Drag Queen Story Hour brings complaints to the FVRL Board of Trustees meeting

The event, held earlier this month, has been the source of much controversy for the library

VANCOUVER — Earlier this month a small group of protestors stood outside the Vancouver Community Library, angry about what was happening inside.

On Tuesday evening many of those same people, along with a few more, showed up at the Fort Vancouver Regional Library’s Board of Trustees meeting to share their thoughts about Drag Queen Story Hour.

Heidi St. John addresses the Fort Vancouver Regional Library’s Board of Trustees. Photo by Chris Brown
Heidi St. John addresses the Fort Vancouver Regional Library’s Board of Trustees. Photo by Chris Brown

“Transgender people represent less than one percent of the population, yet we are restructuring our society to fit their wishes and ideology,” said Jennifer Heine-Withee of Yacolt, one of over a dozen people to speak for nearly an hour on the subject.

The event featuring Clare Apparently, a Portland drag queen performer based out of Vancouver, had been in the planning for nearly a year.

“A number of us attended a national conference about a year ago, and one of our employees attended a program there having drag queen story hours. Basically a how-to program,” says Amelia Shelley, executive director for the Fort Vancouver Regional Library system. “And so that person brought the idea back to the district and asked if it could be something they did at their library.”

Piper McEwen addresses the FVRL Board of Trustees at Tuesday’s meeting. Photo by Chris Brown
Piper McEwen addresses the FVRL Board of Trustees at Tuesday’s meeting. Photo by Chris Brown

Shelley says, in general, they provide branch managers a high degree of freedom when it comes to choosing what programs to bring in.

“I did ask that they take into consideration the energy it was going to require on our part,” says Shelley. “We’d seen other communities offering a similar program with some concerns being raised by the community, so we anticipated that we might hear some concerns as well. We didn’t know what that might look like beforehand, but now I’d say we have a pretty good idea what that looks like.”

Shelley did add that the event was funded by the nonprofit Friend of the Library, and no taxpayer dollars were used.

Clare Apparently, whose real name is Kit Crosland, spent time reading books and singing songs with the children. While Crosland took to Facebook to defend the event, many parents worried it would be confusing to children who attended.

“The science is not in on this. In fact, the science is very much out on it,” said Heidi St. John, a motivational speaker from Vancouver who said her opposition to the event earned her death threats.

But she wasn’t the only one. Clare Apparently said on Facebook that at least one person told them to “go kill yourself.”

“You bet your asses I have an agenda,” Crosland posted. “It’s an agenda to show all kids that there is beauty in gender diversity; that there is joy to be found in play and free expression; and that not just tolerance, not just acceptance, but *celebration* of differences is always better than hate.”

Clare Apparently, in a post on Instagram, announces the Drag Queen Story Hour event on Feb. 9 in Vancouver. Instagram photo
Clare Apparently, in a post on Instagram, announces the Drag Queen Story Hour event on Feb. 9 in Vancouver. Instagram photo

But several people who spoke at the meeting on Tuesday worried that young children could be unduly influenced, or even confused, by the sight of a man dressed as a woman and wearing extravagant makeup.

“This is damaging to the mental framework of these impressionable young children,” said Dick Rylander.

“Drag queens are adult entertainers,” added Heine-Withee. “They are garish, sexualized caricatures of women. And, quite honestly, as a woman, they kind of offend me.”

But others spoke out in defense of the event, saying they found it to be joyful and uplifting.

“I found it incredibly sweet,” said Amy Wagner of Vancouver. “I loved looking around the room and seeing all the happy kids. I loved seeing the sparkles, I loved the openness, I loved the joy, and it warmed my heart.”

“It was an opportunity to celebrate so many things about individuals,” added Carly Crane, who lives near the library, “so many things about childhood, so many things about the representation of people who may look different, people who may have different choices or beliefs.”

One mother held up several books by Christian authors that centered around love and inclusiveness and wondered if she could set up her own story time.

Shelley didn’t answer the question directly but maintained that the drag queen theme was secondary to their mission as a library.

