Gerritsen Beach

Drag queen story hour at local library sparks outrage in Gerritsen Beach

June 5, 2019 Meaghan McGoldrick
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A popular library program promoting tolerance is sparking a furious demand from some Gerritsen Beach neighbors: stay away from our kids.

The event: Drag Queen Story Hour. The headliner: a big-wigged performer named Angel Elektra.

Drag Queen Story Hour is a worldwide program that invites drag queens to read to kids and teens at libraries, schools, museums and other community spaces. It aims to give “glamorous, positive, and unabashedly queer role models,” according to the program’s website. As the Gerritsen Avenue branch of the Brooklyn Public Library began advertising its first local installment of the story hour, outraged neighbors started pushing a flyer of their own.

The leaflet – seen scattered throughout Gerritsen Beach as well as posted to various neighborhood Facebook groups – encourages locals to “stand today or we fall tomorrow,” and calls for protesters to convene at the branch one hour prior to Thursday’s event, through to its scheduled end at 3 p.m.

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Objectors say the “tax-payer funded attack on our babies” aims to “groom children into the transgender lifestyle.”

The protest’s organizer said he “has no problem with gay people,” but he does take issue with the age bracket of the event (0-5) and the “mixed messages” he said teaching gender fluidity can send to children.

“I just feel like children shouldn’t be subjected to this type of thing,” said the promoter, a local father who declined to give his last name but told the Brooklyn Eagle his name is Tag. “We’re talking about babies who can’t even grab the concept yet that they are boys or girls, never mind gender fluidity. A gender now is what we used to call a personality. Our children should be able to grow up and come to these decisions on their own just like everybody else.”

To that point, Tag said, he has no qualms with the drag queens themselves, but rather the programming.

“It’s one thing for a drag queen to come in costume and read kids a story. It’s another thing for them to read stories about gender fluidity,” he said. “It’s not about teaching kids tolerance – which the parents should be doing anyway. It’s about the indoctrination of these children. Just like we’re telling them there’s a tooth fairy and there’s a Santa Claus, we’re telling them they can be what they’re not.”

Another critic, Rick Knight – who identified himself as a lifelong friend of the organizer who is “pro-gay marriage” – echoed that concern.

“Live your life the way you want – as long as you’re not hurting me, that’s none of my business. But taking something that might be promoting gender dysphoria or simply political and putting it in front of children that young is just ridiculous. We’re not organizing a conservative story hour at the library – which they probably wouldn’t allow anyway.”

“If someone wanted to dress up as Jesus and read kids the Bible, the library wouldn’t be as accepting,” said Tag. “So, personally, I feel like nobody’s ideology should be allowed the spotlight in a building where tax-payers are funding it.”

Supporters of the flyer on social media pointed to Houston, Texas, where, earlier this year, a registered sex offender was revealed to be participating as a drag queen at the Houston Public Library’s iteration of the program. The library has since admitted to not conducting a proper background check on the performer, “Tatiana Mala Nina,” known off-stage as 32-year-old Albert Garza, who was convicted of assaulting an 8-year-old boy in 2009.

The flyer. Image via Facebook

Despite backlash, a spokesperson for the Brooklyn Public Library said on Tuesday that the event – scheduled for Thursday at 2 p.m. at 2808 Gerritsen Ave., during the first week of Pride Month – would go on as scheduled.

“Brooklyn Public Library provides programming to reflect the many diverse communities we serve,” Nick Higgins, chief librarian at BPL, said in a statement. “The response to Drag Queen Story Hour has been overwhelmingly positive, drawing large and supportive crowds at branches throughout the borough. Children love the bright colors, songs and stories.”

The library, he added, is proud to present such programming.

Drag Queen Story Hour, a nonprofit founded in San Francisco and headquartered in Manhattan, prides itself on offering acceptance-driven literary programming for kids and teens through readings, singalongs and crafts, led – in this case – by librarian-trained drag queens.

Since its inception, the event has grown to include other types of programming, such as beauty workshops and an event called the “Lit Ball,” billed as an evening celebrating drag and ball culture with a literary twist.

RELATED: Cat eyes and confidence: Drag queen beauty workshop teaches teens self-expression

“DQSH 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,” said Jonathan Hamilt, DQHS’ New York deputy director. “However children feel comfortable expressing themselves, experimenting with how they want to show up in the world and perform themselves, there should be a welcome mat laid at the door of each library.”

