Around 9:30 a.m. Tuesday, the Highland Park Library in St. Paul was shrouded in rainbow colors and blaring music by Elton John. Buttons were distributed depicting a butterfly leaving a cocoon, and donuts were plentiful.
It was not a typical morning at the local library. It was preparation for something bigger.
A blue and pink sign read “Long Live Drag Queen Story Hour.” Kimmy Hull, founder of “Squeerity,” was on hand and carefully laid out the instructions: no blocking the sidewalk and no hateful words – just love.
In recent weeks, there have been protests at two St. Paul public libraries against Drag Story Hour, which are free events at the library in which performers in full costume and makeup read books to children, sometimes incorporating dancing and singing. Protesters here have called the artists “healers” and “paedophiles”.
At a St. Paul City Council meeting last week, librarians said they had received death threats from people claiming they would dress like ninjas and beat librarians to death if Drag Story Hour happened.
According to Pioneer Press, previous protesters wore shirts and hats identifying themselves as members of the far-right white nationalist group, Proud Boys. The Southern Poverty Law Center has designated the Proud Boys as a hate group.
Tuesday, the final of the three hours of the tale in Saint-Paul, no demonstrator showed up. Instead, there was a joyful atmosphere as dozens of supporters who showed up to protect children and families at the event were also able to enjoy the spectacle.
Drag Story Hour performers Pedra Pepa (whose drag name is Doña Pepa), E Zimmer (whose drag name is Old Man Zimmer) and Sid Sity said protests at St Paul’s public libraries were the first time their event had been protested since 2018.
Prior to St. Paul, they held events in Minneapolis. Protests against Drag Story Hour events are not specific to Minnesota, they happen across the country as public libraries offer the event.
The group said it believed the root of the protests was a lack of understanding of programming and a bias against LGBTQ people. Their work with Drag Story Hour aims to teach children about friendship, consent, self-love and self-expression.
“It wasn’t until there was a small but vocal minority literally attacking who we are that the press started to care more. There’s this idea about queer stores that you have to be just a little sad or a little stressed about who you are, but that’s not the case with Drag Story Hour…if you want to find incendiary content, you don’t literally can’t,” Zimmer says.
The recreation center filled with children and carers on Tuesday as things got underway at Drag Story Hour. Doña Pepa and Old Man Zimmer were the storytellers that day.
Beyond a typical story hour, Doña Pepa and Old Man Zimmer brought energy and excitement to the room with songs, dances and two readings – a book about a nervous whale at the idea of leaving the house and “Can I Give You a Squish?” a children’s book about consent.
At the end, balloons were tossed in the air and music played and Doña Pepa and Old Man Zimmer posed for photos with the families.
While Sid Sity wasn’t at Tuesday’s performance, they told MPR News that although Drag Story Hour is centered around kids, it really is for all ages.
“It’s about not isolating anyone, it’s about saying ‘well, you deserve it too. It’s really tearing down that wall to say we all deserve this…so insulting ourselves and saying we’re abusing children is bullshit. This is not the “gay agenda”. It’s never been like this, we always talk about life and friendship.
Acting Library Director Barb Sporein said there has been a strong demand for Drag Story Hour at St. Paul public libraries over the past few years. They held events with other artists in 2018 and 2019 without any protest.
Sporein said the event aligns with the library’s and the city’s vision of feeling safe and welcome.
“It brings together the very traditional library storytime curriculum and combines it with the performance art of drag. It’s important to make sure we have programs that match people’s interests and lived experiences,” she said.
Even with the recent protests, that hasn’t deterred the number of Drag Story Hour attendees.
Bridget O’Brien attended with her 2-year-old son and said the protests against Drag Story Hour were heartbreaking.
“It’s just ridiculous – we want to teach our children about acceptance and love and this does that,” she said.
Alison Grace went with her 4-year-old and 1-year-old children and said she was happy to see things she talks about at home with her family.
“I love seeing things like this and seeing my kids see different people and not only accepting and loving themselves, but also accepting and loving others who may be different from them,” she said. .
And Pepa said that was Drag Story Hour – the empowerment to feel good about yourself.
“For a lot of people it’s a breath of fresh air because we didn’t have stuff like that growing up. And now we can do that and how cool is Minnesota be a welcoming environment for that?
But Pepa said it can also bring out the worst in people and invite protesters, as it can threaten to see people step out of stereotypes.
“We represent the freedom to be the full version of ourselves and to live fully and shamelessly,” they said.
The group will host more programming this fall. More information can be found here: https://www.facebook.com/dragstoryhour