As the dust settles on one of the most contentious periods in the history of the Delaware County District Library, leaders are trying to determine how to learn and grow from the brush with controversy.
The library spent the later stages of May in the news for its Drag 101 event, which was scheduled for June 5, to be hosted by former Miss Gay Ohio America and local drag queen Selena T. West.
The idea, West said, was to teach curious teens the basics of drag.
“It’s going to be open to everybody, and I want people to come be able to express themselves and learn about drag,” she said. “Drag is not scary; drag is not sexual. (Teens can) learn about what seem like trivial things like hair, nails, makeup, clothing. Those are the building blocks of a Drag 101 class I would teach.”
By May 21, the topic had stirred enough controversy that the library’s board of trustees meeting was moved to a new venue to accommodate a large crowd and more than 20 audience members who came to either speak for or against the topic.
While library officials said at the time that they had no plans to cancel the event, it was announced May 28 that the event could not go on as planned because vitriol on social media and phone-call campaigns to the library had given way to “veiled threats.”
“Our No. 1 priority as a library is to ensure that everyone who walks in our doors feels safe,” Director George Needham said.
“Our mission statement ensures that we will provide lifelong learning in a friendly environment. Threats of protests, hate and violence stand in direct conflict with that mission and we cannot sacrifice the safety of the public we serve.”
West ultimately moved the class to Secret Identity Comics, 34 N. Franklin St. in Delaware, where dozens of supporters showed up the day of the event.
West said June 6 that the class went even better than she expected. She said only about five people had signed up through the library, but 30 were in attendance for the event at Secret Identity.
“Because of the attention, the number grew exponentially,” she said, “so that was really good.”
During the class, West covered the history of drag, the “different subcultures” of drag and provided a wig and makeup lesson on a volunteer.
She said there were “a lot of supporters outside” and no protesters or negative comments.
After the tumultuous time she had preparing the event, West said she was thrilled with how it turned out.
“I’m really, really happy,” she said. “I was nervous that the community didn’t want it, but it didn’t end up being that way, so I’m really happy about it. It turned out to be a positive thing. And the crowd outside was really great.”
West said she has plans for another Drag 101 class – this time for adults – somewhere in Delaware County next month.
After that, she said she’s working on “a few other projects” to bring Drag 101 to teens “throughout the state.”
‘What did we learn?’
A few days removed from the cancellation, Needham said he and library officials are still taking stock of what went wrong and how the situation got out of hand.
He said the board will be “doing some debriefing” on the topic soon and will spend time at its June meeting on the topic of “what did we learn here?”
“I think there’s a lot,” he said. “I think we’ve learned a considerable amount here that will help us as we grow and grow into the new Liberty Township library.”
One of those improvements, he said, is understanding and meeting more of the community.
“You’ve got to know the community to serve it well,” he said. “We can do better at that.”
The positive takeaway, he said, was the somewhat contentious May 21 meeting in Ostrander. That meeting may have presented conflicting arguments and emotional displays, but it also involved people interacting in person in a peaceful way, he said.
“When people from both sides went to the board meeting in Ostrander, they stuck around and talked afterward,” Needham said. “They looked each other in the eyes and talked face to face. When you sit behind your keyboard, it’s a very different way of seeing the world. … I think we can be a place for civil discourse, if we do it right.”
That seat from behind the keyboard is what made the Delaware County Sheriff’s Department’s job difficult, spokeswoman Tracy Whited said.
She said the sheriff’s office was aware of possible threats on social media, but never received any specific reports to investigate. Even if it had, she said, it would have been a monumental task to pursue charges against a person for online comments.
“Not only can we not find it, but people aren’t always who they are online,” she said. “If there was something that rose to the level of potential telecommunications harassment and we would start looking into it, even with all the technology, there are bogus accounts. People can set up an account, make these horrific comments and then take it all down.
“We definitely are aware and try to the best of our abilities, but it’s just impossible to monitor all of social media.”
Despite sitting in the front row May 21 while some members of the audience said drag wasn’t art and that performers like her were mentally ill, West said even she was happy with the meeting in Ostrander because it was relatively constructive compared to arguments online.
“This is my first time, civilly, being able to hear people’s thoughts and opinions about what I consider art and what they don’t consider art,” she said, “so that was interesting.”
She said she even wished she had more time at the end of the meeting to “thank the people who came out to give their opposite viewpoint” because she appreciated the opportunity to hear it.
“I knew I was going to have the support,” she said. “I appreciated the minority tonight, which was the opposite view, because I am not a progressive liberal who doesn’t like to listen to the other side. I really like to hear another opinion. I don’t agree with anything they said, but I’m absolutely open to hearing critiques.”
Plans are in place, Needham said, to create a “teen advisory board” to get “formalized input” on what kinds of programs teens want. With that and other improvements, he said, the library hopes to gain a better feel for the pulse of the community.
Needham said library staff members were understanding about the program’s cancellation, given the safety concerns, but he admitted it was a blow to morale as a whole.
What he hopes they can take solace in, he said, is knowing they helped advance a conversation.
“People get excited; we’ve got a very passionate staff who cares very deeply about the library and deeply about the community,” he said. “Sometimes you have to weigh passion against reality. We want to make sure what we’re doing is helping the conversation.
“I think in a lot of ways that we’ll never know, we probably have helped that conversation in the community. I think folks are talking about this at the dinner table or other places where they weren’t a year ago or even a month ago.”