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

The Evolving War Against Drag Queens

I’ve written about Drag Queen Story Hour (DQSH, disclaimer that this is a particular group used for ease of reference, there are many others) before. In short, these events are designed to be an inclusive environment for queer and allied families to see a story from outside the cisgender, straight stories that dominate children’s literature. These events are held all over the place from bookstores to churches and even, apparently, a cat cafe (this is a dream event for me). And, of course, libraries. Storytimes have always been a huge part of libraries as parents of young children use them to entertain and socialize with other children. Nor is it unusual to have outside volunteers read to children. But when those volunteers are drag queens—for some reason drag kings get largely ignored in this discussion—they become a source of controversy.

On 31 May, the Speaker of the Ohio House of Representatives, Larry Householder, sent a letter complaining about drag events, this one was for teens and included instruction on the theatrics of drag, and threatening libraries with punitive budget measures. He begins, like all censors, with a statement that he is “a stronger believer in the 1st Amendment and fully support freedom of speech” but he “also believe[s] in common sense.” Householder notes that libraries engage in a variety of “enrichment activities” but this is different, “[t]his is about right and wrong.” Interestingly, he never explains what is wrong about the event. Instead, like so many of his ilk, he assumes that it is obvious to any right thinking person, it is “common sense,” and discussion is unnecessary. His only substantive argument is that taxpayers would object, again without any evidence. It is assumed that teenage boys learning the theater of drag is obviously unacceptable according to unspoken norms. He also ignored the fact that the library event was privately funded—let’s not kid ourselves, he never bothered to investigate the facts, appealing to bigots is always easier. With pressure on the library, the organizers moved to another venue. At almost the same time a nearby library had to cancel its event after receiving threats credible enough to open a police investigation. But don’t worry, Householder and his supporters are big believers in free speech and equal access to public spaces.

The war against DQSH events took an interesting turn, well for academics who study this stuff, when news hit that the Spokane Public Library was facing resistance to a DQSH during Pride. Interesting because a new argument was deployed by the challengers: drag as equivalent to blackface. In local media and a Facebook group “500 Moms Strong” (this was still public at the time of my writing), the lead challenger argued that drag is “rooted in misogyny” in the same way that blackface represents racism. The Facebook group elaborates on this argument fairly extensively and, in my experience with DQSH challenges, it is unique. (Here is a recent response to this argument.) Of course, the challenger invoke the primary argument that drag is inherently sexual as well: “It’s like a burlesque show, and it’s no different than having an erotic dancer strip and read a story for my toddler.” As she told a conservative outlet, her opposition was rooted in her religious objections to the event. So the degree to which the feminism rhetoric is genuine is unclear and it tracks nicely with the recent experience of Republican attacks on the Equality Act by deploying TERF (trans exclusionary radical feminism) arguments about trans women.

Michelle Golberg sees this conservative anger towards DQSH events as odd because “[c]onservatives are not being subjugated because they can’t stop other people from holding a public event that offends them. It’s telling that some of them think they are.” This assumes a liberal understanding of government, the classic argument that our primary concern is about freedom from governmental restriction. In this frame, the anger is odd because the answer is simply not to attend. Another tradition, however, sees government as responsible for creating a virtuous citizenry and it is this tradition that drag event challengers represent. When Householder says that there is right and wrong, he is invoking the idea that wrong should be excluded from public places. In his Family Values, Seth Dowland shows that one motivating factor in the Christian Right today is a belief in a rigid gender binary (and hierarchy) and drag queens assault that by their very existence. In assaulting the gender binary, challengers fear that it destabilizes the supposed natural reality and leads to ruin, with heavy fear placed on the idea that “gender confusion” is contagious. Public libraries are seen as an agent of their power, representing a presumed majority, and thus must represent “right” instead of “wrong.” The fact that DQSH style events are quite popular does not matter, it is a choice that should never have been offered because libraries must preserve a morally pure society, as understood by challengers. Libraries have a duty to stick to the “classics,” which is shorthand for straight, cisgender stories that represent the great myth the class nuclear family. The fact that so many libraries resist should be celebrated as public institutions should be open to all the community and not just narrow segments of it as challengers demand.

Resisting Censorship: Courage and Publicity

Fun Home Goes to Court