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 library’s head of children’s services, on June 17, 2022. (Eric Stone/KRBD)

Drag queen storytime is set to return to the Ketchikan Public Library this June as part of the library’s Pride Month festivities, according to the library’s director. It would be the library’s second time hosting a drag queen for a reading.

But Ketchikan’s city manager, who counts the library director among her employees, says no final decision has been made.

A popular but controversial event

Last June, the Ketchikan Public Library held its first-ever drag queen storytime to celebrate Pride Month. The event was so popular that the library had to add two additional readings to accommodate everyone who wanted to attend.

But the library’s decision to host a drag queen for storytime sparked weeks of debate among community members and elected officials. Opponents told the Ketchikan City Council, which oversees the library, that a drag queen reading was inappropriate for young children. Supporters said the event promoted self-acceptance.

Ketchikan’s city attorney penned a 10-page memo amid the debate over last year’s event saying that an attempt by the council to bar drag queen readings from the library could violate local, state and federal anti-discrimination protections. The June 2022 memo said that a policy barring drag queen readings from otherwise public library meeting rooms on the basis of the beliefs involved “could be found a violation of the constitutional rights of freedom of speech and association and equal protection under the law.”

The council ultimately voted 5-2 to allow the event to go forward as planned. And it was a hit: Ketchikan Public Library Director Pat Tully said at the time that she believed it was the most well-attended storytime in the library’s history.

But the backlash continued after the reading, and it spurred a ballot proposition aiming to defund Ketchikan’s library. The sponsor said the push was at least partly inspired by the drag queen reading

The measure was tied to a tax on rural residents, and only residents of the traditionally conservative precincts outside Ketchikan and Saxman city limits were eligible to vote. Still, voters ultimately rejected the proposal by a roughly 13-point margin.

A reversal

Planning for this year’s Pride celebration at the library started shortly after last year’s storytime event. But Tully said in a recent interview that earlier this year City Manager Delilah Walsh told her that the library should not play a direct role in hosting a drag queen storytime.

“It shouldn’t be something that the library sponsored, that it was totally fine, as any nonprofit group can come in and use the large meeting room … but that the library shouldn’t sponsor it.” 

As of Friday afternoon, Walsh had not addressed KRBD’s repeated requests to discuss internal deliberations surrounding drag queen storytime.

Tully said that by not sponsoring the event, Walsh hoped to address the concerns of people who opposed last year’s reading.

“I believe the idea was that the city needed to be responsive to the entire community, including those who felt had some concerns about a drag queen storytime,” Tully said.

That move prompted the Ketchikan Pride Alliance, a local LGBTQ education and outreach nonprofit, to send a letter to Walsh asking for an explanation. JD Martin is the group’s president.

“The Ketchikan Pride Alliance’s mission is to provide education, support and aid to the local LGBTQ community and their allies,” Martin said in an interview. “Our goal is to reduce conflict in the community. So when we heard about this, we thought it might be valuable for us to seek some clarification from the city manager.”

KRBD asked Walsh for a response on Wednesday. Walsh replied, asking for time to review the letter. Pressed for answers on Thursday, Walsh asked for additional time to review the letter and speak with the Pride Alliance about the organization’s questions.

On Friday morning, Tully said Walsh changed course and told her in a phone call that the library would, after all, be allowed to sponsor a story reading featuring a drag queen. 

“I got the word this morning that the Library can sponsor a Drag Queen Storytime this June,” Tully said in an email Friday. “We’ll have more information on the day and time soon.”

But late Friday afternoon, Walsh told KRBD in an email that no final decision had been made.

“I am still reviewing items back and forth as I have no final decision regarding this event. I’m working on a summary document now that outlines different aspects and opinions and I want to make an informed response and decision that is best for our organization and our community,” Walsh said. “The bottom line is that as an organization we are committed to equal treatment of all our citizens, which is clearly stated in our own Code under Chapter 9.08. I will keep you informed.”

Walsh confirmed Monday evening, after this story was published, that she had given Tully the green light but said she is still “researching the topic and gathering feedback.”

Tommy Varela-Kossak was the star of last year’s storytime, reading the book “The Hips on the Drag Queen Go Swish, Swish, Swish” as his drag alter-ego, Luna. Luna read from the book and led children through some simple dance moves — not unlike a traditional librarian-led storytime.

He said that events like drag queen storytimes are essential to supporting LGBTQ community members, especially children.

“We have students who are transgender and identifying as transgender in our elementary schools in Ketchikan, Alaska. We are doing a disservice if we don’t have events like this to show queer youth that there are queer adults here in town who are living lives, who are living successful lives, who are living happy lives,” he said. “Because that’s what happens when there’s not that representation for queer youth. They don’t see a future in which they can be happy.”

Martin, the Pride Alliance president, emphasized that a reading aimed at children would be very different from drag shows intended for adults.

“They will be typically wearing a big dress and lots of makeup. And it is in no way, you know, inappropriate for an audience. And then they read a story, again, an-age appropriate story,” Martin said.

“I think sometimes we forget that any form of art can be for children or for adults — like in the same way some books are for kids, and some are for adults,” she added.

Similar events have taken place at libraries in Juneau since 2017.

Library’s Pride events face heightened scrutiny

The city manager’s office does not typically seek to vet library programming, Tully said.

Though she said she’s pleased that a library-sponsored drag queen reading will be allowed to go forward, Martin said she’d like clarification on whether other city departments are required to submit their activities to the city manager’s office for approval. 

“It still seems unusual that the library is not allowed to create its own programming,” Martin said. “To my understanding, the library and the people who work there are experts in their field.”

Walsh did not respond to KRBD’s emailed questions on the subject.

The debate over Pride programming comes as policymakers have scrutinized LGBTQ programming in schools and other public institutions, especially programs targeted at children. A wave of legislation in states across the country has also sought to limit the rights of children to seek gender-affirming care or use public facilities corresponding to their gender identity.

At the state level, Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy recently introduced a bill that would bar transgender students from using restrooms that match their gender identities and would limit students’ ability to use their preferred names and pronouns in school without their parents’ permission. 

But Tully, the director, said the scrutiny from the city manager was understandable given the controversy over last year’s storytime.

“Naturally, they’re going to be more interested and concerned when something like that happens, rather than our normal slate of programs — which, you know, everybody says, ‘Oh, that’s really lovely, and we had a great time,’” Tully said. “This was more controversial, and so I think that’s where the city became more concerned.”

This story has been updated with comments from the city manager received after initial publication.