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, acts out a line from the book “The Hips on the Drag Queen Go Swish, Swish, Swish” alongside Amie Toepfer, the Ketchikan Public Library’s head of children’s services, on June 17, 2022. (Eric Stone/ KRBD)

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

After weeks of heated debate, a drag queen named Luna sat down and read a book to children at Ketchikan’s public library on Friday.

When she’s not in drag, Luna goes by Tommy Varela-Kossak.

“I’m a public school teacher. I think education is so important. And to come down here and be able to do this accomplishes two things,” she said.

One, she says, is simply to entertain kids.

“Kids get to come in and have a great time and celebrate Pride, people — kids who maybe have same-sex parents or gay uncles and aunts, etc.,” she said. “But at the same time, I think it was an opportunity to prove what we were doing is more than okay to all those people who thought it wasn’t.”

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

“This, I think, is probably the biggest storytime 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 the storytime — including a day before the event.

“The city should not be promoting or advocating for events where the goal is to normalize gender fluidity in young children,” said City Council Member Riley Gass at a meeting on Thursday, the day before the storytime event was scheduled. I have asked the council to prevent the reading from going forward.

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

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

“If you’re that worried that seeing a bit of glitter’s going to 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 really am 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 going forward. In a 10-page memo, the city’s attorney said canceling the event could violate a local nondiscrimination ordinance, state civil rights law and the First Amendment.

Back at the library, four police officers, including the police chief joined storytime supporters standing guard as attendees filed in.

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

“We’re just here in case there’s yelling and shouting to use our umbrellas to help shield kids from the protestors,” 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 by himself with a sign bearing a handwritten Bible verse.

“I am expressing my displeasure with the City Council’s decision last night,” he said.

Kids and parents who showed up for the event gave rave reviews. Fourteen-year-old Inessa Kapralova says Luna looked beautiful in her purple rhinestone-studded dress and platinum-blonde wig.

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

Twelve-year-old Kailani Clevenger says it was her first time ever seeing a drag queen.

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

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

“My favorite part was how everyone was saying they don’t want people going there, and then she ends up having to do the storytime three times,” he said. “That was my favorite part.”

Though storytime is over, the backlash continues: there’s a brewing campaign to get a proposal to cut the library’s funding on the municipal ballot this fall. Ketchikan’s assembly will consider the issue on Monday, but supporters of the funding cut have vowed to pursue a citizen initiative if the assembly fails to act.

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