An overflow crowd filled the City Hall corridor outside Council chambers on Monday, as many area residents attended the evening’s City Council meeting to weigh in on a planned Pride Weekend event taking place at the Seward Community Library and Museum on June 10. Sponsored by the Seward Pride Alliance, the library will play host to a Drag Story Hour in which drag queens will read from two LGBTQ-affirming children’s books as part of the alliance’s planned Pride Weekend activities. At Monday’s Council meeting, the citizen comment period, normally limited to 35 minutes, was extended to over 50 minutes to accommodate all those who came out to speak, both in favor of and against the event.
Library Director Bailey Sayler took the podium first, stating that several of those who had reached out to the library staff had aired their concerns harshly. Sayler reminded the community to speak kindly when voicing their concerns. City resident Diane Clark was later the first to address Council in opposition to the story hour, stating that one citizen’s request for a list of the books to be read at the event had been denied.
“There was a resident of Seward that asked for the books that were to be read, and they were declined,” she said. “And so there should be – and maybe there is – a policy on age-appropriate books, and policies and boundaries should be put in place for age-appropriate programs for children, and maybe they are, but maybe they just need to be more defined.”
Former Vice Mayor and Seward Pride Alliance President Anthony Baclaan later explained that at the time of the citizen’s request, the decision on which books would be read had not yet been finalized. Baclaan went on two name the books – Red: A Crayon’s Story by Michael Hall, recommended for ages three to seven, and Twas the Night Before Pride by Joanna McClintick, illustrated by Juana Medina, recommended for ages four to eight.
Seward Assembly of God Pastor Sherry Clark was the next to speak in opposition to story time, prefacing her concerns with a reminder that the controversy was no place for name-calling or hate.
“Has the person or persons that’s going to do the reading, have they been vetted?” she said. “And I don’t mean that in a harsh way, but I worked in the school system many years, where I lived before. As a minister, you even have to have a background check. And so that question – has this person had a background check? Are they even from Seward?”
Former library maintenance worker Chad Dickinson directly addressed Clark’s concern in his comments.
“Any group that followed the guidelines and gets an approved contract gets to use the space,” he said. “It’s a community space. The Seward Pride Alliance has done just that. They followed the rules and got the space approved. To deny access now would be a blatant act of discrimination. And I would add that if we’re going to make background checks and find out where the speaker resides, then every group needs to go through that.”
Later in the meeting, during his city manager’s report, acting City Manager Norm Regis reminded the citizens that the event was not organized by the library itself, but merely hosted in the community room after acceptance of the Pride Alliance application.
“The group has reserved the library’s community room and has signed a room-use agreement,” he said. “The Seward Community Library and Museum is committed to providing an inclusive environment and does not discriminate against any groups. We welcome everyone in the community to reserve our rooms for their events.”
He recommended all concerns be addressed to the Seward Pride Alliance at firstname.lastname@example.org. He then echoed an admonishment to those who contacted the library staff over the issue to refrain from shouting and cursing.
Prior to Chad Dickinson’s comment, it was Lavina Dickinson who offered her perspective as the parent of a transgender teen.
“Kids report lower rates of attempting suicide when they have access to LGBTQ-affirming spaces,” she said. “Drag story hour is an affirming space. Representation matters. It literally saves lives. Having a drag story hour may not align with every family’s values, and I can appreciate that, so if it doesn’t align, don’t go. But for families like mine, events like these make our community just a little bit safer for my kid.”
For her comment period, area resident Tara Miller provided a history of drag story hour events.
“Drag story hour started in 2015 by author and gay rights activist Michelle Tea in San Francisco to promote reading and diversity,” she said. “It spread across to people because they enjoyed those different story hours, as well as the topics that were brought to them, and spread throughout the United States… Drag is seen across cultures and has been a part of society since the 1500s. At one point in history, it was used as a tool that was in play productions, in which men and women would don the clothing of the different genders to form different characters. In America, the first known drag balls were held in Harlem in the 1920s.”
