In October, the ignorance and hatred boiling over in our country walked in and attempted to disrupt Drag Queen Story Hour at Cellar Door Bookstore in Riverside. Their ugliness interrupted a community event that promotes understanding among us all. Amid ever-growing violence and fear in our country, these kinds of events are critical opportunities to celebrate our common humanity, erasing fear and hatred – and we must continue them no matter who tries to shout us down.
I opened Cellar Door Bookstore six years ago because I felt the absence of an independent bookstore specializing in new books that could accurately reflect the diversity, intellectual curiosity and brilliance of Riverside’s community. We have more than 20 book clubs and welcome all thoughtful discussion. Cellar Door is a place to gather and wrestle with the most difficult issues of our times while enjoying the deep pleasure of discussing ideas, characters and the books we love or hate.
We had our first Drag Queen Story Hour in June, to celebrate LGBTQ+ Pride month, and it was by far the most attended story time we’ve ever had. Parents and kids loved the lively performance and kept asking when we would coordinate another.
So again last month, parents from our community made the choice to bring their kids to hear drag queens read Halloween stories. But two people came in to stop me and the parents from making that choice. When I noticed that the woman was filming, I told her that she couldn’t without the consent of the parents. She just started spewing hateful, uninformed rhetoric about everything from the LGBTQ community to politics and refused to leave. Security was called, but only when Riverside Police Department came did she leave the premises, shouting her ugliness as she left.
The drag queens were amazing: They kept reading books, engaging the kids in story time despite it all. But unfortunately they couldn’t completely drown out the hate, and parents had to have conversations about the woman’s despicable behavior with their shaken children after.
I have listened to lots of people talk about the hate speech of “both sides,” but it is one side that sent bombs across the country, killed 11 people in a place of worship and yelled at children in a privately owned bookstore in just one week last month.
Donald Trump, with his complete disregard for the laws and policies of this nation, is at the center of this. Bookstores are places where ideas and the hard work of figuring out the complexities of the world in which we live flourish. Trump not only proudly refuses to take part in any such conversations, he denigrates the people who do so and calls upon his followers to repudiate the hard work of scientists, philosophers, writers and any other “intellectuals.” The danger in which this president has placed our country surpasses any war, natural disaster or enemy that has come before. Bookstores, books and libraries promote learning, discussion, disagreement, engagement; we are therefore at odds with the very essence of this administration.
Since that Saturday, my store has received phone calls, emails and Facebook posts filled with name-calling and threats. None of these people were actually willing to have a conversation. The alt-right champions the “free speech” of websites like Infowars (a sticker that was illegally plastered on my store window later that week), but when the time comes to talk to others, they follow their leader and shout insults.
Drag Queen Story Hour is a way to bring people together so that hatred of the “other” disappears. All of us prosper from such inclusion, and giving our kids an opportunity to interact with these fun, warm people is a way bookstores and libraries across the country are helping to prevent the fear and ugliness. Our kids will grow up knowing that no matter how they identify, they will be loved and welcomed into our community – and will treat others the same.
I don’t need to tell you all about the great strides we made in last week’s midterms for all Americans – and especially the LGBTQ community – but there is still more work to do. Bookstores like mine are committed to being part of the cultural shift away from the terrifying, anti-thought movement in our country, and we welcome your support and input because I’ve seen the impact events like Drag Queen Story Hour can have on the next generation.
At our first such event, one of the kids said, “My little brother likes to dress in my mom’s clothes.”
One of the drag queens lovingly responded, “And that’s OK.”
And perhaps, that was all that needed to be said.