Drag Queen Story Hour Deferred, but Controversy Ensues
BY ROBIN JOVANOVICH
Last Friday afternoon, while reviewing copy and content for this issue of the paper, Tom McDermott and I were reading about an upcoming program at the Rye Free Reading Room, which stopped us in our editing tracks: Drag Queen Story Hour. For ages 3-8. “Families can celebrate difference, learn empathy, and create crafts…Kids are encouraged to celebrate diversity while building confidence in self-expression.”
My first thought was: “We’re not in Kansas anymore, or in traditional library land for that matter.” But I refrained from comment because I’m an AARP member and a grandmother and maybe I’m not that edgy Manhattan sophisticate I was in my youth.
The first to break the silence at our office worktable was a 25-year-old Rye High graduate who was doing some freelance work for us. “It seems a little inappropriate for 3-year-olds,” he offered.
Our questions came fast and furious after that.
Are families likely to bring their young children to a program that uses drag queens to focus on inclusivity?
Why are we foisting conversations on inclusivity on children that young?
Are we replacing bedtime stories, which take children out of themselves and out into other, far more interesting worlds, with discussions of sexual differences when they are innocent sponges?
Phone calls and emails from members of the community interrupted further discussion:
“Did you hear that the Rye library is trying to foist diversity and transsexuality on the community, just as The New York Times’ does on its readers?”
“What happened to bringing joy and delight to our children and grandchildren, rather than assaulting them with political correctness?”
“If the #MeToo Movement has taught us one thing, isn’t it that men dressing up as women for entertainment isn’t progress?”
“Before we teach young children about inclusivity, shouldn’t we be teaching them about role models, the importance of good character, and civilization?”
We decided to ask RFRR Director Chris Shoemaker about the value of the program before we answered another call. He was away for the weekend at a national library association meeting and wouldn’t be back until Monday. Suffice it to say that Drag Queen Story Hour was the number one topic of conversation all over town last weekend. One resident spoke for many when he said: “At least we’re off impeachment and the 2020 election this weekend.”
A longtime resident, whom I didn’t know, got my cell phone number and called to ask if I had a few minutes to meet with her on Saturday in downtown Rye to talk about the library program. Of course, I replied.
This highly intelligent young grandmother informed me at the outset that she’d met with Chris Shoemaker shortly after reading about the program in the library newsletter and they’d had a “healthy” discussion.
“But I’ve had a few days to consider all the community feedback, talk with my children (who said they’d skip it), their friends, my friends, and I still believe that this program is inappropriate — and misguided. Children need to experience diversity, not have it thrown in their face. And if we’re going to present a complex issue like this, the audience members should be much older than 8 and the presenter should be an expert on sexual preference.” She added, “This is not a child’s play dress-up topic to be presented to 3- to 8-year-olds and confuse their developing sense of self.”
I felt better after that conversation and wasn’t disappointed to learn, later that afternoon, that Drag Queen Story Hour had been “deferred”. Why deferred and not cancelled altogether was the resounding community response.
In a candid conversation with Chris Shoemaker on Monday, he said he had received a multitude of emails from Rye residents stating their displeasure about offering a program like Drag Queen Story Hour. “But nearly all of those emails were anonymous, so I couldn’t respond to them individually. They were form letters asking that the library be neutral in its viewpoints and not create an unwelcome environment.”
He explained that when the children’s librarian proposed bringing the program to Rye, he concurred that it would be “a friendly introduction to different identities. That identity piece starts at a young age. Further, we were looking at inclusivity, not sexuality.”
Both the Scarsdale and Lewisboro libraries held Drag Queen Story Hours in 2018 with few negatives, Shoemaker reported. However, when it was recently hosted by the Norwalk library, some 30 protestors showed up.
“After looking at all the feedback and considering whether we should be using an adult performer to spread this message, I decided the library should pause and refocus on engaging different educators,” he said.
Meanwhile, the community displeasure continues.
I’m imagining the day when, the impeachment process behind them, The New York Times comes to town to write a pointed piece about the postponement of this program. They might leave having learned a thing or two about what most people want and think and want to read about. If they do real reporting, they’ll discover that first and foremost we want our libraries and schools to be places of intellectual enlightenment and engagement, and that “we” is a mightier concept than “me”.