Norma Shillgren, residing outside city limits, began her address with a rebuke of demons that prompted visual concern among council members and caused rumblings from the gallery.
“I take authority over you – wicked spirits, powers, mights, dominions – in Jesus’s name,” Shillgren said. “I call you lesbians, gays, transgenders, bisexual, queers – mute, defeated, your works are destroyed in the name of Jesus. You have to bow to the name of Jesus. You have no authority, no rule in our community. We shut the door on you in Jesus’s name. Your actions are not welcome here. It says in the word of God, ‘It is a shame to mention what they do in secret, but our God is rich in mercy to save all that come to Him.’ You don’t have to go into the lifestyle that haunts, hurts, harass you. You can get out of that lifestyle with no regrets. Be free, have joy, peace. You can be washed clean.”
Brittany Stallings, who intends to attend the story hour with her own children, took the podium after Shillgren.
“I want my children to see other as the human beings that they are, to be open-minded, loving and accepting of others,” she said. “I believe that having this story time will allow them to further expand their mind and not live in fear because of other people’s fear-based opinions or religion. And let’s put fact over feelings – nothing terrible has ever happened to any child at any story time hour, be it drag queen or not.”
Seward resident Briana Hutchison followed Stallings with an address to concerns aired by previous commenters that such story times could have an effect on a child’s sexual preference later in life.
“I know there is concern about ‘grooming’, in other words, turning kids gay, but I find this theory false and absurd,” she said. “All my life, since I was a young age, I’ve been around gay, lesbian, non-binary, and trans people. These human beings have been family members and some of my closest friends, and each of these individuals have enriched my life by merely being themselves. My family and friends didn’t groom me into being gay – I live a pretty heteronormative lifestyle – but I did learn to appreciate the diversity that comes with being a human.”
Hutchison’s fellow city resident Bonnie Apperson then echoed concerns of earlier commenters that drag performances are ordinarily considered adult forms of entertainment.
“Drag is usually an adult entertainment, and it’s usually in a bar situation,” she said. “Probably not in our town, but many areas, the bar situation would also be in the backroom, very indecent, for children. Sometimes the clothing is indecent and/or suggestive clothing, that children would experience.”
Perhaps the evening’s most colorful voice of opposition came from local mother Hannah Pike, who restated Apperson’s concerns over the potentially explicit nature of drag performances in a way that could itself be considered explicit.
“You wouldn’t hand your kid a Playboy,” she said. “You probably wouldn’t have them sitting with a bunch of men in womanface who are probably in some sort of lingerie and tights. It’s happened before. If I walked down the street with pasties, a g-string, a butt plug, people might complain. I can see that. I wouldn’t do it, but there would be complaints. And I think directly forcing that in front of our kids is a form of child abuse.”
Noteworthy in the list of Pride Weekend events is that while some of the planned activities are listed as adults-only, drag story time is open to all ages.
After many area residents had aired their concerns and an overwhelming majority of speakers had come out in defense of the event, Council Member Randy Wells reminded the assembly that it was not a matter on which Council could take immediate action, either way.
“We’re not voting on this,” he said. “This is not an agenda item. This is not a resolution. And this is nothing a council could change today, even if we wanted to vote on it.”
Directly following the near-hourlong comment period, Mayor Sue McClure issued an official proclamation in recognition of Seward Pride Weekend.
“We recognize the resilience and determination of the many individuals who are fighting to live freely and authentically, and in doing so, they are opening hearts and minds, and laying the foundation for a more just and equitable future,” she said. “We see you, we support you, and we are inspired by your courage to accept nothing less than full equality; we affirm our obligation to uphold the dignity of all people, and dedicate ourselves to protecting the most vulnerable among us.”
A full list of all Pride Weekend events is available at sewardpride.org/events/seward-pride-weekend. Questions may be addressed to email@example.com.