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Missouri lawmaker proposes bill criminalizing public libraries' drag queen story hours

It would give parental review boards a veto on material deemed inappropriate, and librarians refusing to comply would be subject to fines or jail time.
Image: Poison Waters
Poison Waters reading to children at Drag Queen Story Hour.Kevin Truong

A Republican lawmaker in Missouri has introduced a bill targeting drag queen story hour events at public libraries that would set up parental review boards to approve events and penalize librarians with potential fines and jail time for violations.

State Rep. Ben Baker’s Parental Oversight of Public Libraries Act would require all Missouri public libraries to establish parental review boards, with members elected by voters, that would approve library display material and events.

Baker said Thursday the proposed bill is not aimed at censoring books but is a response to drag queen story hours that have been held at libraries in some of the state's larger cities, including St. Louis, Kansas City and St. Joseph.

"They've had these drag queen story hours, and that's something that I take objection to and I think a lot of parents do," Baker said. "That's where in a public space, our kids could be exposed to something that’s age-inappropriate. That’s what I’m trying to tackle."

Under the proposed bill, librarians who do not comply with the decisions of the parental review boards would be guilty of a misdemeanor, which carries a $500 fine and up to a year in prison.

Baker's constituency of Neosho has never hosted a drag queen event at its public libraries, but their popularity in large cities like St. Louis, where an event attracted 500 people in September, has sparked indignation from conservatives across the state.

Shira Berkowitz, communications manager for the Missouri LGBTQ advocacy organization PROMO, said the proposed bill is a reaction to increased LGBTQ visibility in the conservative state and is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of drag.

"It's just based on fear," they said. "The oppositional spin is that these [events] are supposedly dangerous in a religious context, or dangerous because LGBTQ people are sexualized. Right-wing media spinning a reading experience for children into something sexual is what is creating bills like this."

For Berkowitz, the story hours are a benign and popular experience for all children.

"I think what [Baker] gets wrong is that libraries are creating a very safe space for children to be read to, in a gentle environment and in a very playful and whimsical way," they said. "They’re not encroaching on any kind of sexual content."

Josh Swindler is the children’s library director at St. Joseph Public Libraries, where Drag Queen Story Hour drew more than 200 attendees and about two dozen protestors in September. He said the bill, if passed, would effectively censor information the library is allowed to provide to the public.

"As a library, obviously, we are opposed to any sort of authoritarian enforcement of censorship," he said. "And that's kind of how we are interpreting this bill."

Swindler said that some are under the impression that drag queen story hours are trying to indoctrinate children into an LGBTQ lifestyle or are exposing them to inappropriately sexual content.

"We absolutely are not trying to indoctrinate anybody," he said. "We're just trying to give an equal voice to every member of our community."

Berkowitz said that the bill is effectively attempting to criminalize an important venue for LGBTQ visibility among children.

"The visibility of LGBTQ culture is extremely important, especially in a state like Missouri where you can still be fired from your job, denied housing or knocked out of public services simply for being gay or transgender," they said.

According to The Trevor Project, almost 1.8 million LGBTQ youth seriously contemplate suicide every year and are almost five times as likely to attempt it as their heterosexual peers. A 2019 Trevor Project report showed that LGBTQ youth who reported having at least one accepting adult in their lives were 40 percent less likely to attempt suicide.

Swindler emphasized that if passed, the bill’s consequences could be much more serious for young LGBTQ Missourians.

"We believe that offering programs that affirm LGBTQ youth saves lives," he said.