“It isn’t even, I would say, inclusion and acceptance that matters most to us,” she said. “The outcome we’re looking for is that we are part of the support system that helps children in our school be ready to read or ready to learn.”

Asked if those goals could be accomplished via an event not quite so controversial, Shelley appeared to backtrack a bit.

“One of the things the library really seeks to do is try to provide a forum for conversation about our community and how it might be different than what we perceive,” she said. “We want to believe that our communities are a reflection of us or our values, but there’s a lot of people in our community that don’t get to see their values in the kind of things that are offered. And I guess we’re just trying to be a little more open-minded.”

FVRL Executive Director Amelia Shelley listens to public testimony at Tuesday’s Board of Trustees meeting. Photo by Chris Brown
FVRL Executive Director Amelia Shelley listens to public testimony at Tuesday’s Board of Trustees meeting. Photo by Chris Brown

The argument isn’t likely to win over many of the people who attended Tuesday’s meeting to give the board a piece of their mind. Several pointed to videos of Clare Apparently online showing simulated sex acts involving a version of the Magic School Bus, from a popular children’s educational cartoon series.

“The mere fact that these events are being done across the nation, in a coordinated manner, and being paid for, makes their intent perfectly clear,” stated Rylander. “This says to me that the people in the leadership roles that set up and supported and approved the program likely support the agenda and the philosophical point of view.”

Rylander said he and several others had stated their objections to Shelley, including providing links to videos of Clare Apparently’s more adult-themed acts, but she declined to stop the event. He then demanded that the board remove her as executive director. The board declined to respond to any of the comments made at Tuesday’s meeting but thanked the public for their input.

“This was a program that offered a different point of view, and we certainly heard from a large group of people how they felt about that,” said Shelley. “But we also had a large group of people attend the program. We had to turn people away because so many people came to see it. That also told me that there was an interest in it.”

But according to some of the protestors, much of that support may have come from outside of Vancouver.

“We noted at least 15 cars in the parking lot that were from Oregon,” said Dawn Seaver, who attended the event. “I know it was packed that day, but I don’t know that it was all Vancouver. I think a lot of it was from outside.”

Seaver did note that some of the more activist transgender elements from drag queen story hour events in other libraries appeared to be toned down at the Vancouver event.

“The books that were chosen, the songs that were sung, were all very typical of our preschool programming,” said Shelley. “We didn’t leave it up to the performer to choose those things. We selected books that were from our collection.”

It’s unclear at this point if the library intends to hold future drag queen story hour events. That would likely be up to the nonprofit Friends of the Library, which paid for the event.

While money for the story hour may not have come from taxpayers, at least one opponent at Tuesday’s meeting made it clear that it could still cost the library. Gary Wilson noted that a levy lid increase for the library, narrowly approved by voters in 2010, is coming up for renewal in 2020.

“They say timing is everything, and this issue coming along at this time is the perfect storm,” Lewis told the board. “What you have to decide in the very near future is how committed are you to the Drag Queen Story Hour? Are you committed to it enough to seriously risk the future funding of the library?”

“I think it’s hard to know who’s right or who’s wrong, but it certainly started the conversation,” said Shelley. “And I think that’s a healthy thing for our community to at least be able to talk about it.”

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About The Author

Chris Brown comes to Clark County Today with 15 years of local news experience as a reporter, editor, and anchor at KXL News Radio and KOIN-6 TV in Portland. In 2016, he won an Oregon Association of Broadcaster's award for Best Investigative Reporting for a series on America's Violent Youth. He has also been awarded by the Associated Press for Best Breaking News coverage as editor of Portland's Morning News following the 2015 school shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon. The second oldest of eight home-schooled children, Brown graduated from high school two years early. After several odd jobs, he earned an internship at KXL Radio, eventually working his way into a full-time job. Brown has lived in Clark County his entire life, and is very excited at the opportunity to now focus full-time on the significant stories happening in his own back yard, rather than across “the river.’’ After a few years in Vancouver, he recently moved back to Battle Ground with his wife and two young daughters. When he's not working to report what's happening in Clark County, Brown enjoys spending time with his family, playing music, taking pictures, or working in the yard. He also actually does enjoy long walks on the beach, and sunsets.

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