Book readers in drag are canceled by mall

Town Square owner says it’s a matter of safety, not morality

A “Drag Queen Story Time” for kids scheduled March 26 at a bookshop in Town Square of Port Orchard was canceled on the Friday before the event by mall management, according to Terry Heath, owner of Bookshop Under the Stairs.

After the bookstore had closed March 24, management slipped a note under the shop’s door and sent an email saying authorization for the Sunday event was revoked, Heath said.

“We wish to cancel the Children’s Story Time … The mall is not an appropriate venue for controversial and divisive events that are likely to result in disruption to tenants and visitors, not to mention possible injury and damage to the mall itself,” stated the letter Heath said he received from mall management.

Heath was upset with the last-minute cancellation.

“Honestly, I think it’s chickens—t,” he said “They were just too cowardly to say it to my face. They waited until I was closed Friday to send me an email and slip the same message under my door.”

Management expressed concern the event would attract protesters.

“This morning we were warned by local police that agitators, professional protesters and violence seekers were expected to show up to either support or denounce the event,” the letter read.

Town Square owner Ray Klein told Kitsap News Group Mrch 25: “We wanted to err on the side of protecting patrons, other tenants and property. We have no dog in this fight and have no position on the topic.”

The event was going to feature a pair of males dressed in drag reading three popular children’s books – “The Stinky Cheese Man,” “The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs,” and a Northwest favorite, “The Wheedle on the Needle,” about a large orange creature with a blinking red nose who goes to the top of the Space Needle, Heath said.

The drag readers had been told to dress as “matronly” as possible, the shop owner noted.

When the drag story time event was announced on Facebook, the news drew support and opposition.

Some of those who voiced opposition online seemed to confuse a nightclub drag show, where performers typically lip sync to songs, to a drag performer reading books to children, he said. For example, one comment read, “Burlesque in the library is like food in the bathroom.”

“[Story time] is just a person dressed up and reading the story using different voices for different characters. It’s totally book-based. There is no comedy routine that goes with it as there may be in a full show,” he explained.

Those offended by the drag story hour had a choice to make, Heath said. “They totally had the right to not attend and not bring their kids to it.”

As to those who feared there was a nefarious reason behind someone in drag reading to kids, he replied, “There is no agenda. It has nothing to do with promoting fetishes. The only thing presented is the books. People also said you are grooming kids. I’m not sure what we are grooming them for. If anything, I think we are grooming them for being more accepting of other people and to enjoy books.”

The idea to have a drag queen book reading came about in a roundabout way.

Originally, Heath wanted to come up with a way to bring more traffic to the mall where the bookstore is located. He considered organizing a family-friendly cabaret-style drag show at the shopping center calling it “Drag Me to the Mall.”

Eventually, he decided to hold a drag story time, but he had no idea the event would be controversial. “To be honest, I was pretty unaware of what was going on. My whole thought was, cool, we’ll have a costumed performer read stories, doing faces and making it fun for the kids.”

He said he was unaware of the debates raging in parts of the country that led Tennessee to ban drag shows in public spaces or in the presence of children. More than a dozen other states reportedly have introduced anti-drag bills.

Once the event in Port Orchard was announced online, the reactions by some proved to be a wake-up call for Heath.

“When I posted it on Facebook, a whole new world was opened up to me about how people were upset about this. I never expected there would be people responding so negatively. It never even occurred to me that someone would want to sexualize having someone dressed up reading to kids.”

There is a long history of men dressing up as women, Heath said.

“Drag goes back to Shakespeare when that was the only way to have female characters. It’s also got a long history in comedy. I’m thinking of Monty Python, Benny Hill, and Mrs. Doubtfire. That’s how we approached it. It’s fun.”

Heath said he grew up watching J.P. Patches, a local TV character on a children’s show who played the mayor of the city and whose sidekick was Gertrude, a male dressed as a woman. “It was a guy in a horrible mop wig and a fur coat,” Heath chuckled.

Since mall officials shut down the event, Heath is unsure whether he can hold any kind of book reading events in the future, even if they feature more conventional book readers.

“I don’t know now. I’m going to have to talk further with [management] about that,” Heath said.