Though designed for children who are 3 to 8 years old, the Gerritsen Beach branch event is open to kids up to five – a focal point of protesters.

Bergen Beach mom Stephanie Strusser — who brought her daughter, then 5, to another story hour event — said it makes sense to match the age to the scheduled reading.

“An 8-year-old isn’t necessarily going to enjoy a reading of ‘Old MacDonald Had a Farm,’” said Strusser.

“It was such a positive event,” she told the Eagle. “The stories were all about inclusion and accepting and embracing yourself – which can apply to anyone, not just the gay community. Everybody’s different. Whether you’re rich or poor, black, white, Hispanic, or a geek in a school full of jocks – it’s about being who you are.”

While she understands that drag queens can be controversial, Strusser said, it’s no reason to thwart the event.

“I understand that some people are just fundamentally against that sort of thing,” she said. “And that’s fine. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to attend. But judging an entire program of events based on an unfortunate incident that happened in Texas, in my mind, is just an excuse.”

A little girl reaches for Drag Queen Cholula Lemon’s jewelry. Photo by Paolo Quadrini/DQSH

Gerritsen Beach resident Nicole V. called DQSH a win-win in terms of education and inclusivity. But, with tensions mounting, she said some parents are scared to even step foot near the branch on Thursday.

“Based on the flyer and how adamant [the opposition is], I am afraid protesters will end up being violent,” Nicole said, adding that commenters on Facebook were going as far as to relate parents who plan on attending to child abusers. “At the same time, friends of mine would say [that] no one would do anything because children are there. Now, my cynical self says we all know all around the country that having little kids around doesn’t stop people from being violent. I hope I’m wrong.”

On the other hand, parent Brittany Nunez, who said she’s been waiting a long time to take her kid to the story hour, reduced the flyer to a scare tactic.

“I’ve wanted to take my daughter for a while but it has never been at a more local library,” she said, calling what the event stands for “one of the amazing things about growing up as a child in New York City” – the exposure to diversity.

“I’m a firm believer of if you don’t like something, no one is forcing you to go. I, for one, am excited to bring my daughter and her friends this week,” Nunez said. “I wish people would give this much energy and attention to things that truly deserved it, like getting more funding for schools and making sure all kids have a warm meal and a place to sleep.”

Tag alleges that the name-calling online hasn’t been mutually exclusive.

“I’ve had responses to the flyer from both sides and, so far, I’ve only had one civil e-mail from people who support the event – the rest are wishing my children grow up to be gay,” he told the Eagle. “This is the kind of rhetoric you get from people who are preaching tolerance. What it comes down to is that this event is dangerous. Transgender people have the highest rate of suicide out of anyone and to bring a child who is not even in-tune with their own body to believe that they can be something that’s biologically impossible, is irresponsible.

“We’re quick to remove people’s body parts to tell them it’s gonna make it better,” he went on. “Find me one good doctor that’ll cut off a healthy hand.”

Most of those in favor of the program noted a sense of common misconception surrounding the event – and the definition of a drag queen, which is not the same as transgender or gay. Additionally, not all transgender people are diagnosed with gender dysphoria, and supporters say using the terms interchangeably and irresponsibly is more dangerous than any event that features a drag queen.

Kevin Wong, head of communications for The Trevor Project – the world’s largest suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization for LGBTQ+ young people – attributed the suicide rates to something else.

“Young LGBTQ people aren’t prone to suicide just because of their sexual orientation or gender identity; they are at a higher risk for suicide attempts because of the harmful rhetoric they hear from their friends and families, or from rejection they experience from seeing things like public protests, that can make them feel their life is worth less than their straight or cisgender peers,” he told the Eagle.

“There’s a lot of ignorance toward what drag queens are, as well as [what] the LGBTQ community is in the first place,” added Nicole.

As for the event, she said, “The premise of the protest is that somehow kids are going to ‘catch the drag.’ It’s ridiculous.”

“There’s not going to be tutorials on how to be gay,” added Strusser. “It’s stories and it’s songs and it’s coloring.”

Though, the program does have an added touch, she said.

At the event Strusser attended, she said, “They sang ‘If You’re Happy and You Know It,’ and I think the most they did was change ‘Clap your hands’ to things like ‘Sashay,’ and “Say ‘yaasss queen,’” she laughed. “But that just made it all the more fun.”

Update (5 p.m.): This story has been updated to include the address of the library branch.

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