Critics were quick to point out the panel only featured people supporting the controversial events
VANCOUVER — A panel Thursday evening to talk about Drag Queen Story Hour at the Vancouver Community Library drew a crowd, most of them from Vancouver according to a show of hands requested by the library’s Executive Director Amelia Shelley, before the panel got underway.
The group of six experts included a drag queen, a drag king, a librarian, a pastor, a parent, and a therapist who works with children. What it did not contain was anyone who opposed the controversial practice of having drag queens come in and read to children.
“We feel that, at the board meetings, we’ve heard quite a bit from the community that’s against having Drag Queen Story Hour,” said Shelley after the meeting. “But we really weren’t hearing from the community that was supportive of it.”
Gary Wilson, who is leading a campaign to gather signatures from people promising to vote against the library’s levy renewal next year unless they stop having the events, says he submitted two people to be on the panel. The library declined to allow them, so he says they plan to hold their own panel in February and will invite anyone from Thursday’s panel to participate.
“The library seems to be afraid of an open exchange of ideas on this forum,” said Wilson, “and that’s why we want to have our own forum.”
Wilson says he has over 3,000 signatures of people who plan to vote against the levy if the Drag Queen Story Hours continue.
“There’s never a time when it’s in our interests to have opposition in the community, for any reason,” admits Shelley, “and it certainly isn’t a comfortable position for me as the director to have people booing me when I stand in front of an audience.”
Despite that, Shelley says she believes strongly enough in being inclusive of everyone in the community that she’s willing to take the risk.
“I can’t go against that basic precept that intellectual freedom matters, and that people have a right to have their voice heard in the community,” she said. “Because one voice is louder than another doesn’t make it right.”
In her comments opening the panel session, Shelley noted that a February Drag Queen Story Hour at the downtown library was filled to capacity and they were turning people away. An event in June during Pride at the Park brought 200 people to Esther Short Park.
“While we have heard from people with questions and concerns about this program, we have had outstanding attendance and requests from the community for additional programming, including more of Drag Queen Story Hour,” said Shelley.
Clark County District 1 Councilor Temple Lentz moderated the panel, admitting she had attended both of the Drag Queen Story Hour events at the library.
“It was an amazing experience for me,” Lentz said. “It brought joy tears to my eyes, which doesn’t happen a lot.”
Lentz said she was moved by how engaged the children attending the events were in the stories being read, and how much their parents were actively participating as well.
“And these families all looked different from each other,” said Lentz. “And these families were sharing these experiences with each other, and with this room full of people.”
Lentz said she was so moved during the first event she ended up leaving for fear people would see her crying.
Questions for the panelists were selected partially from the library members, as well as those submitted by members of the community. They ranged from talking about what drag is, to more difficult questions about why the group felt it was beneficial for young children to see a man dressed as something resembling a woman reading to them.
“We’re the living embodiment of a fairy tale,” said Owen McHatton, whose place at the table featured two nameplates; his own and his drag queen name, Onalicious Mercury. “We can build that fantasy because that’s what we do. We put on our costumes and our hair, and we just shine.”
McHatton is somewhat unique in that he was born female, transitioned to male, and now dresses in drag to perform at nightclubs, in addition to children’s story hours. He said the two events, one of which can tend to be more racy and adult, are clearly separate events for different audiences.
“I’m a human being, reading a story, and doing the voices — that’s my favorite part,” said McHatton,” to young lives that are being taught that their imaginations are important.”
The parent of the group, who gave only her first name of Chelsey, said she felt as if her children view the event simply as another story hour, but with a more colorful character doing the reading.
“We’re still talking about books that are for 3-8 year olds, and teenagers, we’re still doing songs that are for little kids,” she said. “It’s still a story hour, it’s just being given to us in a format of someone who’s doing it in a theatrical way.”
Another question asked why it was considered art when a man put on makeup, a wig, and an often outlandish outfit in a caricature of a woman, while dressing in blackface is considered offensive and inappropriate.
“It seems like there are still folks out there who want to find some kind of reason to be able to do blackface,” said Jennifer Lanier, a lesbian who is black and dresses up as a drag king. “Blackface is specifically to put down, to shame, to degrade, to make sure that black people know they are not as good as white people.”
“I can not tell you one drag queen that does not have the utmost respect for women,” said McHatton, who apologized if anyone found his performance offensive to women. “My mother would smack me if I took women lightly, honestly, because that’s how I was raised.”
Mackenzie Dunham, a licensed therapist who specializes in working with gay, lesbian, and transgender people, responded to one question regarding whether children seeing a drag queen perform could potentially be confused sexually.
“Children who are gender explorative or gender expansive come about that in all different ways,” she said, “and sometimes it holds true and sometimes it does not. But what is important is that we give them the freedom to do that. When we don’t give them the freedom to do that, it’s actually a very shaming experience for them. It tells them that curiosity is unsafe … and it makes learning things that are different scary.”
Representing the religious community was Reverend Dr. Jo Ann Schaadt Shipley, who co-pastors Camas United Methodist Church.
“I think if Jesus were here he’d be having a really good time,” she said, as several people in the audience held up signs that said “false” or “not true.”
“I think it’s true, actually,” said Shipley. “He loved to go out on the margins, he loved to find the people who didn’t think they were welcome, and he loved to pull them in.”
Wilson, though, wasn’t convinced, saying 75 percent of people signing his petition to not vote for the library levy weren’t worried about more taxes.
“They’re signing it because they just look at this and say ‘this is inappropriate for the library to be promoting gender fluidity,’” says Wilson, “having a fully dressed drag queen read gender fluidity books to a target audience of three year olds to eight year olds. A three year old, and an eight year old, they shouldn’t be questioning their gender. That’s not what the library should be promoting.”
For her part, while she admits the risk of losing vital funding is real and concerning, Shelley seems determined to press forward.
“Certainly we’re concerned, but we can’t turn our backs on any particular group in the community because someone says they don’t like them,” says Shelley. “I embrace people who have a different opinion than mine because that’s part of intellectual freedom.”
Shelley has said she is open to exploring other story hour events that represent more segments of the community.
“I hope that we’ll be doing a better job of representing all segments of our community,” she said, “and hopefully people can get behind that idea that it’s, you know … we’re not going to be doing everything that they like, but hopefully there’ll be some things they do and those will be the things they’ll choose to participate in.”
The library has a third Drag Queen Story Hour set for Oct. 27 at the downtown branch, with Onalicious Mercury performing again. Wilson says they plan to set their own forum for February, ahead of the vote on the library’s upcoming levy renewal.
“The average voter is looking for a reason to vote ‘no’ on any increased taxes,” Wilson says, “this clearly gives them one.”