More than 60 years ago, Milton Berle used to dress up as a woman and got big laughs on his variety show. So did Flip Wilson as “Geraldine Jones,” sashaying on prime time TV in the 1970s. Robin Williams won critical acclaim for doing the same in the movie, “Mrs. Doubtfire,” over a quarter-century ago. If anything, drag queens like RuPaul are mainstream in the 21st century. So the notion that a man dressing up as a woman to read children’s books to children is some kind of breach of decorum, assault on basic values or traumatic to youngsters in some way is, well, laughable. Yet at least 30 people reportedly showed up at the Severna Park branch of the Anne Arundel County Public Library last Saturday afternoon to demonstrate against Drag Queen Story Time.
This wasn’t even the first time the library has hosted such an event. Its inaugural performance was last year. And plenty of library branches around the country have embraced the concept as an entertaining way to share stories about acceptance, diversity and inclusion during Pride Month. Nor is it the only library program that gives a nod to the LGBTQ community. Plenty of authors are invited to give talks. There are film festivals and transgender discussions as well. The American Library Association encourages a local program that “honors the authors and writings that reflect the lives and experiences of the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender community.”
Of course, we are not so naive that we are completely surprised to discover there are people who hate or fear anyone they perceive as different from themselves. And had Drag Queen Story Time been about having some explicit talk about sexuality with 3 to 8 year olds, it would have given us pause as well. But it wasn’t that. It was a performer named Matthew Maisano, a library assistant from Wynnewood, Pa., just 90 minutes up the road near Philadelphia, dressed up as his character, Balena Canto, reading age-appropriate books available in the children’s section. You know how a preschooler reacts to a middle-aged man dressed up as a woman? They guffaw. They giggle. They smile and they dance. They find it all highly entertaining. And that makes story time that much more fun. It is Halloween with books. Plus some songs like “We Are Family” by Sister Sledge that should give offense only to hardcore Orioles fans who remember it as the theme song for the 1979 Pittsburgh Pirates team that beat Baltimore in the World Series.
That’s probably why the two shows, at 1 p.m. and 3 p.m., were both standing-room-only with about 170 people each. During the second show, there was a bit of an altercation. First, one protester shouted, then another. “This is corrupting your children,” and “This isn't right” were among the phrases reportedly tossed out. Mr. Maisano was called a “pervert.” A library board member who asked the first protester to quiet down was shoved. Police had to intervene. Charges are expected to be filed.
Perhaps the best thing that can be said about this was that the program continued on to an appreciative audience and the library system is undeterred. They know a hit when they see it, and they are committed to serving the public — all of the public. The people who don’t like drag queens or the reading of books like “Mary Had a Little Glam” about a young African American girl with a flair for accessorizing or the singing of 1970s disco? They don’t have to attend or send their kids. But how unfortunate for them. Books about inclusion and acceptance are happy, helpful stories. Every child struggles at some point to find his or her way in life. A little reassurance never hurts. As library spokesperson Christine Feldmann pointed out, the only trauma children experienced on Saturday was from overzealous, hostile protesters.
Cheers to Anne Arundel County for standing up for inclusion. The only question is why aren’t other Baltimore area library systems doing the same? Judging by its popularity, families from Bel Air to Columbia and Westminster to Towson would enjoy such presentations as well. Are there enough drag queens to go around? It’s time to start planning for June of 2020.