Expanding the Community Conversation on
Diversity Beyond Drag Queen Story Hour
By Robin Jovanovich
In the last few weeks we’ve seen two important events mishandled — the timely reporting of the Iowa Caucus voting and deferment of the scheduled Drag Queen Story Hour at the Rye Free Reading Room. Technology was at fault in the first instance. Community outcry prompted the library director to postpone the program for 3- to 8-year-olds led by drag queen entertainers whose mission is to teach “…deeper lessons on diversity and appreciation of others.”
Does Rye need lessons on diversity? In a community whose population is nearly 90 percent “white”, absolutely. Wouldn’t we all benefit from greater understanding of other races and religions, of people with disabilities? Most definitely. How parents, educators, and libraries introduce meaningful discussions, courses, and programs would make for a vibrant community conversation. But add sexual orientation and gender identification to the mix, and men dressed up as women as presenters, especially when the audience is made up of very young children whose primary interests are Paw Patrol and playground games, and you should expect consternation.
The word “inclusivity” has been tossed about so often in recent weeks that it might be beneficial to provide its definition: “The practice or policy of including people who might otherwise be excluded or marginalized, such as those who have physical or mental disabilities and members of minority groups.”
All of the Rye residents who voiced opposition to holding Drag Queen Story Hour — through a formal complaint to the library, a petition, (www.change.org/p/citizens-of-rye-stop-politicizing-children-s-programming-at-the-rye-library-reject-drag-queen-story-hour), and in conversations with this paper — shared the same concern: the inappropriateness of a program like this on unformed minds. Further, they questioned having drag queens, rather than developmental psychologists, disseminating information on sexuality.
As longtime resident David Hood stated at the February 5 City Council meeting, “The library should be a neutral zone, a safe space for all children.” He added, “An organization, like DQSH, which has a sexual agenda, has no place in the library.” Hood, who shared that he had grown up in a transgender household, added, “Hosting a program like Drag Queen violates the Rye library’s public use policy.”
One of the many residents who met with RFRR Director Chris Shoemaker when she read about the program in the library newsletter was Colette Dempsey, who also spoke at the Council meeting. She explained that she asked that the program be cancelled on the grounds that it was bringing an adult concept to very young children. At the Council meeting she stated her belief that library programs not be subject to sexualization of any kind. Her husband, Dave Dempsey, said it was his hope that libraries remain one of the few sanctuaries from political partisanship. “We should have role models that we can look up to.” Drag queens don’t fit that category because they are “demeaning to women,” Dempsey added.
Michelle McMullen, another resident who is opposed to the library’s hosting Drag Queen, spoke of the “campaign unleashed on Facebook” attacking residents who asked that the program be cancelled. She pointed out that the program’s endorsement by the City Human Rights Commission further “fanned the flames of hate and divisiveness. Nobody wins when we pit neighbor against neighbor in the name of inclusivity.”
Danielle Tagger-Epstein, who chairs the Commission, said that it was clear the program may not align with everyone’s thinking but that it is acceptance-driven. “We want to raise accepting kids and dispel stigmas and stereotypes.”
Mayor Josh Cohn said the City stands by the anti-discrimination resolution and further explained that the City has never dictated content in any of the nonprofits. “It would be a dangerous precedent.” He continued, “We all have to take care of each other. I understand there is a lot of antipathy and I am grateful for the way people have spoken tonight.”
Alison Relyea, who serves on the library’s Auxiliary Board, made the point that the library is a place of public engagement and that Drag Queen Story Hour “gave the library an opportunity to discuss and celebrate our differences.” Wanting to find out more about the program firsthand, she attended a session in Putnam Valley with her son. In her view, “There was nothing sexual about the program.”
Speaking on behalf of many of the residents who expressed their concern about the program and were vilified in social media, longtime resident Angela Sculti said, “We spoke up. We spoke quietly. But many residents are afraid to voice a valid opinion on this because of the way they’ve seen others treated. The intolerance has come from the supporters of the program, not us.”
One of the most earnest comments made by a resident at City Hall on February 5 came from David Cortez. “It is important for the City to discourage intimidation and spread a message of civility.”
Is it likely the Rye Free Reading Room will reinstate Drag Queen Story Hour, as many residents have petitioned (https://www.thepetitionsite.com/359/981/328/support-acceptance-and-inclusion-drag-queen-story-hour-at-rye-free-reading-room/)?
In a statement to the press shortly after postponing the February 8 program, Shoemaker said, “While I respect the anxiety expressed by some in the community, it’s become clear we need to broaden the scope of the program and open a wider and more compassionate dialogue within the community.
“As a result, I have started planning a series of events for different ages and with different guests to teach teens and children about inclusivity and diversity, including LGBTQIA+ experiences; story times, and readings for teenagers, and lectures for adults.
“Given all of the troubling national trends, understanding the importance of teaching children about LGBTQIA+ people and their lives has never been more essential, not only so children who might themselves be LGBTQIA+ could see not only their reflections, but so their parents could learn how to embrace their diversity. In the future, I hope that this program can serve as a template for additional wide-reaching programs covering diversity.”
Library Board President Francis Jenkins informed the paper last week that, “The Board does not get directly involved in programming. Programming is the sole responsibility of the Director. That said, I want to assure everyone that we are aware of all the feedback on the most recent programming. We have asked for our Director to reflect on the feedback and provide us with his plans for future programming.”
Director Shoemaker said he too wanted to assure the community “that we are reflecting on all of the feedback we have received, and we ask for a bit more time so that we can fully explore the next steps.”
Many of the letters sent to The Rye Record are included in this issue and on www.ryerecord.com.