A display at the Ketchikan Public Library celebrating Pride Month in June 2022. (Eric Stone/KRBD)

The Ketchikan Public Library will not host another drag queen storytime as part of its Pride Month programming. That’s according to Ketchikan’s city manager, who recently reversed course and canceled the event, citing the public’s response to last year’s reading.

Ketchikan City Manager Delilah Walsh told the mayor and City Council in an email dated April 17 that drag queen storytime would not return for a second year.

“As the chief administrative officer for the City, I am ultimately responsible for all operations of the organization and I am directing that the Library not program a drag queen story time,” Walsh wrote in an email obtained by KRBD through a public records request. “I apologize for the change and appreciate the opportunity for me to dig a bit deeper; I am now very firm in my resolve moving forward.”

The city of Ketchikan has a council-manager system of government, meaning the city manager acts as the city’s chief administrator, subject to direction by the City Council.

The decision is the latest development in a long-running debate over LGBTQ programming at Ketchikan’s library. Last June, the Ketchikan Public Library held its first-ever storytime with a drag queen to celebrate Pride Month and promote inclusivity. 

The drag queen Luna, portrayed by high school drama teacher Tommy Varela, read a picture book to dozens of children and guided them through a series of simple dance moves alongside a children’s librarian.

The event was wildly popular: Luna had to read the book three separate times to accommodate all the attendees. The library director said it was the biggest storytime on record. 

But the runup to the drag queen event was marked by controversy. The issue dominated two Ketchikan City Council meetings, with dozens of residents both for and against testifying for hours.

The council ultimately voted 5-2 to allow the drag queen event to proceed.

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)

Fast forward to this April when city officials were considering another drag queen storytime, and the firestorm erupted anew. 

Walsh cited public pushback in her decision to cancel the reading. She pointed to two factors: disagreement about last year’s event among City Council members and a citizen-led effort to cut library funding that was in part spurred by drag queen storytime.

“It is a well-attended event. It also had very negative feedback from community members,” Walsh said in a phone interview. “My focus is education in our community, and the event is not necessarily leaning towards that objective.”

In her email, Walsh said “there are many ways our City can celebrate diversity and inclusivity without being polarizing in our community.”

“This includes offering educational materials and providing a safe space for all people of Ketchikan to learn; a drag queen story time sponsored by the Library has proven to not be one of those methods,” she wrote.

Walsh offered a couple of alternatives. She suggested a library screening of a PBS documentary on the Stonewall riots, a series of protests widely seen as a watershed moment in the fight for LGBTQ civil rights. 

Walsh also said any nonprofit group would be welcome to host its own reading with a drag queen. Banning drag queen readings outright could violate the First Amendment and nondiscrimination laws, including a local ordinance prohibiting discrimination on the basis of gender identity or expression, Ketchikan City Attorney Mitch Seaver wrote in a memo last year.

But leaders of Ketchikan’s biggest LGBTQ-focused nonprofit say they have no plans to fill the gap left by the city’s cancellation. JD Martin is the president of the Ketchikan Pride Alliance.

“At this moment in time, we have no intention of hosting a drag queen storytime,” Martin said. 

The Pride Alliance said in a statement that it’s concerned that stepping in to host the storytime would strengthen the city’s case for canceling the event.

“The Ketchikan Pride Alliance refuses to partake in the marginalization of our own community,” Martin said in the statement.

The Pride Alliance says it instead plans to host a drag show at a different venue.

Concern for LGBTQ community members

Frankie Urquhart teaches health at Ketchikan High School, instructing neary all freshman students. She says she’s concerned about the impact of the cancellation on students’ mental health.

“One part of your positive social and emotional health is love for yourself and feeling like you are a part of a community,” she said in a phone interview.

She says a drag storytime would have been one of a few places where LGBTQ teens could see themselves represented in public life in Ketchikan. Urquhart says she attended last year’s reading with her 11-year-old son. More than anything, she says she thought the reading made LGBTQ students feel more at home in Ketchikan.

“Having that event, I think, was such a great thing for people to say, ‘Oh my gosh, these are my people. This is where I’m welcomed. This is where I’m safe. I do belong in this community,’” she said.

