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The role models

Evansville's Drag Queen Story Hour shapes a new normal



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Evansville families in the North Park library listen to Florintine Dawn read "The Very Hungry Caterpillar" on Feb. 23. The reading was part of the city’s first Drag Queen Story Hour. Photo courtesy of Isaiah Seibert, WNIN News Buy Photos

EVANSVILLE, Ind. — Before police arrived with the horses and the armored vehicle, before the protesters gathered with their signs and prepared their hearts, before the Warriors for Christ assembled the loudspeakers, Owen Jackson rose before dawn and pulled seven layers of pantyhose onto his slim legs.

He slid on his hip pads, clasped his bra. He wriggled into the dress his friend sewed for the occasion. He painted his face, just like his drag mother Mysti and friend DeeDee and others taught him. They were his role models, and he wanted to make them proud.

He snapped together his magnetic earrings, which didn’t hurt as much as usual. Finally, he emerged as Florintine Dawn.

Florintine Dawn was a local headliner of Drag Queen Story Hour, at once an innocuous library program for kids and a polarizing national spectacle. Much of America, it seemed, had an opinion about Drag Queen Story Hour, and after months of broiling debate, it was finally, this afternoon, coming to Evansville Vanderburgh Public Library’s North Park branch.

The self-described humble queen didn’t talk about the symbol he would become. The library and drag community had guarded his identity for several months, fearful for Owen’s safety. Then, just the day before, the Evansville Courier & Press ran an article about Owen, and his name suddenly filled newsstands and timelines.

Everyone knew the slight, twangy man on the cusp of Millennial and Gen Z they’d been arguing over. At 23, he worked as a chef, dabbled in photography and took the time to measure the water when he made macaroni.

But he didn’t seem too concerned about his growing fame. He said it over and over again. Everybody’s opinion mattered just as much as his, and he was no better than anyone else. He was just ready to watch everything unfold.

Miles away, clouds kept the parking lot next door to the library dark and cold.

Pastor Cathy West began the prayer, the hood of her long black coat framing light hair and smiling eyes. It was the 40th day that a group of Christians set up outside the library to pray for the children of the community, for government officials, for a roadblock in this path away from God.

From San Francisco to New York, and from Huntington Woods, Michigan, to Lafayette, Louisiana, drag performers were scheduled to read stories to children. In San Francisco, they had been for three years. Recently, however, where Drag Queen Story Hour could be found, so too could protesters with signs about gender confusion, child abuse and the Bible.

In late summer, locals caught on to the national trend and asked the Evansville library if their city could be next in line. They wanted their children to see the people promised by the national Drag Queen Story Hour organization’s mission statement: “glamorous, positive, and unabashedly queer role models.”

Library officials brought it to the board of trustees. After lengthy discussion, all seven members approved, so library staff put the event on the library calendar for Feb. 23.

The Evansville Courier & Press first reported about the event in December 2018 and sparked a battle that played out on social media, at public meetings and in the homes and hearts of families.

Library board members were replaced. A city councilman posted a petition against the event on his Facebook page. A county commissioner threatened to pull library funding.

On all levels of Evansville community life, people felt the weight of Drag Queen Story Hour. They asked themselves who they wanted their children’s role models to be and who they wanted their city’s role models to be.

Drag Queen Story Hour attendees look toward the doors of the Evansville Vanderburgh Public Library’s North Park branch Feb. 23. To get to the entryway, they had to pass through a walkway lined on one side with supporters and on the other side with protesters. James Keys Buy Photos

Four days to showtime

A young couple perused wall hangings reading “home sweet farmhouse” and “blessed” when Owen and a couple friends triggered the automatic doors of Joann Fabrics and Crafts.

Owen wore a royal blue hoodie with gray joggers and black Nike tennis shoes. Few could guess at the glamour he could model with just a few yards of new fabric and friend Erin Tomlinson’s expert seamstress hand.

He checked his phone. Fifteen messages. It wouldn’t stop any time soon for Evansville’s reading queen.

The crew hurried to the fabric section. Owen ran his fingers along the mermaid sequined mesh on an endcap. He wanted something bright, flashy, pink. OK, maybe not pink. But definitely something the kids would love. Blue and pink. Yes, that’s it. It would make a perfect poncho.

