September 23, 2020

Missouri representative introduces bill to ban drag queen storytime

Missouri Libraries have hosted drag queen storytimes for three years. Missouri Representative Ben Baker introduced a bill to try and put an end to these storytimes on Jan. 8.

Drag queens have been reading to kids at libraries nationwide for just over five years. St. Louis established its first drag queen storytime in September of 2017 at Central Library, a branch of the public libraries.

Children gather in their libraries or local bookstores to watch the person in front of them read a book, usually geared towards inclusivity and diversity. Although these reading sessions are supported by the communities they take place in, there has also been a backlash against the idea of drag queens reading to children.

Republican State Representative Ben Baker of Neosho, Missouri, has introduced a bill to ban the story hour. Baker created the bill titled, “Parental Oversight of Public Libraries Act,” which would establish a parental review board to oversee the content libraries plan for children. The review board would consist of five residents of the county who will determine whether the scheduled story hours are appropriate for kids.

Emily Ratkewicz is a Webster alumna and drag king. She said she does not see the harm in a drag queen story hour.

Graphic by Nermina Ferkić.

“It’s pretty harmless for children to know drag exists and that these people, celebrities in some cases, are just people who want to give back to the local community and encourage others to be themselves, unapologetically,” Ratkewicz said. “Because drag gives us the courage and outlet to do so.”

Baker proposed in the bill that the events the libraries have put out are sexually inappropriate and objectionable. Amanda Kracen, Webster assistant psychology professor who has been a licensed psychologist for nine years, rejects Baker’s claim.

“I read one interview where Baker used the words ‘protect our children from objectionable material,’” Kracen said.“From a psychological perspective, it’s completely misguided and actually dangerous.”

The assistant professor said the fear of kids wanting to be drag queens after going to these events is what has triggered these responses to drag queen storytime. She said the research shows the opposite and that children are going to naturally explore and continue to be creative and curious.

“It’s more dangerous to have kids not exposed to love and diversity,” Kracen said. “If we don’t offer that exposure, we are helping reinforce homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and setting up rigid gender roles.”

The stereotypes around gender and sexuality impair communication between children and parents and are more harmful to the child than the story hours, Kracen says. She feels Baker’s legislation is rooted in religion rather than science. John Wallis, Webster junior and constituent of Baker’s, feels the same way.

“When I saw that representative Baker had proposed this bill, my initial reaction was that I wasn’t surprised at all,” Wallis said. “He typically uses his religious idealism as the basis for his legislation. He was one of the heads of an ultra-religious school in Neosho, so this type of bill was not surprising to me.”

Baker serves as a minister and board member for the Bible Holiness Assembly of God church. He also was the former professor and former dean of students at the Ozark Bible Institute in Neosho. Baker, however, wants people to know that the bill is based on something other than religion.

“I proposed the bill to deal with the problem we have of publicly funded libraries allowing age-inappropriate materials and events to be accessible by children in a public space,” Baker wrote in an email. “My hope is that the bill will pass, and we can give some power back to the parents in our communities to determine what should be accessible to our children in public libraries.”

The bill details the consequences of libraries ignoring the law. If the library disregards the parental review board’s recommendations, they can lose state funding. Any librarian who breaks the proposed law can be fined $500 or receive up to a year in jail.

In response to the bill, drag kings and queens will be giving Baker some company in Jefferson City on March 7. With over 1,300 people marked interested on Facebook, drag queens, kings and allies are invited to protest Baker’s proposed bill.

Kracen questioned whether Baker has considered the downsides to not having the story hours.

“Particularly when we have such high rates of self-harm and suicide in our queer communities, there are issues and we’re not providing an inclusive safe community for kids to grow up in,” Kracen said. “Playing on people’s fears isn’t a good way to make laws. Especially when that fear shuts people down.”

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