Urquhart says she worries that canceling the event sends the wrong message.

“The kids are always watching. And some kids are watching more than others,” she said. “The kids who really need the representation — they’re the ones who are watching the most closely.”

Martin, the Pride Alliance president, said her group would be more than happy to explain to Walsh the importance of the event in more detail.

“I think when we’re talking about diversity and inclusivity, there are always going to be people who feel polarized by that,” she said.

Though Walsh told council members in her email that she had “many discussions with community members on both sides of the issue”, Martin says Walsh did not consult the group before deciding to cancel the event. 

City Council members weigh in

Several of the Ketchikan City Council’s seven members praised Walsh’s decision in email replies obtained by KRBD. Riley Gass, a conservative member of the council, led the charge last year to cancel the drag queen reading. 

“I know this is a very difficult topic (speaking from experience last year) and I truest appreciate you making this tough decision, I will stand with you on this and I feel it’s the right thing to start taking steps towards making many people who felt unwelcome at the library feel welcome again,” Gass said.

Some on the council who voted to go forward with last year’s reading also offered support for canceling the drag queen reading.

“I find this to be an excellent decision. They are free to set up their own program but not have it be city sponsored,” Lallette Kistler wrote. “I would have suggested it myself, if I had understood it to be an option.”

Council member Mark Flora, Ketchikan’s vice mayor, offered more measured comments.

“Not an easy decision either way,” Flora said. “I appreciate the resolve.”

But one council member is vocally pushing back. 

“I’m not happy with it. I think that the council was very clear last year,” said Janalee Gage, a progressive member of Ketchikan’s City Council.

Like Urquhart, Gage says she’s concerned about the precedent the decision sets.

“If we’re going to start choosing and picking and dissecting every event because it polarizes, then we are going to have to eliminate multiple activities,” Gage said. “There’s people that don’t believe in Halloween. Who’s to say now they won’t come forward and say, ‘That shouldn’t be in the library’?”

Like Urquhart, Gage says she’s also worried about the message Walsh’s decision sends to LGBTQ residents.

“Although I know that the manager has the right to decide what each department does, I think this sets a precedent that goes a lot deeper than what a department does in the nature that it implies that our LGBTQ community is not allowed to exist in public,” Gage said.

Walsh defends cancellation

For her part, Walsh says she fully supports making Ketchikan a diverse and inclusive community where all feel welcome. She says it’s especially important to her, given her background.

“I’m from New Mexico, but I’m a Hispanic female, I grew up in a rural community. … Being a Hispanic woman, when I went to school, it was three to one, men to women — I went to a technical engineering school, so I — also very rare to be Hispanic,” she said. “In my own experiences, I understand what it feels like to be different.”

Walsh said in her email that “there is no protocol for determining appropriateness” of city programming, saying that she’s ultimately responsible for making decisions in the best interest of the city. Asked about other city events or programming that might face cancellation for their polarizing or controversial nature, Walsh struggled to come up with an example.

“You know, obviously, the city wouldn’t support, you know, like, anti-minority storytime, or, you know, something to that effect, but I can’t imagine anything like that ever being proposed,” she said. “So it’s really a difficult reach for me to come up with a comparative.”

Walsh defended her decision to cancel the event. But she says she’s expecting pushback from people who’d like to see the storytime go forward.

“I’m sure we’re going to see the same exact responses as if we held it. We’ll have a group of people who are opposed, a group of people who are against, and everybody absolutely has a right to their opinion,” she said. “My goal is just to make sure that I’m making the right decisions operationally for the city.”

The issue is likely to return to the City Council soon. Gage, the City Council member opposing the cancellation, says she plans to bring it up for discussion at a council meeting scheduled for Thursday, May 4.

Disclosure: Reporter Eric Stone has accepted a job with Ketchikan Public Utilities, an entity owned by the city of Ketchikan and managed by Delilah Walsh. He starts work May 5.

Neither the city of Ketchikan nor any city official has control over Stone’s work as KRBD news director. No city official reviewed the contents of this story prior to publication. Stone has had no access to privileged city information as a result of accepting this new position.