By Clair McFarland, Cowboy State Daily
The Albany County Public Library’s fourth annual Drag Queen Storytime in Washington Park on Saturday attracted a large crowd, along with a dose of controversy.
The library in Laramie has been having “drag queens” read to kids for four years in an event designed to celebrate diversity, said Cassandra Hunter, assistant library director.
We represent a diverse population and we want to be as inclusive as possible, and let everybody in the community know there’s something for everybody,” said Hunter.
But critics, including former state Rep. Nathan Winters, described the event as a premature exposure of sexual themes to children.
“When you have someone dressed opposite their gender, it is, in its own way, somewhat sexualized,” said Winters. “(It’s) a sexually charged event by its very nature.”
Attended by about 50 people, the library promoted this year’s event in partnership with the nonprofit group Laramie Pridefest and featured one drag queen performer known as Denim.
The three books read by Denim were “From the Stars in the Sky to the Fish in the Sea,” by Kai Cheng Thom; “The Hips on the Drag Queen Go Swish, Swish, Swish,” by Lil Miss Hot Mess, and “The Family Book,” by Todd Parr.
Thom’s book, “From the Stars in the Sky to the Fish in the Sea,” follows a gender-fluid child also engaged in animal cosplay, who goes by they/them pronouns and has trouble fitting in at school until encouraged by their mother.
Lil Miss Hot Mess’ book “The Hips on the Drag Queen Go Swish, Swish, Swish” is a preschool-level story set to the tune of “The Wheels on the Bus,” which shows drag queens parading through a town, making it more colorful as they go.
And “The Family Book,” by Todd Parr, discusses various types of families, from adoptive to multi-racial to same-sex parentage.
Denim also led the children in singing and dancing, including the “Hokey Pokey.”
But in the wake of increasing political attention surrounding transgender and LGBTQ issues, community members and activists clashed over Drag Queen Storytime and its impact.
“When it comes to drag queen story hours, oftentimes what occurs is something that short-circuits the young person’s opportunity to have a non-sexualized youth,” said Winters, who is the founder and director of the Family Policy Alliance of Wyoming. “And that can actually get in the way of them learning things in a proper sequence.”
But Hunter told Cowboy State Daily that Saturday’s event didn’t feature sexual behavior “at all,” and was “just a traditional story time,” with reading, crafts, and song.
Winters countered in his own interview, saying that even in drag queen events that aren’t accompanied by sexual dancing or clothing, cross-dressing still evokes sexual themes and questions. He said hyper-focusing on such themes in young children can cause those children to dismiss many other parts of their development and identity.
“Focusing any sort of sexual behavior to youth can become detrimental over time, because they’ll see themselves, many times, as a purely sexual being rather than having a well-rounded humanity.”
Sara Burlingame, director of Wwyoming Equality, said events such as Drag Queen Storytime are intended to be a haven for LGBTQ youth and an exercise in compassion for society as a whole.
Burlingame said she hoped drag story hour and similar events would have a positive impact for LGBTQ people by preventing them from being bullied.
“(The event is) for those of us who have children, who are committed to making sure that the next Sissy Goodwin who’s born in Wyoming doesn’t have their teeth kicked in, doesn’t have their ribs broken,” she said.
Sissy Goodwin is a late Wyoming family man and college professor who was well-known for dressing as a woman and who suffered multiple assaults during his life.
Winters, however, said the anti-bullying argument increasingly is being used as a justification for bullying itself.
“The insistence that anyone who might disagree (with drag story hour) is a bully essentially weaponizes the word,” said Winters. “It weaponizes the subject to drive an agenda.”
Burlingame emphasized that parents who disagree with Drag Queen Storytime may simply avoid it. She said librarians, in her experience, have been open to community discussion and to advice on how to make everyone feel accepted.
“This isn’t an instance where someone just has their ideology by the ankles and they’re going with it,” she said. “This is what democracy looks like. This is what a free society looks like.”
Burlingame said for some parents to try to make parenting decisions for children who are not their own is “not a Wyoming value.”
Winters said that while he understands the argument for parental autonomy, he also believes that publicly-funded institutions, such as the library, shouldn’t be taking a stance on cross-dressing behaviors or similar issues.
“There needs to be a deeper discussion of what is the role of a public institution in promoting sexual behavior,” said Winters. “When we fund institutions such as these with public funds, the role ought to be to provide a resource for families, but a general resource. Not to promote controversial activity.”
Winters expressed concern with “From the Stars in the Sky to the Fish in the Sea,” saying that its gender-fluid message may be confusing for children just beginning to grasp biological realities.
Play and pretend are vital to children, Winters said, but so is reality.
“Parents sometimes insist that everyone play along with their child’s fantasy,” said Winters. “And that can become problematic.”
Burlingame said she didn’t remember the book specifically, but not for a lack of research: she’s read numerous books in an effort to discuss literature decisions with librarians.
She said parents’ qualms with LGBTQ-related or other literature espousing alternate lifestyles often come from a knee-jerk reaction aimed at protecting children.
But, she reiterated, that’s a decision for each parent to make for themselves.
‘Mouthpiece For Extremists’
Burlingame also said she objected to the statements of Winters.
“I would be sad if you became an unwitting mouthpiece for extremists,” Burlingame told Cowboy State Daily. “The other side is very consciously trying to use misinformation and trying to use something they know works.
“Any of us who advocate for the health and wellbeing of LGBTQ youth, we get called pedophiles every day, and if your newspaper decides you want to frame this as people who want to protect children vs. us, I think that’s a disservice… (which) actually hurts Wyoming.” Burlingame continued.