Missouri Lawmaker Targets Libraries over 'Drag Queen Story Hours'

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday January 17, 2020

Parents and their children have enjoyed immensely popular "Drag Queen Story Hours" across the country. The occasions have taken place in venues such as museums and bookstores, and libraries.

But in Missouri, a Republican state lawmaker has drawn up legislation that proposes to punish libraries and their staff for "material" that a mere handful of individuals in each community could deem "age-inappropriate" on behalf of those same parents who see no harm in letting their kids enjoy a story hour read by a drag queen.

State Rep Ben Baker's proposal would fine libraries and penalize librarians for up to a year behind bars if they violate restrictions on what libraries can offer, as determined by only five people from the local community, reported local news source the Kansas City News.

Free speech proponents and book lovers have expressed shock and outrage at the proposal, with the deputy director of PEN America, James Tager, excoriating the proposal as a "shockingly transparent attempt to legalize book banning," and articulating the fear that the bill, if signed into law, would have the effect of "empowering small groups of parents to appoint themselves as censors over their state's public libraries," reported UK newspaper The Guardian.

Baker insisted that he was not trying to censor literature, telling the media that "I would kill the bill myself" if he thought it promoted censorship. But Baker pointed to the story hours as presenting "adult themes" to young children that their parents might want kids to be shielded from.

Since the drag performers in question are merely reading from storybooks, and not discussing sex or sexuality, the question becomes in what way a drag performer's mere appearance in public space constitutes an "age-inappropriate" message. Like clowns or other performers, drag queens are a class of theater professionals, their exaggerated styles not necessarily reflecting any specific sexuality or gender identity of the performer.

But Baker presented the idea that children might encounter "inappropriate" expression at such events, telling the media, "I don't think a 2-, 3-, 4-year-old is prepared to grapple with those ideas and I don't think they should be subjected to that just by walking through the library," the Kansas City Star reported.

The Kansas City Star itself noted that:

Though not all drag queens are gay or transgender, the events have become a kind of barometer for a community's tolerance of expressing queer identities in public.

If so, an assumption that a performer in drag makeup and costuming represents a specific messaging around sexuality and gender identity may be the essence of the lawmaker's objections. The bill in question specifically refers to "age-inappropriate sexual material," notes ocal news station KOAM.

"The main thing is, I want to be able to take my kids to a library and make sure they're in a safe environment, and that they're not gonna be exposed to something that is objectionable material," Baker told the news station. "Unfortunately, there are some libraries in the state of Missouri that have done this. And that's a problem."

But library professionals did not share the Republican lawmaker's sentiments, The Guardian reported. And even if drag queens were somehow "age-inappropriate," the Missouri Library Association pointed out, "Public libraries already have procedures in place to assist patrons in protecting their own children while not infringing on the rights of other patrons or restricting materials."

While the subject of human sexuality and gender identity is scientifically complex and politically charged, some proponents do argue that drag queen storytime events could allow LGBTQ youth to receive positive messaging around their own identities, rather than seeing themselves erased from the public sphere.

"Especially in a state where lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people can still be denied housing, fired from their jobs and denied public service, it's really important to have these safe spaces where children and families can come into the visibility of LGBT people or queerness, or playfulness in their identities, whether that be through literature or the performative nature of drag culture," argued Shira Berkowitz of Missouri LGBTQ advocacy organization PROMO, The Kansas City Star noted.

Media sources said that Kansas City libraries have never hosted a drag queen story hour, but noted that such events elsewhere have drawn protestors.

The director of the city's library system, Crosby Kemper III - who is leaving that position in order to accept an appointment from President Trump as the head of the Institute of Museum and Library Services - told the Kansas City Star that some communities are just not ready to enjoy this particular brand of theatricality, the popular culture's embrace of television programs like "RuPaul's Drag Race" notwithstanding.

"I think there are communities where doing a drag queen storytime is throwing something in people's faces, a deliberate provocation," Kemper told the newspaper, though without detailing exactly what sort of provocation that might be.

"There are other places that people find it amusing or friendly or whatever,": Kemper went on to add. "Communities have a different sense of what's appropriate and what's inappropriate."

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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