Around 9:30 a.m. on Tuesday the Highland Park library in St. Paul was veiled in rainbow colors and ringing with music by Elton John. Buttons were being passed out depicting a butterfly leaving a cocoon, and donuts were aplenty.
This wasn’t a typical morning at the local library. It was the preparation for something bigger.
A blue and pink sign read “Long Live Drag Queen Story Hour.” Kimmy Hull, founder of “Squeerity,” was present and carefully laid out instructions: no blocking the sidewalk and no hateful words — only love.
In recent weeks there have been protests at two St. Paul public libraries against Drag Story Hour, which are free events at the library in which entertainers in full costume and makeup read books to children, sometimes incorporating dancing and singing. Protesters here have called the performers “groomers” and “pedophiles.”
At a St. Paul city council meeting last week, librarians shared that they had received death threats from people claiming that they would dress like ninjas and beat the librarians to death if Drag Story Hour happened.
Previous protesters wore shirts and hats identifying themselves as members of the alt-right white-nationalist group, Proud Boys, according to the Pioneer Press. The Southern Poverty Law Center has designated the Proud Boys as a hate group.
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On Tuesday, the final of three story hours in St. Paul, no protesters showed. Instead, there was a joyful mood as dozens of supporters who showed up to protect kids and families at the event ended up getting to enjoy the show, too.
The performers of Drag Story Hour, Pedra Pepa (whose drag name is Doña Pepa), E Zimmer (whose drag name is Old Man Zimmer) and Sid Sity, said the protests at St Paul public libraries were the first time their event had been protested since 2018.
Prior to St. Paul, they hosted events in Minneapolis. Protesting of Drag Story Hour events aren’t Minnesota specific, they are occurring across the country as public libraries offer the event.
The group said they believe that the root of the protests is a lack of understanding about the programming and a bias against LGBTQ people. Their work with Drag Story Hour is intended to teach children friendship, consent, self-love and expression.
“It wasn’t until there was a small but vocal minority literally attacking who we are that the press started to care more. There’s this idea about queer stores that you have to be just a little bit sad or a little bit stressed out by who you are, but that’s not the case with Drag Story Hour … if you want to find inflammatory content, you literally cannot,” Zimmer said.
The recreation center filled with children and caregivers Tuesday as things kicked off at Drag Story Hour. Doña Pepa and Old Man Zimmer were the storytellers that day.
Beyond a typical story hour, Doña Pepa and Old Man Zimmer brought energy and excitement to the room with songs, dances and two readings — a book of their own about a whale nervous to leave home and “Can I Give You a Squish?” a children's book about consent.
At the end, balloons were thrown in the air and music played and Doña Pepa and Old Man Zimmer posed for photos with families.
While Sid Sity was not at Tuesday’s performance, they told MPR News that although Drag Story Hour is centered on children, it’s really for all ages.
“It’s about not isolating anyone, it’s about saying ‘well, you deserve this too.’ It’s really knocking down that wall to say we all deserve this … so to call us names and saying that we are abusing children, it’s all nonsense. This isn’t ‘the gay agenda.’ It’s never been like that, we’re always talking about life and friendship.”
Interim library director Barb Sporein said there has been a great demand for Drag Story Hour at St. Paul public libraries over the last few years. They hosted events with other performers in 2018 and 2019 with no protests.
Sporein said the event aligns with the library and city’s vision of feeling safe and welcome.
“It brings together the very traditional program of library story time and combines it with the performance art of drag. It is important to make sure we have programming that aligns with people's interests and their lived experiences,” she said.
Even with recent protests, it hasn’t deterred the number of attendees to Drag Story Hour.
Bridget O’Brien attended with her 2-year-old son and said the protests against Drag Story Hour were upsetting.
“It’s just ridiculous — we want to teach our kids acceptance and love and this does that,” she said.
Alison Grace went with her 4-year-old and 1-year-old and said she was happy to see things discussed that she talks about at home with her family.
“I love seeing stuff like this and having my kids see different people and not only accept and love themselves but also accept and love others who may be different from them,” she said.
And Pepa said that’s what Drag Story Hour is all about — empowerment to feel comfortable in your own skin.
“For a lot of people, this is a breath of fresh air because we did not get stuff like this while we were growing up. And now we get to do this and how cool is it that Minnesota is a welcoming environment for it?”
But Pepa said, it can also bring out the worst in people and invite protesters because it can be threatening to see people break out of stereotypes.
“We represent the freedom to be the full version of ourselves and live life fully and unapologetically,” they said.
The group will be hosting more programming this fall. More info can be found on the Drag Story Hour Facebook page.