As legislative attacks on LGBTQ rights have ramped up throughout the country, people from across the United States gathered in Jefferson City, Missouri, on March 7 to protest a right-wing bill which seeks to make it a criminal offense for drag queens to read to children in public libraries.
The bill, known as HB 2044 or the Parental Oversight of Public Libraries Act, was drafted by Republican Ben Baker in reaction to popular Drag Queen Story Time events and proposes to establish parental review boards which would determine whether “sexual material” provided in public libraries is “age-appropriate.” Any public library that does not remove material deemed inappropriate would be subject to withdrawal of state funding, and library personnel could face fines or imprisonment. While the bill utilizes deliberately vague wording, it is clear from Baker’s targeting of drag queens in the media that “sexual material” refers to anything pertaining to LGBTQ expression.
Coming together outside Missouri’s State Capitol, hundreds of people of all ages and genders peacefully opposed the reactionary legislation. Activists carried signs colorfully adorned with slogans like “Reading is fundamental,” “Knowledge is power” and “Ban hate, not books.”
One protester, a 19-year-old drag king from Springfield, Missouri, who performs under the name Ben Dover, said it was important to take a stand against HB 2044. “There shouldn’t be regulations on books that children can read. Drag story time should be allowed. It gets kids excited about reading … and gets kids excited to learn. We’re not monsters. We’re representing ourselves and that should be allowed! There shouldn’t be any regulations or stopping people from being who they are and representing that, wherever they want or however they want,” Dover said.
The protest clearly embodied the vision of free self-expression and gender self-determination that protesters were fighting for. Drag queens and kings were joined by people from all different backgrounds and experiences — cisgender and transgender, young and old, gay and straight, Black and white — in a spirit of unity and resistance to bigotry and hate.
Annastasia Artzer, a protester who came to Jefferson City from Lawrence, Kansas, said: “As a lesbian woman, I’m not one who appreciates any sort of censorship or bigotry. It’s really important to me that not only are people allowed to be who they are openly and public, but also that other people aren’t jailed or punished or fined for allowing people to be who they are. Librarians are some of the most respectable, kind and sweetest people on this planet because they just want to help get people into reading and to help spread knowledge. To throw people in jail for letting someone in a dress, regardless of who they are — it’s just someone wearing pretty makeup and a dress — read to children is ridiculous and despicable.”
Artzer also explained how the bill functions as a political attack on the movement for LGBTQ rights as a whole. The bill affects “not just LGBT people but everyone. If one person regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity can be jailed for inviting someone else into a public space then not only are we encroaching on people’s rights but we’re also basically opening a door for anyone to be jailed for associating themselves with LGBT rights,” Artzer said.
At the conclusion of the protest, organizers held a Drag Queen Story Time for everyone in attendance. Children and adults gathered around to listen to drag queen Autumn Equinox read from Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are.” It was a powerful moment which demonstrated just how important and beloved Drag Queen Story Time is to so many people across all generations and genders.
Gloria La Riva, the Party for Socialism and Liberation’s 2020 presidential candidate, came to Jefferson City alongside other members of the PSL from across the Midwest to protest the legislation. Reflecting on the protest, La Riva explained the significance of this legislation and the importance of fighting back: “It’s really an outrage because first of all, they are presenting it in the media in the most demonizing way when in fact we’ve been speaking with people here who have such a beautiful vision of wanting to help children become literate, of exciting them about reading, of extending across all our expressions and life.
“Inside in this Capitol just now there was a gathering of right-wing anti-gay people who were listening to the legislator [Ben Baker] who’s proposing another piece of legislation that would criminalize teachers and other school staff that don’t get express permission [from parents] when children are getting sex education or other education that they deem inappropriate. This is called suppression of information, suppression of freedom of information. It’s a very dangerous encroachment on LGBTQ rights, on women’s rights, on people’s rights.
“In talking to people here, this is why we need to get the word out. [Drag Queen Story Time] is a very humanistic, humane, and progressive approach to education. It’s something that we need, especially when illiteracy is at such a high rate, and the education system is so poor in this country … this was a community I was very happy to share with, along with my comrades in PSL.”
HB 2044 is an attack not only on the drag queens and kings who read at Story Time events, but also on libraries and social services, literacy and education, children and the LGBTQ community as a whole. It is an assault on LGBTQ people’s right to exist in public life, and on all children’s — and especially LGBTQ children’s — right to have a safe and nurturing environment where they are represented and celebrated for who they are.
It is essential that everyone continues to fight back against any and all attacks on the LGBTQ community. As Drag Queen Story Time illustrates, we need to fight for a world where everyone is free to self-determine their gender, where education is prioritized, and where LGBTQ people are full and equal members of society.