After weeks of heated debate, a drag queen read a book to children at Ketchikan’s public library for the first time

Guest reader Luna, left, performs a line from the book “The Hips on the Drag Queen Go Swish, Swish, Swish” alongside Amie Toepfer, manager of children’s services at the Ketchikan Public Library, June 17, 2022 (Eric Stone/ KRBD)

Children of all ages turned out for the Ketchikan Public Library’s first-ever drag queen story hour after city leaders refused to cancel the controversial event.

After weeks of heated debate, a drag queen named Luna sat down and read a book to children at the Ketchikan Public Library on Friday.

When she’s not being picked up, Luna goes by Tommy Varela-Kossak.

“I am a teacher in a public school. I think education is so important. And coming here and being able to do that accomplishes two things,” she said.

One, she says, is simply to entertain children.

“Kids can come in and have a great time and celebrate the pride, the people — kids who maybe have same-sex parents or gay uncles and aunts and so on,” she said. “But at the same time, I think it was an opportunity to prove that what we were doing was more than okay for anyone who thought it wasn’t.”

Children and parents turned out by the dozen for the event celebrating Pride Month. Library manager Pat Tully says the library had to add two more readings to accommodate everyone who wanted to come.

“I think it’s probably the greatest story we’ve ever had,” Tully said.

It almost didn’t happen. A firestorm erupted on social media when the library announced the reading. And twice, members of the city council tried to cancel story time, including a day before the event.

“The city should not promote or advocate for events whose purpose is to normalize gender fluidity in young children,” City Council member Riley Gass said at a meeting Thursday, the day before story time. He asked the council to stop the reading from moving forward.

Residents thronged the council chamber to deliver nearly two hours of testimony on the issue. It was split almost evenly between supporters and opponents.

But the board ultimately rejected the request to cancel the event in a 5-2 vote. City council member Judy Zenge said she didn’t buy Gass’ argument.

“If you’re worried that seeing a bit of glitter will change your child sexually, then yes, you should probably stay home,” she said. “I’m not going to support this because I think it’s very discriminatory. And I’m really embarrassed to be sitting here knowing that we have to deal with this.

Other council members, including Janalee Gage and Mark Flora, said they weren’t sure the city could legally prevent the event from taking place. In a 10-page memo, the city attorney said canceling the event could violate a local non-discrimination ordinance, the state’s civil rights law and the First Amendment.

Back at the library, four police officers, including the chief of police, joined story-time supporters who stood guard as attendees entered.

Kindergarten teacher Rebecca King stood outside the front door with an umbrella ready.

“We’re just here in case there’s shouting and shouting to use our umbrellas to help protect children from protesters,” she said. “But so far it’s been lovely and peaceful.”

And it stayed that way. The most visible opposition was a lone protester, Sam Ryan, who stood alone with a sign bearing a handwritten Bible verse.

“I express my dissatisfaction with the decision of the city council last night,” he said.

Children and parents who showed up at the event gave rave reviews. Inessa Kapralova, 14, says Luna looked stunning in her rhinestone-studded purple dress and platinum blonde wig.

“I’m jealous of her makeup – it was 10 times better than I could ever do,” she said.

Kailani Clevenger, 12, says it was her first time seeing a drag queen.

“I loved how open they were about how you could be anything you wanted to be,” she said.

Kailani’s younger brother Kinyon Clevenger, 10, was also a fan.

“My favorite part was how everyone was saying they didn’t want people to go there and then she ended up having to do story time three times,” he said. “That was my favorite part.”

Although story time is over, the backlash continues: there’s a brewing campaign to get a proposal to cut library funding in the municipal ballot this fall. The Ketchikan assembly will consider the issue on Monday, but supporters of the funding cut have pledged to pursue a citizens’ initiative if the assembly does not act.

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