The library system’s executive director is defending the decision but offering to make some concessions
BATTLE GROUND — Fort Vancouver Regional Library appears set to continue hosting Drag Queen Story Hour events, despite criticism and a petition signed by 3,000 people pledging to vote against a library funding levy next year.
At least 50 people crowded into a room at the Battle Ground Community Library on Monday evening, spilling out into the hallway, in an attempt to urge the Board of Trustees and Executive Director Amelia Shelley to cancel Drag Queen Story Hour.
“When did the taxpayer-funded library, whose goal has always been to improve literacy, decide to have social experiment programs on young children?” questioned Gary Wilson, who started the petition on the library levy. “Remember, 90 percent of your 27 million dollar budget comes directly from a voter-approved levy, and your last levy passed by only 295 votes.”
Wilson was one of 14 people to speak during the board meeting. A dozen of those spoke out against Drag Queen Story Hour at the library.
Shauna Walters, a candidate for Battle Ground City Council, cited research showing transgender individuals make up around half a percent of the overall population.
“This does not represent the community at large,” said Walters, “and, when we are discussing the appropriate use of our publicly funded dollars, it does not make sense to provide such a large venue to a half a percent of the population.”
The library has hosted two Drag Queen Story Hour events, the first in February and another in July during the Vancouver Pride event at Esther Short Park. Shelley has defended the decision, maintaining that funding came from Friends of the Library, rather than tax revenue, and pointing out that those who disagree with the events are free to not attend.
“Public libraries are institutions that are vibrant, happy (and sometimes noisy) places that serve as hubs for the community and welcome everyone from all walks of life,” Shelley wrote in a letter to the editor submitted to ClarkCountyToday.com. “We offer materials, resources, services, and events that appeal to a broad range of interests and needs. Individuals make their own choices based on who they are and what they believe. Not every book is for every reader and the same can be said of the library’s programs.”
Drag Queen Story Hour started in San Francisco, the product of a group known as RADAR Productions, which describes itself as a “queer literary arts organization.” It has since spread to library districts across the country, in varying degrees. In Vancouver, reading materials selected by performers are cross-checked by library staff.
Quill Onstead, a public service assistant with the library who identifies as non-binary, wore a “Gay Agenda” T-shirt at Monday’s meeting.
“I didn’t realize that living my life constituted a political agenda,” said Onstead. “Unless they have been taught otherwise, kids look at drag as just another game of dress-up. It’s got sparkles, and sequins, and fancy outfits. And who doesn’t love those?”
Onstead noted that DGSH is held outside of normal storytime hours and clearly advertised for what it is.
“Parents are free to choose which programs they bring their kids to,” said Onstead. “They are free not to attend.”
“It seems to me that not confusing children with information that they’re too young to process, and not exposing them to sexual themes, should be universal values,” countered Dawn Seaver. “Drag is a sexualized form of adult entertainment. That’s what it is, that’s what it’s always been.”
“You clearly went over the line, and you did this on purpose, and you wanted to provoke us,” said Tom Regan. “Well I’ve been provoked. I was always on the sidelines, but I’m always going to vote ‘no’ from now on.”
At a previous board meeting, before the Oct. 27 event was announced, Wilson challenged Shelley over whether the library was considering hosting a third Drag Queen Story Hour. At Monday’s meeting, Shelley admitted her answer wasn’t completely honest.
“The truth was I knew staff were working on one, but we did not know if it would come to fruition,” Shelley told the board. “In fact, it did happen, so I will own that that was possibly an error on my part to not say ‘no, but we’re working on that.’”
Several people who spoke demanded that the board act to remove Shelley as executive director, and stop the Drag Queen Story Hour events. No member of the board addressed the controversy at Monday’s meeting.
Shelley has defended the decision by the library to host the Drag Queen Story Hour, calling them “special storytimes featuring age-appropriate books from the library’s collection being read by a paid performer in the presence of parents, library staff and other caring adults,” in her letter to the editor submitted to ClarkCountyToday.com.
“Not even all of our staff agree about the value of Drag Queen Story Hour,” Shelley said on Monday, “but we also know that diversity is what makes us strong, and so we’re trying to find a path forward together.’’
Shelley noted that the Fort Vancouver Regional Library system held over 1,000 preschool storytime sessions between January and June of this year, attended by over 27,000 people.
“I think that two storytimes out of over a thousand that we’ve done so far this year has sort of colored people’s view of who we are and what we do,” Shelley told the board, “when we’re so much more. And that’s the hardest part for me is I feel this is being distilled down into one thing when libraries serve so many people in so many good ways.”
Shelley has been challenged numerous times in recent board meetings over whether the library would be open to hosting a Christian story time, or events featuring other religions. At Monday’s meeting, she indicated they would be open to events featuring other groups and viewpoints.
“It’s one thing I’ve heard and I think is very valid, is there are other diverse communities, there are other underserved or under-represented communities in this area,” said Shelley. “Indiginous people, people of color, people of faith.”
Shelley said the library would also be open to discussing background checks for performers who take part in reading programs, after numerous people pointed to stories of pedophiles posing as drag queens in other cities.
“We do them for volunteers and we do them for staff,” said Shelley. “It’s an expense, and … we’ll have to figure out who’ll take responsibility both for initiating a background check and look at that background check to make sure that it’s reputable.”
Shelley added that, if the board agrees to implement background checks, she would prefer it be done for all performers, in order to be fair and equitable.
The library has also scheduled a panel discussion on Drag Queen Story Hour on Oct. 10 at the Vancouver Community Library, and invited several performers, as well as leaders in the LGBTQ+ community, a reverend, a psychologist, and others. The panel will be moderated by Clark County Councilor Temple Lentz, and questions must be submitted in writing before the event.
“You already scheduled another Drag Queen Story Hour, so why should we bother to attend since this forum will have no impact on your decision?” challenged Wilson. “Also, can a health professional or educator with a different view of Drag Queen Story Hour be allowed to sit on the panel?”
Shelley didn’t respond to that question in her comments to the board later.
“This has been an interesting path that we’re on right now,” Shelley did say, “I enjoy the opportunity to have people come to the library and have the opportunity to speak to the board. But I also feel a little selfish, because it’s great to get them into our buildings and have an opportunity to see how we function.”
The Oct. 27 DQSH event will take place at the Vancouver Community Library, again, with Tree Empress 45 Onalicious Mercury, otherwise known as Owen McHatton, of Longview.