Politics & Government

Drag queen backlash: Wichita library may demand sex offender checks on story readers

Drag queens draw standing-room crowd at Wichita library

(FILE VIDEO) Drag queens drew more than 200 people to the downtown Wichita library for a picture-book story time. (Sept. 25, 2018)
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(FILE VIDEO) Drag queens drew more than 200 people to the downtown Wichita library for a picture-book story time. (Sept. 25, 2018)

Nearly a year after a controversy over a drag queen story hour at the Wichita library, the library board is considering a policy to require that program presenters be background-checked for sex offenses before they take the stage.

The city library director said it’s not a direct response to the backlash over the September 2018 drag queen event, but she acknowledged that event was the genesis of ongoing talks that led to the proposed policy, which would cover all programs at the library.

“The conversation started in conjunction with that particular program, but it is not a response to any program,” said Cynthia Berner, library director. “What happened was as a result of the conversation about that program, we had conversations with the library board and we talked about the fact that for a long time, we have had policies about materials collections to guide what goes into a collection. We have not had corresponding policies about programs.”

Thomas Witt, director of the LGBT rights group Equality Kansas, said it’s an insult to the Wichita LGBT community.

“It’s clear why they’re checking for sex offenses only,” Witt said. “They’re trying to label the LGBT population in this city as sex offenders, which is offensive in and of itself.

“If that’s what the city wants to do, to try to isolate a certain population, then hey, this is why we’re having an election in November.”

He said it doesn’t make sense to check volunteer presenters for sex offenses because it would be practically impossible for anyone to commit a sex crime at a library program.

“These are public presentations in one of the most open and public places in the city of Wichita,” he said. “I doubt very seriously it’s a venue for predators.”

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Library board minutes indicate that the idea of background checks originated with Craig Coffey, an anti-LGBT pastor who leads a small church in Derby.

A March missive from Coffey to the library board included a news report about a drag queen story time participant in Houston who was charged with a sex assault against a child.

“Since this Board’s intent is to continue Drag Queen Story Hour programming, are you at least willing to perform background checks on the participants?” Coffey wrote. “All it takes is one time for a tragedy to occur. Taking into account the Library’s own policies and procedures were violated at the last Drag Queen event, are you willing to publicly take that chance? Are you willing to assume the risk?”

Coffey wrote that “the LGBTQ lifestyle choice is dysfunctional in many ways and certainly not a healthy model for innocent children” and that he believed that the drag queen event had violated Wichita ordinances prohibiting “public lewd and lascivious behavior, sexual misconduct, and promotion of obscenity to minors.”

“I am attaching those (city code) documents highlighting certain portions directly addressing the outrageous and immoral behaviors of the Drag Queen Story Hour,” he wrote.

Coffey could not be reached on Monday and has previously declined Eagle requests for comments, referring to his written statements to the library board.

The policy is scheduled to be discussed in two meetings Tuesday.

It will come up first at the meeting of the library board’s operations committee at 11:30 a.m. It’s scheduled to come before the full library board at noon.

Both those meetings will be at the Advanced Learning Library, 711 W. Second St., the same venue where last year’s drag queen story time was held.

That event, called “Say YAAAS to Reading,” drew a standing-room-only crowd of about 220 to watch men in flamboyantly feminine costumes and makeup read from children’s picture books.

A handful of protesters demonstrated outside and several people complained to the board in October that the event promoted homosexual lifestyles and was unsuitable for a library program.

The event was promoted as being for adults, although children were allowed to attend with parents and there were dozens in the audience.

Donna Lippoldt, the founder and director of the Culture Shield Network, attended and recorded the drag queen event and opposed it in subsequent meetings of the library board.

She said she supports the proposed policy of checking presenters’ backgrounds for sex offenses, which she said is common practice for screening volunteers in churches and youth organizations.

“I think it’s a good idea for anybody who works with children,” she said.

Although they read from a stage during the event, the drag queen presenters later posed for pictures with children from the audience and distributed materials promoting LGBT causes in schools, Lippoldt said.

Lippoldt said another problem she had with the event was that it was promoted as a presentation for adults, but “when we got there we saw about 75 little kids.”

She also said most of the stories presented had underlying pro-LGBT and same-sex marriage-oriented themes.

“It wasn’t just reading Mary had a little lamb” she said. “As watched the program, I felt that it definitely was promoting the LGBT agenda and lifestyle.”

Berner said the proposed background checks represent unfinished business in implementing more general policy documents passed in March.

The general policies appeared to leave the library doors open to events like the drag queen story time.

“Decisions to provide programs will not be made on the basis of any anticipated approval or disapproval, but solely on the merits of the program in serving the interests of Library customers,” the earlier document said.