Wichita library’s drag queen event was months ago, but the debate rages on

Drag queens draw standing-room crowd at Wichita library

Drag queens drew more than 200 people Tuesday to the downtown Wichita library for a picture-book story time.
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Drag queens drew more than 200 people Tuesday to the downtown Wichita library for a picture-book story time.

Months after the Wichita public library hosted an event that featured drag queens reading picture books, library officials continue to face fallout from critics.

At a meeting Tuesday, the library’s board of directors will consider whether to develop a new programming policy to “guide the scope of offerings” presented at the library, similar to its guidelines for selecting books and other materials.

“Recent public comments retained by the library board have prompted us to question whether this (new policy) is warranted in Wichita, whether it’s needed or not,” said Kevin McWhorter, president of the library’s board of directors.

“We want to be transparent. We want to make sure that everybody has a voice,” he said. “The board will ultimately make the decision, but we welcome anybody’s opinion on the issue.”

Impassioned response

In September, the Wichita library hosted “Say YAAAS to Reading,” an evening event at the downtown branch that featured three drag queens reading picture books.

Library officials said they scheduled the event to diversify program offerings and appeal to groups who may not be active users of the library, including the LGBTQ community.

“Say YAAAS to Reading” was promoted for adult audiences and held in a private conference room, but it drew about 220 people, including families with young children.

It also drew impassioned responses from members of the public, hundreds of whom called, e-mailed, wrote letters or reached out on social media to city officials before and after the event.

Five members of the public attended a library board meeting in October to voice their opposition to the drag queen event, including Pastor Craig Coffey, who read a prepared statement:

“You have stepped beyond the threshold of common decency, common sense and common morality. . . . Your actions constitute child abuse,” Coffey told the board.

“One of the stated goals of the LGBTQ agenda is to browbeat and indoctrinate the public while gaining access to our children through the government schools, the mainstream media, public libraries, politics and public policy, and any other means to promote their perversity,” he said.

“Be advised that you have poked the hornet’s nest. . . . Your future actions concerning this issue will be closely watched and monitored.”

Report calls for changes

A 31-page “After Action Review” produced by the library, which board members will discuss Tuesday, says the initial concept and development of the drag queen event followed library procedures, but “implementation of the program planning was less consistent.”

The report calls for “refresher training” for library staff on program planning and promotions, and for alerting the city manager, assistant city manager, city communications team and library board about any program that “may generate citizen calls or media attention.”

It also suggests considering a program policy that would parallel the library’s materials selection policy, which outlines its approach to controversial materials.

“The Wichita Public Library subscribes to the Library Bill of Rights, the Freedom to Read statement and the Freedom to View statement as adopted by the American Library Association,” the policy says.

“In accordance with these statements, the Library recognizes that some materials may be controversial and that any given item may concern some customers. Without anticipated approval or disapproval, selections will be made solely on the merits of the work in relation to the building of the collection and to serving the interests of Library customers. Responsibility for the reading, viewing and listening choices of minors rests with their parents or guardians.”

Some groups are urging residents to address the library board during its meeting at noon Tuesday on the first floor of the Advanced Learning Library, 711 W. Second St. The Sedgwick County Democratic Party recently sent an e-mail to members encouraging them to advocate for inclusion.

“The library belongs to us all,” the e-mail said. “We cannot give way to discrimination and injustice for any due to the discomfort felt by some.”

Positive and negative

Feedback submitted the night of the event from those who attended was overwhelmingly positive, according to the library’s post-mortem report.

“It was a program that promoted inclusivity while also promoting literacy,” one person said. “Whichever one of my tax dollars helped fund this, it’s money well spent.”

“It was beautiful!” said another. “Made my heart so happy to see LGBT kids and adults have a program that was inclusive.”

“I love that the public library was open-minded enough to host this event,” another person commented.

But the vast majority of e-mails and online comments — which make up 20 pages of the report — expressed anger or dismay at the library’s decision.

“Drag Queens in a library? The people who made this vile act happen WILL be fired,” one commenter said. “Drag Queens are mentally Ill, and it looks like the people who run this library are too. . . . If you are going to allow these circus freaks around children, then your library needs to be shut-down for good.”

“Clearly, the goal of this event is to expose children to men dressed in drag, and introduce them to controversial, sexually-oriented themes that many parents find inappropriate for children,” another commenter said.

OK for children?

Cynthia Berner, Wichita’s director of libraries, said comparisons between the Wichita event and “Drag Queen Story Hours” in other cities were misleading because the Wichita event was not designed for children.

Inspiration for the Wichita event came from a Knight Foundation “Soul of the Community” report, which noted that gays and lesbians are “perceived as the least welcome group” in the community, Berner said.

“The idea was: How do we take the adults in this community and help them to feel welcome at the library?” she said.

According to the report, a majority of library board members agreed with the concept, stipulating that the library should avoid the terms “story hour” or “storytime” and identify it as an adult activity on the events calendar.

Dozens of children attended the event, but Berner said all were accompanied by an adult.

“Even if a program is for adults, if there is a parent who believes that they want to have a minor there for whatever reason, we allow that to happen. That’s why children were allowed to come into the program,” she said.

“It wasn’t because the library created the program for children. It’s because we supported the right of the parent to make that decision.”

McWhorter, the library board president, said he viewed the event as a way to introduce more people to the Advanced Learning Library, which opened in June. In the hours immediately before and after the program, 19 new library accounts were created, according to the report.

“I believe a public library should be inclusive to all members of the community, and everyone should feel welcomed and safe to come in and further their educational and cooperative opportunities,” he said. “Because that’s what libraries are about.”