To wear with a tube skirt? No, a dress. Owen made decisions on the fly, and Erin ran with the changes. She would finish the dress by Friday night.

Owen and Erin weaved in and out of aisles, past princess and cosplay fabrics, tugging on pieces to test stretch. Florintine needed to be able to do the Hokey Pokey in this outfit.

“What about this?” Owen asked Erin, pointing to a blue performance fabric. “Does that look cute?”

“I don’t like it together.”

"OK, there you go,” Owen said. “Put it back because I’m not the one that people are gonna be judging.”

“You are,” Erin said. “You are the one people are gonna be judging.”

Owen ended up with a fabric called Cotton Candy Tie Dye Mystique. Silver flecks made the blue, pink and purple shine. It would make Florintine shine.

Local protesters present signs in opposition to Evansville’s Drag Queen Story Hour on Feb. 23. Some members of the group had attended board and council meetings for months, speaking against the program. James Keys Buy Photos

Two days to showtime

E is for Everyone. This is Evansville’s young branding initiative, an effort to foster community involvement, celebrate the region and improve perceptions of the city. It’s something a visitor might notice advertised on billboards, shop windows and lamppost banners — those universal Main Street emblems of pride.

“Either ‘E is for Everyone’ or it isn't,” Reverend Kevin Fleming of First Presbyterian Church and Rabbi Gary Mazo of Temple Adath B’nai Israel wrote in a Jan. 26 letter to the editor. “Drag Queens and Drag Kings count — they are part of everyone. The LGBTQ community counts as part of everyone.”

This letter came after the January library board meeting during which local drag king Brock Harder entered the ring, emphasizing that any parent who does not wish for their child to participate in Drag Queen Story Hour need not attend.

“I have been an LGBTQ entertainer in Evansville for the past six years,” Brock spoke into the microphone. “And I'm the one the people in this room hate.”

The crowd’s audible disapproval met his words in a disjunction between semantics and denial.

“I want you to know we don’t hate you,” a member of the opposition told Brock after the meeting.

“But when people said hateful things, you cheered for them,” Brock responded.

Brock said decent conversation followed, but the two could not agree.

Brock descended into the basement parking lot. It was gray. He was alone.

Until that moment, he had never worried for his safety. Now he did.

On the February afternoon when the library board met downtown again, the E is for Everyone lamppost banners by the Ford Center were coming down, and the Ohio Valley Conference Basketball Championship banners were going up.

A woman donning a red Trump shirt hidden by a jacket with cats on it parked her walker just inside the central library doors and asked two college students chatting against the wall if she could tell them something.

Brenda Bergwitz had received word that people from Westboro Baptist Church would descend Saturday on Evansville, and she wanted the young women to be careful. She said she didn’t care what side of the debate they were on.

“If they come, we got your back.” She hugged them both. “I love you.”

The woman returned to her walker. She grasped her copy of "Prayers That Avail Much," the book that stimulates her memory and helps her to pray when she’s unsure how.

She scrolled through Facebook, where in early February, she posted photos of drag performers as an example of the people on the other side of the debate, with what she deemed degenerate sexual personae and child-inappropriate behavior. One photo showed Brock’s most recent Halloween character — a bloody butcher meant for an adult show — taken out of context to achieve maximum fear.

“Is this the kind of role model you want to see in Evansville?” she wrote.

The Facebook post started a feud among the friends of both parties, in the comments section and in direct messages, leaving Brock drenched in tears on his lunch break.

Brock, wearing his “We are all human” shirt and a black vest, pushed through the library doors.

He joined the flow of about 100 people pouring into the event room to address the board. He turned in his form requesting a chance to speak. It seemed everyone had something to say, except Owen. He distanced himself from all of it and left town with friends that night.

The board announced only five people would be allowed to speak. The public forum would last no more than 15 minutes. The crowd, seated under what felt like 25 individual spotlights, collectively squirmed. Which side would get three voices?

The first spoke in opposition. The second, a Catholic junior at Reitz Memorial High School, thanked the director for supporting diverse programming. If there is an opposite of thank, that’s what the third speaker did. The fourth received a standing ovation from a few people holding rainbow flags.

