely claim that members of the trans community are pedophiles trying to influence children.

Wilson declined to be interviewed for this story. Instead, he emailed The Columbian a document reiterating views he and his group have previously expressed.

The trend of trying to ban books is seen nationwide, with the American Library Association reporting the highest number of book challenges in its history in 2021, and expecting the record to be broken again in 2022.

Opponents now claim to have collected 4,500 signatures for a petition to vote against the next FVRLibraries levy measure unless the board officially condemns drag queen story hours and agrees to never hold such an event again.

In written statements and at board meetings, speakers misgender drag performers and label them as pedophiles without proof and falsely claim that the drag queen story hours are “sending kids down a path” to self-harm and suicide.

A more recent Facebook post from Wilson in September claimed that three of the FVRLibraries board of trustees’ members “share their view” and that “the majority of our Clark County Council” would appoint a new board member that also shares their view. Wilson directly mentions Olga Hodges, the most recent member of the FVRLibraries board, as an ally to his group.

Hodges, who was not available for comment for this story, posted a video to YouTube in August of police removing her from the Goldendale library branch. In the video, Hodges claimed a book contains “pornographic” material and repeatedly pressed the library manager to agree with her.

“It concerns me when someone is bragging of controlling interest in a governing body,” chair Higgins said. “But decisions have been made, and I have every confidence the library will go on as an excellent library system.”

Rhetoric becomes personal, dangerous

As the protesters’ presence became regular at board meetings, some community members began returning the favor, speaking with approval of drag queen story hour and other equity-focused programs.

“Coming from a liberal family, running in liberal circles, I think (these protests) were my wake-up call to homophobia in my own life,” said Quill Onstead, a self-identified member of Vancouver’s genderqueer community. “I kept attending board meetings, but after the second or third, I thought, no, I need to speak on this.”

Onstead worked at FVRLibraries for 10 years before exiting the career this past spring and served on the system’s equity committee. At meetings, however, they speak exclusively as a community member.

“It is deeply affecting me whenever I have someone come to a meeting with me, they wonder how I can put up with this rhetoric and language used about my community,” they said. “I’m able to laugh it off to a certain extent, but it is still deeply hurtful to be told that members of my community are inherently dangerous, sexual and the idea of us should not be something that children are exposed to.”

At a meeting in 2021, Onstead expressed concern that anti-trans rhetoric may initially come from a place of misinformation or confusion, but can accelerate to violence. Onstead said the testimony was misinterpreted by the protesters as a claim that they were intentionally inciting violence.

“Seeing hate attacks like what happened in Colorado and the murder of Nikki Kuhnhausen, I said this kind of rhetoric, this ideology, is what ultimately leads to trans people being attacked and murdered. And that is not OK,” Onstead said. “I said the ideology. I did not imply any of the protesters would condone such violence. But it’s a fact of life and watching this in conjunction with the wave of anti-trans legislation across the country is deeply troubling.”

Going forward

This isn’t the first time that FVRLibraries has dealt with particularly vocal groups urging libraries to remove content, according to Higgins.

“When Madonna’s book came out and we bought seven copies of them, that was another time that was very, very difficult. When internet filtering was a big issue, which was during a bond time for the library, that was a huge issue and very hostile,” she said. “We’ve been here before.”

Following Higgins’ move back to holding public comments on drag queen story hour, library workers expect the protests to continue.

“On my best days, I can see where they’re coming from, and I understand they’re coming from a place of concern and fear,” Onstead said. “But I don’t think other people’s fears should dictate how I am able to live my life and how society should treat the LGBTQIA+ community at large.”

Shelley and Higgins both hope that, in their leadership and policy, FVRLibraries can remain a place that showcases multiple perspectives — both with the goal of showcasing diverse voices and challenging visitors to reconsider preconceived notions.

“The protesters often like to talk about how terrible it is for kids to be exposed to things like ‘gender dysphoria,’ and I think they’re absolutely missing the point of how much ostracizing people damages our ability to get along,” Shelley said. “I really think children are open slates. They need the opportunity, if this is what their family wants, to meet and engage with people who approach the world differently.”

Higgins concurred, adding that the trend might just be a symptom of troubled political times.

“Stepping back and looking at the bigger picture of politics in our country — people are exhausted and they are just very vulnerable to angry rhetoric,” Higgins said. “I think that in better times, maybe this wouldn’t be such an attraction.”

FVRLibraries hasn’t planned any future drag queen story hours. No books have been banned as a result of the protests.

The next board of trustees meeting is scheduled for 6 to 8 p.m. on Monday, Dec. 19 at Vancouver Community Library, in the Columbia Room, as well as virtually.

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