On a frigid Friday afternoon in February, the scene outside the Jackson Heights library was tense.
Dozens of police officers were stationed outside the normally quiet street, managing a row of steel barricades blocking off 81st Street to vehicular traffic.
Both sides of the sidewalk were also cordoned off by steel dividers, with opposing groups on either side and police officers patrolling the street in between them.
The reason? Protests against Drag Story Hour — a free library event in which a drag performer reads children’s books with themes of diversity and inclusion to kids and their parents.
Protests against the program, which was created in 2015 and has chapters across the country, have increased in recent years.
According to a 2022 report by the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, there were 141 anti-LGBTQ incidents and threats targeting drag events across the country that year.
In New York, the heart of the issue has made its home in Jackson Heights, where Council member Shekar Krishnan allocated one of the largest discretionary funding budgets for Drag Story Hour programming across his district for 2023.
“It's really depressing and sad that this is where we are, and it's hard to have to explain to my kids, like, there's people across the street that think people shouldn't be able to express their gender how they want,” said Miller Oberman, who lives in Jackson Heights and brought his two small children with him Friday. “That feels really painful.”
At the event on Friday, the dozens of Drag Story Hour supporters outnumbered the handful in opposition to the program.
But the opponents were vocal, holding signs that read “Leave our kids alone” and “Let kids be kids.”
Protesters said they were against these events taking place at public places where taxpayer dollars are spent, such as libraries and schools.
“Why don’t you read, like, ABC books, you know what I mean? Educational, not sexualized books,” Lito, an opponent who declined to give his last name, said.
Families say that the glamor and flamboyance of the drag storytellers are a major draw.
Kristianne Brannon, who lives in Jackson Heights, has been bringing her child to the event for years now. She said the environment inside the storytelling room is in stark contrast to the tense environment outside.
“It's always very sweet,” she said. “Historically, it was more low key on the street, but inside, it's always warm and calm, and the stories are heartwarming and lovely.”
The goal of Drag Story Hour is to create a space that celebrates diversity in all its forms, Frankie Dascola, executive board member for Drag Story Hour, a national non-profit organization, said.
“The curriculum committee actually strives to have full representation, so we have books that represent queer African American individuals, different able-bodied individuals, as well as different races [and] genders,” Dascola said.
Some of the books typically read include, “They Call Me Mix,” a bilingual book about what it means to be a transgender person of color; “Thelma the Unicorn,” a book about an ordinary pony who wishes to be a unicorn; “Don't Touch My Hair!” which celebrates Black beauty and as well as teaches the importance of asking for permission before touching someone’s hair; and “Neither,” a book about a little creature that's not quite a bird and not quite a bunny.
Dascola said one of her favorite books in the curriculum is “A Family Is a Family Is a Family.”
“It actually talks about all the wide, diverse ways that families can exist, whether it's two men, two women, whether it's a grandmother, whether it's siblings, it might be adoption, it might be foster care,” Dascola said.
The pushback against the program is part of a larger movement against the LGBTQ community, experts say.
“This coincides with the growing use — re-use, really — of the rhetoric around this false notion that LGBTQ people harm society,” R.G. Cravens, senior research analyst at the Southern Policy Law Center, said about this belief, which can be traced back to early in the country’s history.
Cravens said the protests against Drag Story Hour are part of a broader assault on gender equity and bodily autonomy.
In recent years, state legislatures have pushed a record number of bills limiting LGBTQ rights, and in particular, transgender youth, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
In Tennessee, that state’s Republican governor signed legislation that bans drag shows from taking place in public or in front of children. According to the Associated Press, Tennessee state Sen. Jack Johnson, the Republican sponsor, says his bill addresses "sexually suggestive drag shows" that are inappropriate for children, though the AP article notes that sexual and profane content is avoided when children are the target audience.
As of Feb. 28, the ACLU was tracking 351 anti-LGBTQ state bills that include attacks on health care, prohibiting access to public facilities for transgender people and would disallow trans students from participating in school activities.
“These kinds of messages, they happen at the local level, but they're being amplified and compounded into these broad movements to legislate against LGBTQ rights in states across the country,” Cravens said.
Local elected officials, like Queens Borough President Donovan Richards, who attended the event on Friday, and Krishnan, who represents the Jackson Heights and Elmhurst neighborhoods, support the program.
“We’re here to send a very strong message that here in Queens County, hate will not be tolerated,” Richards said.
In the 2023 budget, Krishnan’s office devoted $10,000 in discretionary funding for the programming. The only other council member to dedicate as much funds was Julie Menin. The funding from other council members’ offices ranged from about $3,000 to $7,000.
Krishnan points to the history of Jackson Heights as the birthplace of the LGBTQ movement in Queens and the diversity of the area as reasons behind his support of the program.
“Drag Story Hour is really a program about love, joy and literacy, and teaching our children how important it is to embrace and celebrate everyone for who they are — teaching them the values of inclusivity,” Krishnan said.
Over the past six months, opponents of the event, who have included members of the alt-right group The Proud Boys and Patriot Front in other states, have shown up not only to events, but to the councilman’s district office and home residence, and have included instances of vandalism, the councilman said.
Krishnan’s chief of staff Chuck Park said that protesters also harass staff members.
“One time would have been enough to really unsettle our staff, our neighbors, our community members,” Park said. “But they keep showing up over and over and over again, so it's definitely really concerning.”
Parents said the scene outside the library, which they said at times can feel chaotic with both sides yelling at each other and the patrolling police presence, does give them pause about attending future events.
But volunteers with ribbon-adorned, star-tipped wands signaling themselves as escorts were able to walk parents and kids through the crowds and into the library without incident.
Brannon said when she approached the library, the large scene was a little unnerving. However, the larger group in support of the event helped reassure her.
“As soon as we came up, people were waving flags and saying, ‘Come in, come in,’ and everybody's been super friendly and welcoming,” Brannon said.