Cook County follows national trend with mixed response to Drag Queen Story Hour
AP Photo/Seth Wenig

Cook County follows national trend with mixed response to Drag Queen Story Hour

The community’s response to an event this weekend in Grand Marais falls in line with a nationwide trend for something billed as a project meant to “educate and entertain children by appealing to their imaginations.”

The Drag Queen Story Hour, as it is known, is part of an event happening at the Cook County Community Center in Grand Marais on Saturday, March 4. This particular aspect of the day-long fundraising event has generated social media backlash and calls to the Grand Marais Public Library and other local officials from people expressing varying sentiments. As is the case with similar events across the country, some people are excited, while others are appalled.

In recent months, after focusing on transgender athletes and youths, anti-LGBTQ rhetoric is now targeting drag storytimes with interruptions and other protests reported across the country, the Associated Press reports. There is speculation there could be organized protests outside the community center in Grand Marais on Saturday.

Cook County Sheriff Pat Eliasen told WTIP that “the only concern for the Sheriff’s office is public safety and ensuring that constitutional rights are upheld. If there is a gathering of people either in support or protest, we will respect the 1st Amendment rights until a situation arises where the gathering has become illegal, or participating actors commit crimes.”

Across the country, organizers of the story hours say that social media accounts are fueling the backlash and that opponents claiming they want to protect children are actually scaring and endangering them, the AP reports. Often times, the organizers say they will enhance security but won’t stop their programs.

From New York to the West Coast, the drag reading groups have faced pushback from the beginning, but the recent vitriol is new, said Jonathan Hamilt, executive director of Drag Queen Story Hour and the co-founder of the New York chapter, in a recent interview with the Associated Press.

“Being a part of the LGBT community and a queer person in general, we’ve always experienced hate and slurs and homophobia and transphobia. That’s unfortunately just part of our existence,” Hamilt said. “All this feels different and very real, and it feels a bit scarier.”

Drag Queen Story Hour, a nonprofit, was started in San Francisco in 2015 by activist and author Michelle Tea. Chapters have since opened across the U.S. and elsewhere. Other organizations with readers in drag have also formed.

As part of Drag Queen Story Hour’s programming, drag queens read to children and their parents at libraries, bookstores, fairs, parks and other public spaces to celebrate reading “through the glamorous art of drag.”

Elsewhere in America, several politicians have discussed plans for legislation to ban drag shows for kids or punish parents for taking their kids to one, according to the AP. Among them is Texas state Rep. Bryan Slaton, a Republican.

“Children don’t need to be focused on sex and sexualization, and we need to let them just grow up to be children and let them do that as they’re getting closer to being an adult,” he said in an interview.

Ben Nichols is one of the organizers of the local pride event happening this weekend in Grand Marais. He said the mission of Cook County Pride is “to provide spaces where queer people and their allies can work together to create a world that is more affirming, safe and loving.”

Throughout history, Nichols said, “drag queens have led the charge on this mission. They have also been the most demonized members of the queer community. We hope to break the stigma of drag, embrace its celebratory nature, and acknowledge the importance of drag queens in the ongoing fight for queer liberation.”

Regarding the local response from those who are concerned about the Drag Queen Story Hour, Nichols encouraged people to learn more by keeping an open mind and perhaps seeing for themselves what the day is all about.

“We do hope that those who oppose this event will attend with an open mind, soft heart, and intention of learning more about our mission,” he said.

Another aspect of the Drag Time Story Hour event happening in Grand Marais this weekend that drew the ire of some community members is the fact the local library in Grand Marais is paying for the drag storyteller to visit Cook County. Amanda St. John is the director of the Grand Marais Public Library. She confirmed with WTIP on March 2 that “the library contributed a $200 honorarium for the performer, and $338 for children’s books to be given away at the conclusion of story hour.”

St. John said part of the library’s mission is to serve marginalized communities.

“The library is lifting underrepresented voices and stories makes them visible and accessible to those who need them most,” she told WTIP. “Drag Queen Story Hour centers GLBTQ+ community and culture. It celebrates gender diversity, builds empathy, and holds a safe space for kids to express themselves in whatever way feels affirming to them. The program features a performer in costume, who will read stories about kindness and self-love. In the spirit of intellectual freedom, we encourage each parent to choose which materials and programs are right for their families. We are expecting a good turnout at the event.”

Nichols confirmed with WTIP that the drag queen who will attend the event will be compensated for participating in the story hour. However, he declined to share any additional information about the individual.

“Due to the ongoing violence inflicted upon transgender people and drag queens, I will not be disclosing any personal information about the performer,” he said. “However, financial transparency is important to our group. The performer is receiving a $200 honorarium from the Grand Marais Public Library. We are endlessly thankful to the library for recognizing the importance of the public service we are providing.”

Cook County Commissioner Dave Mills is the president of the Grand Marais Public Library Board. He said the books that will be read during the Drag Queen Story Hour Saturday will “encourage kindness and empathy – qualities and abilities our community greatly values.”

Mills said he encourages “everyone to attend who would like to exercise and learn kindness and empathy towards others, especially towards others with differing beliefs and self-expression from their own. It will be a great event and a wonderful opportunity for us all to celebrate and grow as a community.”

Meanwhile, as the countdown to the event continues, a collection of negative feedback streamed in on various social media community pages specific to Cook County. In response, some community members said they would give supplemental donations to the local pride committee. A local business owner from Cook County pledged $20 for “for every hateful comment” that surfaced on a particular social media thread. By 5 p.m. on March 2, the business owner said they were planning to provide $100 to the cause, with others also pledging financial support in response to what were deemed negative responses to the events planned for Saturday.

The Drag Queen Story Hour is at 3 p.m. on Saturday, March 4. It will take place at the Cook County Community Center Log Building in Grand Marais. The event is open to the public.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.