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In Chester, a library’s hesitation to host Drag Queen Story Hour sparks controversy, The Pizza Stone picks up event

By Ethan Weinstein/VTDigger

After the trustees of Chester’s Whiting Library decided to “pause” hosting Drag Queen Story Hour, the library’s director resigned and community members have voiced frustration.

Meanwhile, a local restaurant has agreed to host the event instead.

“Drag queen story hours” were launched by author Michelle Tea and RADAR Productions, a queer literary arts organization, in San Francisco in 2015. The idea has since spread, with events taking place in big cities as well as rural towns across America. A nonprofit headquartered in New York even offers curricula, training and resources to local chapters.

By Glenn Russell/VTDigger
Nikki Champagne (left) and Emoji Nightmare (right) read during a drag queen story hour at the Kellogg-Hubbard Library in Montpelier in 2019.

The events are simple: Drag queens read children’s books to kids. In Vermont, the readings have been led by drag queens Emoji Nightmare (Justin Marsh, director of communications and development at The Pride Center VT) and Nikki Champagne (Rep. Taylor Small, P/D-Winooski). Together, they have held readings across the state, from Cambridge to Brattleboro and many towns in between.

Earlier this month, the trustees of the Chester Library decided to pause hosting the story hour with little explanation. At a subsequent special board of trustees meeting on Thursday, May 19, trustee Robert Nied said the board’s decision came after discovering an image on the performers’ website that “compared a naked woman to a garbage dumpster and included the suggestion that she was a vessel for bodily fluids.”

He suggested a parent or child could Google the performers and come across the image.

“It was highly inappropriate to be associated with anybody making a presentation at a children’s program,” he said.

On Thursday, the trustees also voted unanimously to accept the resignation of library director Deirdre Doran, which she submitted last week. She will work through the end of June.

The board did not indicate why Doran resigned. However, Nied said that Doran voiced her disapproval of the decision to pause the story hour before she submitted her resignation.

Doran did not respond to requests for comment by phone and email this week.

At Thursday’s meeting, attendees expressed their frustration with the trustees’ decision to pause hosting the story hour, and the role the trustees played in Doran’s resignation.

By Glenn Russell/VTDigger
Nikki Champagne and Emoji Nightmare stand up and twirl around with audience members during a past drag queen story hour at the Kellogg-Hubbard Library in Montpelier.

“To think that (the story hour) immediately needs to get vetted because they are drag queens, that’s where some of the concern comes from from the community,” Chester resident Linda Diak said at the meeting. She and others suggested the trustees had applied special scrutiny to the event due to its connection to the LGBTQ+ community.

Nied suggested the issue was connected to “what the news likes to call ‘the culture wars.’”

“This whole board supports — with our increased programming — programming for the LGBT community,” he said.

Marsh, who planned to perform alongside Katniss Everqueer at Chester’s drag queen story hour as Emoji Nightmare and whose musical album was associated with the explicit image, dismissed the controversy as misguided.

“I think in this situation, it is clear board overreach,” Marsh said. “When we are reading stories to people in libraries, or bookstores, or wherever we may be, we tweak our persona to be most appropriate for the audience.”

“I don’t know what 6-year-old is looking at my website, but more power to them if they are,” they said.

Drag Queen Story Hour is no stranger to controversy. In 2019, a reading in Montpelier spurred angry comments to the Kellogg-Hubbard Library after a conservative commentator urged followers to voice their “disgust” to the library.

The event went smoothly.

Marsh said it’s typical for libraries to receive some initial blowback after announcing drag queen story hours, and they provide resources on how to handle the attention.

“And then the event happens, a lot of people show up, everything is lovely, and the world moves on. That’s the typical cycle,” they said.

Since Marsh and Small started the Vermont chapter of Drag Queen Story Hour five years ago, they’ve tried to target rural communities like Chester, where LGBTQ+ programming may be less accessible to residents.

Most of the material they read does not address queer themes, Marsh said, though some does. Recently, they began reading “Bodies Are Cool” by Tyler Feder, a book promoting body positivity.

“I think we’re opening doors to a lot of families who otherwise don’t access their local libraries,” Marsh said.

After hearing about Chester’s library’s hesitation, The Pizza Stone, a restaurant in Chester, plans to host the reading on next Saturday, June 4.

Darlene Doane, who owns The Pizza Stone, said the decision to host Drag Queen Story Hour was a no-brainer.  “I wouldn’t turn that away in a heartbeat,” she said. “It’s a very positive, wonderful thing to present.”

Celebrating the town’s diverse community is a worthy cause, Doane said.

“I mean, yes, it’s a small, sleepy town, Chester,” Doane said. “But you know, we’re not under a rock, either.”

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