The teams were tied.

Kirt Ethridge stood up, walked to the microphone and adjusted it. Kirt described experience working in education, cited scholarship from the University of Nebraska, lauded E is for Everyone and literacy campaigns and then told a personal story.

“When I was a child, growing up, going to North Park library, I knew that I was queer. But I did not see myself reflected in the adults around me, and I did not see myself reflected in diverse storytelling,” Kirt said. “I cannot imagine how much sooner I would have let go of my self-hatred, how much sooner I would have accepted myself, if I had been able to go to an event such as Drag Queen Story Hour.”

Kirt thanked the library. End of public forum.

Kirt said that night what so many members of the local LGBTQ community thought. They wished they would have grown up with role models in whom they could see a reflection. They wanted the kids of today to know there was hope for the future. That’s what Drag Queen Story Hour symbolized. That’s what was at stake.

At the close of regular business, newly appointed board member Richard Clements made a motion.

“In light of the discussion that’s gone forth today, I move that the Evansville Public Library withdraw personnel, direct support, marketing and promotions for the Drag Queen Story Hour.”

Those in opposition to the event hooted and clapped. They distinguished themselves by wearing “My Voice Matters” stickers.

Would anyone second the motion?

One. Two. Three. Four. Five seconds. Silence grew progressively louder.

Six. Seven. Eight. Nine. Ten seconds. No board member seconded the motion.

Those in support erupted. Drag Queen Story Hour would go on.

Supporters of Evansville’s Drag Queen Story Hour greet families as they enter the library Feb. 23. Loren Harrison, who dressed as Cinderella, knew her daughter was already safe inside. Rob Zaricki, who dressed as Jesus, knew his stepfather was on the opposing side of the barricade. James Keys Buy Photos

Showtime

Brock and his partner Brooke leaned against the North Park library wall. Brock pointed out the palomino police horse mounted at the bottom of the hill.

To their right, a plastic orange barricade ran along both sides of the sidewalk leading into the library. It divided supporters and protesters along ideological lines and ensured attendees could get into the library with minimal impediment.

As fellow event supporters arrived, in their rainbow tights and pink pussy hat and Cinderella costume, Brock laid out the rules. Folks on this side were welcome to offer words of encouragement to families entering the library, but they were not to engage with the opposition. Especially not the bullhorn-bearing men from out of town.

On the other side of the barricade, a middle-aged woman instructed those in attendance to pull up “Glory Glory Hallelujah.” She wanted everyone to sing it together.

Near the impromptu choir director was Mary Shetler, one of the relative few young people in the section of locals opposed to Drag Queen Story Hour. She looked at the cluster of men set up on a patch of concrete, front and center of the library. One man held a sign that read, “Homo sex is sin.” Shetler wanted people to know that her group didn’t want them, the out-of-towners, there. Nobody did.

The people around Mary, for the most part, didn’t shout. And they had their own signs, ones about protecting children and opposing a program, not a people.

Most were reticent when members of the media asked questions, allowing the signs to speak for them. They wore on their chests and lifted above their heads individual reasons for attending the protest. Taken together, they sang a discordant chorus: "Cancel Drag Queen Story Hour. Adult entertainment is not for children. Not in the library, not in school. Protect the innocent. Sodomites want our children. No drag queens in our libraries. Stop sexualizing children. Jesus Christ saves. Sad day."

Men from out of town engage in quiet prayer before the start of Evansville, Indiana's first Drag Queen Story Hour on Feb. 23. Later that morning, they shouted Bible interpretations and insults through megaphones. James Keys Buy Photos

“Westboro, go home!” someone shouted from the support side. Westboro wasn’t actually there, but that was the vibe. Heads pivoted in the direction of the voice.

“No,” several supporters corrected the person. “We’re staying quiet.”

Many feared a physical altercation. They swallowed their fear as a family came through.

“Good morning,” the supporters cheered. “Have fun!”

Brock’s partner Brooke helped escort a family past the speakers, children in tiny pink jackets bouncing. The woman with them paused at the barrier on the side of support, tears welling. She thanked them. She pushed the door open, children trailing.

