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Drag queen story hour draws questions, controversy

Drag queen story hour draws questions, controversy

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A story hour featuring drag queen Dreama Bell, scheduled for Dec. 20 at Jessie Peterman Memorial Library and advertised in last week’s paper, was abruptly cancelled on Wednesday, Dec. 11 following a lack of “approval” from officials of the Montgomery-Floyd Regional Library system.

On Monday, Dec. 9, the event listing was submitted to the Floyd Press by PFLAG President Jim Best and Jessie Peterman Branch Manager Lori Kaluska. The event listing did not mention the story hour program being co-sponsored by the library. However, on Wednesday morning, Kaluska called the Press to request that the event listing be removed from the newspaper’s community calendar and any online editions or digital versions of the same, saying the event had not been properly approved.

According to Best and PFLAG treasurer Christina Alba, PFLAG’s impression at that point was that the event had been entirely cancelled. “Jim Best…sent me a text saying it was cancelled by someone higher up in the library or county,” Alba recounted. “The drag story time was actually hosted by the library itself…and it must have upset someone,” she said.

“I called Dreama, and I said, ‘We’ve been cancelled, and I don’t know the details,’” Best explained.

After the Floyd Press inquired via email into the reason behind the cancellation, Kaluska clarified that PFLAG would still be allowed to hold the story hour in the Community Room of the library, but it could not be advertised as a library-sponsored event. According to Kaluska, the library’s sponsorship of the event was cancelled after she spoke with the regional director of the library system, Karim Khan, who told Kaluska she hadn’t followed the proper procedure for event approval.

“This is my fault, because I didn’t know the chain of command in having this program,” Kaluska said, although she also said the library has cosponsored events with PFLAG in the past, such as a program on refugees and a collection of LGBTQ+-inclusive books for Jessie Peterman’s “Welcoming Library.”

“Apparently, in this case, I was not authorized to approve this program as a library program, and there was a chain of command that I had to go through, basically, in order to get this done,” Kaluska explained. “And I did not know.”

In a phone interview, Khan disputed the idea that any library programs could occur without approval of the library system’s Board of Trustees. “The event never came through the central office, and all programs have to come through the central office,” Khan said.

“Would the library have signed on as a co-sponsor of Drag Queen Story Time without discussing it with the Board of Trustees in advance of that decision? The answer to that is no,” Khan said. “It is my responsibility to keep the Board of Trustees informed on things that may affect future funding.”

Khan outlined a fear of political fallout from hosting such an event at the library. When asked whether he thought the public could distinguish between an event hosted by the library or merely in the library’s community room, Khan said there was an important distinction. “There is a distinction. We make the community rooms available as gathering spaces to facilitate the sharing of ideas, whether the information originates with the library, other governmental organizations, or community groups,” he said. “Permission to use the community rooms does not constitute an endorsement by the Board of Trustees of the group’s beliefs or policies.” Community rooms can be reserved for any not-for-profit group or event.

Khan contrasted this classification of events with events that would qualify for co-sponsorship by the library. “Library programming has a different policy. Library programs are used to draw attention to the library so people visit, check out materials and use our other services. There is a focus on enrichment, cultural awareness, entertainment and personal growth,” he said.

Khan also cited the timeline for planning the event as a potential obstacle to approval. “It got to the stage with some people thinking it was a library-sponsored program, that it probably shouldn’t have, because it turned around very quickly,” Khan said. According to Best, however, “I checked with Dreama Bell. Before our PFLAG (meeting) on Oct. 8, she and I confirmed with Lori Kaluska the date for the story time drag event. Lori and I had discussed a drag story time event months ago, as well.” Best did not indicate when Khan was notified of the event specifically.

Khan described how funding for the regional library system is approved by the Floyd and Montgomery County Boards of Supervisors, and said “the elected officials in the two counties are duly elected by the people…some of whom have publicly stated positions that may not always be in sympathy with what PFLAG has proposed.” Khan again emphasized the distinction between an event held in a library community room and one sponsored by the library. “(The distinction) is not minimal in the context of the thousands of community groups that use the rooms … in the course of a year,” Khan said. Events such as a drag queen story hour, Khan said, “have been very controversial” and “because it can affect your funding, you should really check with the board before you authorize it.”

Asked whether the approval process for co-sponsorship of events such as this essentially sought to protect the library’s Board of Trustees from the “liability of blame” should there be public criticism of the event, Khan responded, “Yeah…yes.” While people may still perceive endorsement because the event will be held inside the library, Khan said, no such endorsement officially exists.

“This is a complicated thing, because we can see that it’s created controversy…problems of protest, hurt feelings (and) funding,” Khan said.

Floyd PFLAG will hold its story hour event on Dec. 20 at 3 p.m. in the Community Room of the Jessie Peterman Memorial Library, now without the library’s sponsorship. According to Best, PFLAG is glad to have the space in the community room, but questions remain about why Kaluska could not decide to co-host the event on behalf of the library. “She said, it’s a public event, nobody is involved and the public is welcome to use the Community Room,” Best recalled. “She just explained that that’s where we were. I think she was put in some kind of grief.” He added, “I think she was tempering her language quite much, to say that somebody wasn’t happy at all.”

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