‘A good step forward’
Despite protests, a drag queen story hour goes on as planned.
Brock Harder sank deeper into the disheveled cafe couch, staring down at his cup of coffee. “Their tactic is to pressure you into giving up, and it’s working,” Brock said, lowering his head. “I’m done after tomorrow,” he said. In one day, the stress would end, and life would go back to normal.
Brock was at the tail end of an exhausting day. It was 2 p.m. and he had already been in and out of meetings — one was with the chief of the Evansville Police Department and its violent crimes task-force unit. They strategized on how to keep everyone safe. A bomb squad was going to sweep the library early in the morning, and undercover cops would be scattered among protesters and counter protesters, the police chief said. It was up to Brock, a drag king and accidental community activist, to relay the message to other protesters.
For the past two months, Brock had been on the front lines of an ideological battle — one that pitted the LGBTQ community of Evansville against local and national Christian groups. It all started when the Evansville Vanderburgh Public Library announced it would host a new program called Drag Queen Story Hour, where local drag queens would read to children. They scheduled the first for February 23, 2019, immediately drawing outrage from members of the community.
A city councilman received backlash from the community after he called the event “reprehensible.” Drag performers and their circles of LGBTQ friends were harassed online, and many — including Brock — had received death threats as the event date got closer.
Brock and dozens of others from the LGBTQ and ally community showed up to EVPL board meetings, advocating as much for DQSH’s existence as for their own.
At the last board meeting before the inaugural DQSH, a motion was made to postpone the event indefinitely. No one seconded it. The show would go on.
* * *
Before the sun had even risen, a caravan of police officers pulled into the EVPL North Park public parking lot. A handful of officers circled up, chit chatting and strategizing between sips of coffee.
A handful of Church goers pulled into the parking lot across from the library. They grouped up, unloaded their neon posters, and joined together in solemn prayer. They prayed for everyone’s safety, and for the innocence of children. The group migrated across the street to the front doors of the library, “Protect Our Children” and “Jesus Christ Saves” posters in hand. The group set up shop directly across from Brock and his girlfriend Brooke, both visibly tense.
Leaning against the sandstone of the library building, Brock put his hands in his pockets. “I wish I didn’t have to be here,” he said, looking across the caution tape at the group.
This would be the start of a long day for both sides. For Brock and others in the LGBTQ community, it was a day of non-stop self-advocacy. An out of town radical Christian group flew in for the event, equipped with megaphones, abrasively homophobic banners, and GoPro cameras. For hours on end, the group hurled insults and condemnations at most everyone.
“Transgenders are perverts.”
As the day went on, the dialogue got more personalized.
“Look at it over there. Hey, are you a boy or a girl? I shouldn’t have to guess!”
Families had to be escorted to the library doors by community activists who acted as buffers between young children and megaphone-toting religious zealots. To the right, kids were greeted by posters that said “Stop Sexualizing Children” and “Sad Day.” To the left, kids had their choice between rainbow sugar cookies and a hug from Cinderella.
* * *
In a way, this DQSH debacle was a case study in what it means to be queer in southern Indiana — what it’s like to be sometimes viscerally hated for the life you live. For Zack Hoskins, the only openly transgender employee of EVPL, this is just what it means to be transgender.
As the director of pre-K reading programs, Zack’s job is quite literally to read to kids — and the kids love him.
“They’re always just so excited, they’ll run up to me and yell my name whenever they see me,” Zack said.
But working with kids has made Zack much more sensitive to the bigotry and hatred that sometimes overwhelms the adult world. Kids aren’t born with the same prejudices that adults develop, and Zack gets to see this every day. “Sometimes I say things and immediately freak out like the kids are going to judge me,” said Zack. “But they never bat an eye.”
Once Zack was working on a short film with one of the library’s after school programs. He and the kids were excitedly hashing out details — plotline, actors, props — and thinking of a place to screen the final product.
In an enthusiastic realization, Zack told the kids they could screen it at the local movie theater since Zack’s husband, Dominic, is the manager. Zack immediately froze, realizing he’d just accidentally come out.
“I let it slip that I was gay, but the kids didn’t even notice I don’t think,” he said. “They were just pumped up about the film.”