As Brooke continued escorting people, one shouting man encroached until he was inches from her. Among other insults, he called her an “it.” Perhaps it was her short hair that triggered the dehumanizing speech. She asked nearby officers if he could harass her like that. No, he could not.

A small mobile speaker at the front of the support barricade played Sara Bareilles’s “Brave.” Those nearby danced and sang along. A little girl dressed as Cinderella waltzed up the sidewalk and toward the door. Her mother, also dressed as Cinderella to greet children as they entered, ducked under the barricade and curtsied. She walked her daughter through the doors.

The two groupings of visiting street preachers drowned each other out in one oppositional, chaotic garble.

As the top of a high schooler's giant pride flag brushed the bottom branches of a tree, a man dressed as Jesus carried a rainbow sign through the crowd. His stepfather was on the other side of the barricade.

Inside the library, just before 10 a.m., Florintine Dawn stood tall in her shimmering dress and poncho. She beamed and waved her way into the room. The windows were blacked out. Music masked the speakers outside. Babies and toddlers squirmed. This was the moment.

“Let me tell ya, Florintine is happy to have you all here today,” she said. “Is it cloudy outside?”

The crowd offered up a few affirmatives.

“Yeah?” Florintine said. “Well, it’s sunny in here.”

First up, the Hokey Pokey. Florintine, parents, grandparents, pre-teens and tiny babies alike spun themselves around and clapped.

“You do the Hoookey Pokey! You do the Hoookey Pokey! You do the Hoookey Pokey! That’s what it’s all about!”

Back outside, a sign: "Adult entertainment is not for children."

Florintine announced the first book, "The Very Hungry Caterpillar," and several children gasped. They’d heard this story at home, at grandma’s house, in preschool. And they loved it, just like Florintine had loved it when she was little.

When the caterpillar transformed into a butterfly and flew away, everyone cheered.

"Protect the innocent. "

“Alrighty, let’s do another song. We’re gonna do a song called Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes.”

A louder gasp this time. This song, used to help children exercise and learn the parts of the body, predated many of the parents in the room. It was a classic.

"No drag queens in our libraries. "

Everyone said goodnight to the cow jumping over the moon, the red balloon, the kittens and the mittens. They didn’t like the mice or the mush. They said goodnight to the air and to noises everywhere.

"Stop sexualizing children. "

Florintine ended the storytime with the Freeze Dance and "Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?"

“Thank y’all for coming out to today’s spectacular event,” Florintine said. “Y’all made history.”

The room filled with cheer.

"Sad day. "

Drag Queen Story Hour lasted only 20 minutes. It would happen three more times that morning, accommodating about 275 people, turning away more than 150 for lack of time and space.

Some attendees filed out to craft tables and the toy-filled children’s tower. If it weren’t for the high-schooler twirling a giant rainbow flag and the person in a colorful dress and pigtails playing pattycake with a couple toddlers through the window, those children may have been distracted by the loudspeakers that traveled so far to be unwanted by almost everyone in the community.

At the end of the third reading, a toddler in a pink shirt dragged a stuffed dog to the window of the children’s tower. All along the window, supporters were lined up to block the children’s view of the dissonance and ugliness outside. The girl walked her toy dog across the length of the wall, greeting each person. As the toy pup danced, barks boomed from the nearby K-9 unit.

Soon enough, families, supporters, protesters and the police trickled away. Aside from some trampled plants, the library returned to normal. The community, however, did not. There is a new normal.

Those who fought for acceptance that day left the grounds leaking love. In more than one ear, the street preachers’ insults rang. More than one eye couldn’t stay dry.

The library has not yet scheduled another story hour, but those with “My Voice Matters” stickers and those in rainbow regalia have continued to show up at library board meetings to voice opinions on the event.

Kid-friendly drag shows, like the one scheduled for March 28, will continue at Lamasco Bar & Grill. Likewise, Brock will continue to work with groups like STAGEtwo Productions to plan future drag story hours, like the one that happened March 23.

And inside, the kids will continue to stand up and dance along to favorites like the Hokey Pokey.

IDS reporter Emily Miles passed around a notebook at the Feb. 23 Drag Queen Story Hour in Evansville, Indiana, for attendees to write what they saw, thought and felt. This is a selection of the responses. Emily Miles Buy Photos

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