Richard price explores the ways in which books are challenged in schools and libraries.

Drag Queens Are After Your Children!

Challengers often invoke parental rights to defend their attempts to remove or limit access to literature. The standard claim tends to be that parents have a right to control the upbringing of their children and may limit exposure to material they find offensive. To an extent, they are correct. Parents can block access to the library for their child and every English curriculum controversy I’ve examined has allowed parents to opt-out of the book in question and have their child read an alternative selection. At the extreme parents may remove their children from public schools altogether to avoid exposure to unsuitable information. Many challengers, however, feel this is insufficient. These challengers believe the material is so dangerous that no responsible parent could condone reading it. They are aware that some parents disagree but want to enlist the state to prevent that choice, or limit it, by removing the offending books from libraries and schools or restricting access therein. In effect, this type of challenger believes they can help other parents make better decisions. I refer to this as the parental rights hypocrisy: we should protect parental rights but only where those rights are used correctly.

An excellent example of the parental rights hypocrisy is the controversy over Drag Queen Story Hours (DQSH)—not all drag story times are affiliated with this group but DQSH is the most recognizable and I will use it as a shorthand reference for all similar groups. From the group’s description: 

Drag Queen Story Hour (DQSH) is just what it sounds like—drag queens reading stories to children in libraries, schools, and bookstores. DQSH captures the imagination and play of the gender fluidity of childhood and gives kids glamorous, positive, and unabashedly queer role models. In spaces like this, kids are able to see people who defy rigid gender restrictions and imagine a world where people can present as they wish, where dress up is real.

Unsurprisingly, conservative voices are aghast at this purpose and mobilize heavily against many library DQSH events. One protestor in Indiana worried that children were “being forced, coerced and ushered into this place where a drag queen will tell them they can decide what gender they are going to be.” In South Carolina, a protester warned that “[t]hey are actively promoting sin and wrongdoing and they are doing this to children.” While protesters seem to target the “they” towards DQSH and the libraries providing space, it is fundamentally targeted at the parents of the children. After all, this is not an instance of a captive audience in a school or a library display that exposes unwitting people to material they may not want to see. DQSH is an event that requires parents to make the affirmative decision to attend with their children, a decision many parents make as seen in Indiana where 275 children attended the event with another 150 turned away because of fire code limits. Thus, what protesters are really concerned with are the bad decisions of other parents, decisions that should be prohibited by denying the choice itself. All in the name of the children. Far too often challengers are really demanding that all other parents be coerced to conform to their personal moral standards, which are obviously correct and just. 

Apart from mob pressure, there are few options available to block DQSH. This is because many, if not most, DQSH events are held by simply renting library meeting space. This space constitutes a public forum that must be made available to all comers without regard to the content of their speech, a constitutional rule that is reinforced by professional ethics through the Library Bill of Rights. In Louisiana and Texas, opponents filed lawsuits that I’ll write about in the future because they are truly bizarre and deserve their own special attention. In South Carolina, Representative Garry Smith proposed a law requiring libraries to implement state education rules about age appropriateness for programs or face the loss of state funds. Leaving aside the issue that there is nothing about drag performers reading children’s books that is age inappropriate, his proposal ignores a simple point: schools are compulsory, library events are not. The purpose, then, is to limit the choices available to parents who disagree with Smith’s beliefs about what constitutes “age appropriate” material. Luckily the legislative committee rejected the idea. Sadly mob pressure works from time to time as many libraries have been forced to abandon such programs and in South Carolina a number of branch managers left their position shortly after the DQSH event raising suspicions that they were fired or forced out due to the public controversy. Similarly, a DQSH style event was recently cancelled in Dublin over safety concerns due to the high number of homophobic threats received.

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