CONWAY — Monday's meeting of the Conway Public Library Trustees drew a crowd of 100 or so people, most of whom came to express support for the Drag Queen Story Hour, scheduled to take place next week as part of White Mountains Pride Week and Festival.
Drag Queen Story Hour will take place June 28 at 10 a.m. in the Ham Community Room of the library at 15 Greenwood Ave., Conway Village. It is limited to adults accompanied by children. Tickets will be distributed on the morning of the event. Ticket holders can enter the room at 9:30 a.m.
Monday's trustees meeting, normally in the downstairs Ham Room, was shifted to the bigger periodicals room on the main floor of the library.
"A few more people than usual, and I think we know why," said trustees chairman Peter Innes.
At the outset of the meeting, Innes read a one-page statement in response to complaints the library had received about the story hour.
The statement included a reaffirmation of the board's Code of Ethics (to "sustain the core freedoms of our democracy ... by providing equal access to a broad diversity of viewpoints"); Library Use Policy (service will not be denied "because of religious racial, social, economic or political status, disability, age or sexual orientation"); and Vision Statement ("Responding to the diverse needs of our community).
It concluded by saying, "It is the library director's job to determine what programs are offered, and to do so by following the guidelines set in place by the board of trustees. The board of trustees has found this program to be in compliance with the policies and procedures adopted by this board."
The statement was approved by the trustees 6-0. Trustee Tim Westwig walked into the meeting late and was not present for the vote.
After reading from the statement, the trustees took comments from about two dozen people. Among the first to speak was Christopher Bellis of North Conway, a co-organizer of White Mountains Pride.
"White Mountains Pride is about celebrating diversity within our community," said Bellis. "In celebrating our differences, we send the message to our children that being different is OK and they don't have to feel that they need to conform to some outside standard or stereotype."
But Daniel Yule of Madison said drag queens are adult performers and that the drag queen community is made up of sexually "dissatisfied" men who are "exploring new sexualities." He also said the drag queen community has a "rampant problem with pedophilia."
Bellis, however, noted that "performing as a drag queen — whether they are male, female, transgender or another gender, it really has nothing to do with their sexuality, and it has no bearing on the audience they are entertaining."
In terms of story hour, he said, they want "to help encourage children to read, to help encourage the ideas and concepts of diversity and inclusion."
Shana Aisenberg, who described herself as a transgender woman, said she supports the story hour.
"I wish there were programs like it when I was a child — I might have figured out myself a little quicker that way," she said, adding, "I have met many people who are drag queens who are amazing people."
The religious aspect became a heated topic.
Jim Hrdlicka said according to the Bible, God created male and female — "that's all. It also says in this book we ought to speak to one another and behave lovingly to one another; however, if you see somebody going in the wrong direction and not playing by this book, in love we ought to admonish them and in love we are to say, 'get help.'"
Priest Dan Weir of Christ Episcopal Church in North Conway and Center Conway United Methodist Church had a totally different take.
"I have to say as a longtime Episcopalian, we have been guilty of making our gay, lesbian, transgender, queer members very, very ashamed of themselves," said Weir.
"My concern about this whole wonderful and perhaps fortuitous controversy is that what we need to say to the children of this valley is this is a safe place to be themselves.'"
A speaker named Hayley, who introduced herself as a 27-year-old bisexual mother of two children, said one of her best friends is a "drag king" and her friend wouldn't want to visit the valley because of the angry Facebook comments about drag queens.
She added she spent much of her childhood at the library, which was an inclusive space for her.
"I don't see God's name in this building, and I don't think God needs to be in my children's life if that's not what I want," said Hayley. "I feel my community's problem with Drag Queen Story Hour is that their religion doesn't comprehend it."
Several parents said they were in full support of the Drag Queen Story Hour.
Vincent Dude, holding one of his five children, thanked the trustees for allowing him to show his children it doesn't matter how someone dresses or looks but, rather, how people treat each other.
"If someone wants to read a story to my kid, he's going to be psyched, it's one of his favorite things," said Dude. "I'm not scared. I'm not worried."
But Deborah Hrdlicka of Glen, who said she had worked 30 years as a child psychotherapist and childhood educator, said, "It's totally inappropriate for a drag queen to be associated with children in any way shape or form."
Conway School Board member Cheri Sullivan, speaking for herself, and state Rep. Ed Butler (D-Hart's Location) both spoke in favor of the upcoming event.
A person named Rio, who identified as "trans non-binary," said some young people who question their gender may feel alienated at times and that impacts their mental health. They called for more open conversations about gender.
Pediatrician Rich Laracy said diversity needs to be promoted and there are young children in his practice who are homosexual, bisexual and transgender.
"Some of them have told me they realized they are homosexual or transgender at a very early age (and) they wish that they could have come out earlier," said Laracy, adding that Drag Queen Story Hour is an opportunity to let all children feel accepted.
Licensed clinical social worker Jen Bella said she feels story hour is a "lovely opportunity" and said gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans people are hurt by "hateful comments and judgments."
Former library trustee Stacy Sand said at Christmas time she dresses as Santa and reads stories to children about animals at Conway Area Humans Society.
"I know that because Santa has a beard, Santa is considered a male, which I guess then I'm reading stories in drag, so it's not the first time it's been done in the valley," said Sand. "I just wanted to point out a lot of us wear costumes to create joy."