A conservative Facebook personality named Elizabeth Johnston, better known as the “Activist Mommy,” has urged her 700,000 followers to contact the library and get the story time shut down.
“Call and respectfully express your disgust at this event being hosted at a taxpayer funded library in Montpelier, Vermont!” she wrote on June 9 beside an angry-face and fire emoji. “And click share!”
The calls have indeed poured in, according to Carolyn Brennan, the Kellogg-Hubbard Library codirector. For about a week after the original post, hundreds of people phoned in from around the country. One person called 30 times in one day and claimed to be a sex offender who planned to come and disrupt the event.
Montpelier police eventually tracked that caller to Tennessee.
“We had people that were very concerned. We had people that were speaking from a place of sincerely held beliefs — that was one range,” Brennan said of the calls. “And then we had a whole other range, where people wanted to describe extremely lewd acts to us over the phone.”
Michelle Tea and RADAR Productions came up with the Drag Queen Story Hour concept about four years ago in San Francisco. Marsh, aka Emoji Nightmare, and Small, aka Nikki Champagne, first held a Vermont event in 2017. Dressed in drag, they typically read four or five books, many with themes of inclusivity, sing some songs and lead a craft activity.
The dozen or so events they’ve held across the state have gone off without a hitch, though some have gotten blowback. Marsh recalled that the most controversial ones have often had the highest turnout from supportive locals.
Both drag queens said the fears are overblown. The events involve “folks reading to children. Plain and simple,” Small said.
“Maybe we’re a little more flamboyant and dressed up and are able to better emote in the character’s ways,” she said. “But at the end of the day, I don’t see anybody protesting any other story hour that’s happening in their communities. They happen every single weekend. It just seems to be that when visible queer people are doing it, that’s the issue.”
Brennan noted that her library, which serves six local member towns, hosted the very same event last year.
"It was really popular, really successful. It had wide community support," she said. "The second time you offer a program, you never expect any sort of response. The first time is kind of the indicator of whether it's going to be a good fit for your community or not."
Targeting the events has recently become a right-wing rallying cry. In a June 26 article, the Southern Poverty Law Center reported that white nationalist Paul Nehlen has launched Project Dox Tranny Storytime. The one-time congressional candidate from Wisconsin urged his followers to find out and publish information about the parents who bring their kids to the events.
A story by Vice News recounted a June 15 story hour in Spokane, Wash., where police snipers and about 40 police officers stood guard over concerns about potential violence. About 400 counter-protesters drowned out the 200 protesters, the outlet reported.
But protests have successfully shut down story hours in other cities and towns across the country, news that Johnston has gleefully reported on her Facebook page.
Contacted via email, Johnston stood by her tactics and said that she has never urged her followers to threaten anyone. Rather, Johnston said, she’s the one who has been doxxed by the very drag queens she so reviles.
“My family is being terrorized by threats of violence, stalking, employment loss, and murder, and we now require a full time security detail to ensure our physical safety,” she wrote.
Indeed, between posts about her adventures protesting outside abortion clinics and decrying certain sex ed curricula that are taught in schools, Johnston solicits donations from her followers for security purposes.
“Let my haters know this: what they are doing is wrong and criminal,” Johnston wrote to Seven Days. “Asking people to call a library to voice their opinion is not. I will never be silenced. I will pursue justice. I will fight evil and the radical Left’s attempt to take over America, until the day I die.”
Brennan, the library codirector, said the drag queen event is not evil or an attempt to take over America. She said that while the library has been inundated by nasty calls from Johnston’s supporters — though not one from Johnston herself, Brennan noted — it’s also received messages of support from people across the country. Two local residents voiced concerns about the event, though support has been much more robust.
Brennan said the event is a go.
“I’m totally optimistic that it will be positive and fun and everyone will have a good time,” she said.
The Montpelier story hour is scheduled for 10:30 a.m. on July 13 at the Kellogg-Hubbard Library.