More than anything, the after-school group’s elation made him realize how resistant kids are to bigotry. His identity made little difference to them. If anything, it was reason for celebration because now they get to see their movie on the big screen.
But Zack’s experiences with adults have been drastically different. Zack’s wedding was protested by the Westboro Baptist Church. He’s gotten death threats, has been called names, and was even outed at work. “It’s just crazy to think my existence offends so many people,” he said.
As a pre-K story-time reader, Zack reads to kids in schools all over Evansville — including private Christian schools. A familiar face at a handful of local schools, he’s loved by both kids and school staff alike. But this past year, a religious group in town outed him to the Christian school he was supposed to read at. He was devastated. “I just didn’t see what the problem was,” said Zack. “I still don’t.”
Days went by while the school deliberated, giving Zack plenty of time to think.
He thought back to all the times he was assaulted with hugs by a pack of 8-year-olds. Back to the hokey pokey dance parties and dress-up story times.
He thought back to all the parents and kids who saw a role model in him.
So did the school. They advocated for Zack in the face of religious bigotry, but Zack was left wondering why the conversation was had in the first place. Why would his identity ever be cause for getting fired?
Incidents like these are why Zack woke up early the morning of Feb. 23 and drove down to the library. It’s why he stood in solidarity with his friends for hours, all the while berated by megaphone-toting hate groups. He and his friends were ridiculed, harassed by protestors, and called names like “pirate dyke,” “weirdo,” “freak,” and “school shooter.” After hearing that last insult, Zack couldn’t help but laugh. That last one was Zack’s favorite. “It just made no sense,” he laughed.
But most protestors weren’t that loud or obnoxious. Many stayed silent, letting their solemn presence and humble posters speak for themselves. In this crowd, Zack saw a familiar face — the parent of a kid in one of his after school programs. This kind of thing isn’t uncommon for Zack.
“I’ve had parents ask me if I’m planning on having kids because their kids love me so much,” Zack said. But when these same parents find out that Zack is transgender, they change their tune. “The same parents will tell me I shouldn’t have kids,” said Zack. “And honestly, it’s kept me from having kids.”
Zack and his husband just bought a house, and the two have settled into stable jobs — a logical time to start thinking about kids. But he and his husband both agree it’s not the time or place for two transgender men to bring a child into the world. “The whole Drag Queen Story Hour thing has brought a lot of hate to the surface,” says Zack. “It’s so emotionally taxing for me, so I can’t imagine bringing a kid into this.”
But would he ever leave Evansville?
“No way. I have friends in Brooklyn and really liberal, artsy places,” Zack said. “But I can’t abandon my community, or else how would it change?”
As exhausting as it is to be on the front lines of the fight for queer existence, Zack doesn’t see any other option. “Who else will show out for us?” Zack asked rhetorically.
The controversy of DQSH has stirred up hatred, giving divisive groups a platform and reason to mobilize. But it’s also made Zack realize more than ever how important diversity and visibility are to developing young minds, which is why Zack loves his job so much.
He knows he’s making a difference, whether it’s by reading a nontraditional story to kids, or by simply being a visible role model.
One of Zack’s favorite story-time books is “Julian Wants to be a Mermaid,” the story of a young boy who wants to dress up like the elaborate women in Carnival festivals but feels like he can’t. After reading it one afternoon, Zack felt its immediate effect.
“A kid came up to me and asked if it was okay that sometimes he liked to dress up in his mom’s clothes, if he was allowed to do that,” Zack recalled. It broke his heart that kids felt like they weren’t entitled to self-expression.
But this is exactly why DQSH’s occurrence — however contested — was such a victory for the LGBTQ community in Evansville. “Trans and queer people are rarely able to claim public spaces as their own,” Zack said. “But seeing all those kids having a good time, that was a good step forward.”
For Zack, Brock, and many in the LGBTQ community, the event was an exhausting success. Although they were berated with insults for hours, they saw nearly 400 parents and children show up for the event — 275 were able to make it inside to the story time.
“E stands for Everyone” is a current branding campaign for the city of Evansville. Maybe that is true after all.