A small library outside of Renton was turned into an ideological battlefield on June 27 as supporters and protesters of a drag queen book reading descended on Fairwood Library near Renton.
Dozens of protesters assembled to decry what they viewed as an inappropriate event marketed toward children, while hundreds of supporters waved rainbow flags and formed human barriers to allow people to enter the library. The event was a Drag Queen Story Hour, the final of four which have been hosted this month by King County libraries.
Protesters and supporters arrived well before the event started at 7 p.m., with supporters forming human barriers allowing attendees to enter the library. They cheered as families with children ranging in age from toddlers to middle schoolers walked into the building to hear drag queen Thadayus read a story about a mermaid.
The reading drew members of the paramilitary militia the Three Percenters (many of whom were open carrying pistols), members of the far-right street fighting group known as the Proud Boys and the right-wing local media outlet Operation Cold Front. Groups in support of the event included the King County Democrats, local Indivisible chapters and the Puget Sound John Brown Gun Club (PSJBGC).
“PSJBGC was happy to stand with so many community members, parents and kids to protect such a positive and inclusive family-friendly event,” member Duke Aaron said in a statement.
A member of the Three Percenters, who only shared his first name name, Greg, said his organization was asked by a group of local residents to provide security at the event. He said the Three Percenters were not associated with the Proud Boys, but that residents opposed to the event were worried about antifascist organizers showing up.
The verbal clashes between supporters and protesters outside were often loud, but inside the library, Thadayus read through a picture book to more than 100 parents and children. Children would at times yell along with the book and many sang along with children’s songs after the reading.
The organization MassResistance, an anti-LGBTQ group that has been organizing protests of drag queen events nationwide, had claimed that a similar Renton event last week was passing out condoms and “breast wraps” to children. Neither were observed by the Reporter at the June 27 event.
As families — including those with toddlers and young children — were leaving, some of the protesters held up signs with drag erotica on it and yelled “shame.” At points, signs with erotica — held by people protesting the drag queen story time — were inches away from young children and parents leaving the event.
King County sheriff’s deputies were present, as was Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht. After the event, Thadayus gathered items and prepared to leave the building.
“The event went really well — there was a lot of security,” Thadayus said. “Everyone was super excited and engaged.”
Thadayus left out a back door of the library, escorted by multiple sheriff’s office deputies.
Jen Carter, vice chair for the King County Democrats, said the large turnout of both attendees and counter-protesters as supporters for the event was a positive sign.
“What it says is that love is going to prevail, every time and everywhere,” she said.
At one point during the event, a street preacher began preaching over a loud speaker and Carter and other supporters drowned out the speech with chants. Counter-chanting was common at the rally, as one side would begin, the other side would respond, each trying to out-yell the other.
“I’m honestly not sure what I can say that’s more profound than all these people showing up for what’s a couple dozen Nazis,” said fellow member of the King County Democrats David Fleetwood.
Myra Martino, a neighbor from the area, said others from her community are welcoming to people from all walks of life.
“This is our neighborhood — people are gay or straight or whatever. They just don’t want you to be a jerk,” Martino said.
The Drag Queen Story Hour was a flashpoint, and the fourth and final in a series that has been happening during June for Pride month. The events have garnered the attention of MassResistance, and residents and what some attendees claimed to be Proud Boys showed up at a King County Library System meeting on June 26 in Issaquah. No police were present at the meeting and some attendees felt threatened by the Proud Boy presence.
Julie Acteson, community relations director of the King County Library System, said that allowing free expression of every opinion is important to the library system. But, she added, the views expressed at Fairwood did not hold equal amounts of support.
“We certainly respect the right of anyone to come out and exercise their right to [freely express themselves]. At the Fairwood event last evening, overwhelmingly, the community turned out in favor of the story time,” Acteson said. “I think there was about 500 people there, and easily 400 were supporters of us holding the event.”
Though the opposing views were contentious regarding the Drag Queen Story Hour, the library system will continue supporting diversity, Acteson said.
“Libraries are about diversity and inclusion. Those are huge values for us, so we want to make sure that we’re offering programs and services meeting the needs of our communities, and not just a chosen few,” she said. “We certainly don’t want to ever be trying to censor what we’re doing — whether it’s in our programs or our selections.”
Acteson could not say if the library system would hold the same series of events next year because the library system has not yet discussed program planning for 2020.
“Sometimes it’s difficult to support intellectual freedom and standing against those who oppose it, but we’ll always work to celebrate diversity because it’s the right thing to do,” Acteson said.
There was a silver lining to be seen in all of it, Acteson said.
“It was quite touching to see the support from the community,” she said. “They created a human tunnel so the families and children could come through safely. There was a woman passing out headphones for the children so they wouldn’t have to hear the racket from all the protesters …. it was really touching to see how they rallied around everyone who wanted to enjoy the story time.”
Corey Morris contributed to this story.