When the Kelowna branch of the Okanagan Regional Library in British Columbia hosted its very first Drag Queen Story Hour last September, the programming choices centered around two obvious themes. With songs like “Baby Beluga” and “Baby Shark” — and a drag queen by the name of Miss Frieda Whales, the Okanagan Orca and the Queen of the Seas of Kelowna — marine life was undoubtedly a unifying motif.
But with books like Giraffes Can’t Dance and Not Quite Narwhal, children’s librarian Ashley Machum says the overarching lesson was about “celebrating individuality, being okay with who you are, accepting of others — that was really the theme of this storytime.”
The community responded warmly and enthusiastically to the performance of Miss Whales and her co-host Valerie Rose, but alas, it wasn’t enough to evade controversy.
That controversy is the subject of a recent entry into CBC Radio’s The Doc Project, which showcases original audio documentaries it describes as “Canadian in focus, universal in scope.” The hour-long documentary “The Librarians and the Drag Queens” lets listeners peek behind the scenes at a public library facing a controversy that took place largely behind closed doors, with battle lines drawn between professional librarians and the risk-averse business side of library stewardship. It’s a story that touches on flashpoint issues like gender expression, freedom of speech, and the role of libraries as public institutions in the twenty-first century.
The battle began when Okanagan Regional Library’s CEO, Don Nettleton, issued a memo calling for policy restrictions on “controversial programming.” Though he acknowledged the librarians’ good intentions, he concluded that the event was “offensive to a significant segment of our society” and therefore should not have taken place:
Drag Queen Storytime is inappropriate for their age, needlessly divisive to the community, and deviates from the board’s main purpose of early literacy encouragement in a safe and neutral environment that everybody in the community will find acceptable.
The memo was released to members of the library organization, but it was also posted on the library’s website.
Librarians bristled at the suggestion that they weren’t competent to decide what programming was appropriate for their own communities and objected to the notion that their choices ought to be vetted by non-librarians. As Machum noted derisively:
Don Nettleton is not a professional librarian. He is an accountant.
Machum and her immediate supervisor Chris Stephenson acknowledge that they received some negative feedback from community members before the program went forward. People on both sides of the issue had plenty to say; they received hundreds of letters both for and against the program. But complaints were often ignorant, equating drag queens with strippers, pedophiles, thieves, and even murderers.
Clearly objectors were uncomfortable with an art form they perceived as sexual in nature. That’s a common misconception. Some drag performers may put on suggestive performances aimed at adult audiences, but that’s only one of many ways to be a drag queen — and it’s not what library drag shows are about. It takes a very specific skill set to play to an audience of children. The secret to Frieda Whales’ success lies in how very well she knows her audience; her day-to-day alter ego, Tyson Cook, is a certified education assistant.
When asked how he would respond to the objection that drag performances are sexual, Cook said:
Look at the entertainer that’s being hired. I am not a sexual drag queen. I mean, if they’ve been to any sort of theater production or watched Looney Tunes or Bugs Bunny, they’ve been exposed to drag queens their entire lives.
But Nettleton failed to understand that a performance tradition with deep historical connections to the LGBTQ community need not be explicit, and it created an HR nightmare. LGBTQ staff members said they felt unsafe or uncomfortable at work knowing how their CEO had publicly dismissed their identity. Okanagan Regional Library board, trustee Loyal Wooldridge described how Nettleton’s memo was personally hurtful to him as a gay man:
My husband Ian and I pulled it up, and I was like — wow, this is really inflammatory [language] that is being used. I had no idea that it would erupt into such the challenge that it did, but that’s the path that those words took. I think that whenever something directly and negatively paints your identity with a brush that is quite inflammatory, such as those words that were written, you do take it personally.
While drag queen story times have become a fashionable option for diversity programming, they remain controversial in a lot of communities. Since the events that took place in Kelowna, some American states have attempted to pass legislation that would ban the practice. And at least one conservative pundit celebrated the advent of COVID-19 because it interfered with drag queen story hours.
Spoiler alert: the story in Kelowna has a happy ending worthy of a feel-good Hollywood blockbuster. But it’s the story of just one library among many, and that means the story isn’t over yet.
(Image via Facebook. Thanks to Richard for the link)