With the far right ascendant in Texas politics, once-marginal ideas and people have found a place in the political mainstream. Our Fringe Factor series is an introduction to the often-unknown, but influential activists, thinkers and operatives who play a growing role in shaping the state. This is the final edition of Fringe Factor.
The backlash started soon after the Leander Public Library announced Valeri Abrego as one of the readers for its mid-June Pride-themed story hour. Conservatives trying to stop the event began scouring the internet for the raunchiest photos they could find of Abrego and circulating them throughout the Austin suburb. A mother, grandmother, and longtime member of Austin’s drag community, Abrego had been scheduled to read books to children as her hypermasculine alter ego, Papi Churro. Officials canceled the event days after receiving a 57-page compilation of Abrego’s Facebook and Instagram posts, many of them from old burlesque shows.
“They made it look like we were planning a peep show for kids,” Abrego told the Observer. “It would have just been a grandma dressing up and reading to kids on her time off. That’s literally it.”
Tracy Shannon calls the drag dossiers her “exposés,” something she compiles and sends out whenever she hears about a drag queen story hour. The event, in which drag performers read books to children, started in San Francisco four years ago to boost LGBTQ inclusivity at libraries. As its popularity grows across the country, activists like Shannon are pushing back.
Last year, Shannon formed the Houston chapter of MassResistance, a “pro-family activist organization” that’s been labeled an anti-LGBTQ hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. The group joined the Houston Area Pastor Council and infamous Texas hate-monger Steve Hotze in demanding an end to drag queen story time, and in October 2018, she and other activists on the religious right sued the city to end the events. The lawsuit, which reads more like an anti-gay manifesto than a legal complaint, accused the city and LGBTQ groups of “brainwashing the children of Houston.” Explaining why she opposed drag-themed events, the lawsuit said that Shannon suffered a traumatizing custody battle and legal fight after separating from her husband, who’s now a transgender woman.
The lawsuit was dismissed by a federal judge in January. Later that month, during a reading at the Freed-Montrose Neighborhood Library, in the heart of Houston’s gayborhood, police detained and disarmed a protester who’d been banned for trying to record inside the library. According to OutSmart magazine, the man argued with officers, saying, “We have a bunch of homosexuals that are molesting children. They are doing it with your help.”
Ultimately, it was a monumental screwup that ended drag queen story time in Houston. In March, Shannon announced that her group had discovered that a man on the sex offender registry, someone convicted of sexually assaulting a child, had read to kids during drag queen story time. The library quickly apologized, saying it had failed to follow its own policies requiring background checks for anyone entertaining children. Organizers called it quits days later. “I think they were afraid a background check would be seen as a microaggression,” Shannon quipped in an interview with the Observer.
Emboldened by her success in Houston, Shannon branched out. Ahead of drag queen story time in Leander this summer, she sent her “exposés” to the mayor and city council members, spreading the images among neighborhood groups and other concerned citizens she met along the way.
“We just compile this to illustrate what drag culture looks like in that city,” Shannon said. It’s easier to scare people unfamiliar with drag when the photos are racy, but Shannon insists it’s inappropriate to put kids next to any queen.
“Even if you’re the type of drag queen where you’re imitating Doris Day, and you’re not wearing scantily clad outfits exposing your latex boobs or whatever, it’s still what they’re performing, the culture they’re in,” she said. “It’s adult. It’s immersed in erotic and fetishism.”
The approach worked particularly well in Leander. After being scolded by the city’s mayor for wading into “divisive discussions,” the Leander Public Library canceled a July reading by Lilah Sturges, a popular graphic novelist and transgender woman. Shannon cheered the move and prodded Sturges on Twitter, saying her work promotes an LGBTQ “ideology” that’s inappropriate for children.
“LGBTQ kids deserve to feel seen and understood,” Sturges responded. “That’s not ideology; that’s respect. All people are worthy of love and acceptance.”
Read more from the Observer:
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What the UAW Strike Looks Like, From Deep in the Heart of Anti-Union Texas: GM autoworkers from the Arlington plant, one of the company’s most profitable, are part of the largest strike against a U.S. business since 2007.
The Creature of Martin Creek Lake Won’t Die: The Martin Lake coal plant in East Texas is the biggest sulfur dioxide polluter in the nation. And unlike other regional super-polluters, this one is still chugging along.