Column: Would hate to disrupt a dragging story in an hour

Nabil Anas

Global Courant

I visited Laguna Beach last Saturday on a beautiful morning, the kind of sunny day the jewel by the sea hadn’t experienced in months. Tourists went to the beach. The locals jogged. Paramotor enthusiasts crossed the blue skies on their way to the Pacific Ocean.

However, beauty was not what brought me to the coast. It was hate.

For weeks, social media posts had upended the Laguna Art Museum for planning to stage storytelling with a drag queen. Typical was one from the Greater Laguna Beach GOP, who claimed without any evidence that the mere act of a drag queen reading a book to children was part of a “larger, recent trend to sexualize children.”

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These attacks were the latest salvo in an ugly battle against gays in Southern California this year.

The president of the Temecula Valley Unified School District deemed Harvey Milk a “paedophile” at a board meeting. Vandals have vandalized Pride flags. Protesters clashed outside a North Hollywood elementary school holding a Pride-themed rally and a Glendale Unifed School District board meeting where June would be recognized as Pride Month. Thousands held a rally in the Dodger Stadium parking lot for the team’s Pride Night on Friday to mock the Blue Crew’s decision to honor a group of transvestites with a Community Hero Award.

Now the hatred threatened to collide with Laguna Beach, one of the oldest LGBTQ+ communities in Southern California.

The Laguna Art Museum staff was quietly preparing for the lecture when I showed up. Executive Director Julie Perlin Lee told me that they always try to synchronize the space’s monthly story time with a current theme, such as a wintry Ukrainian folktale in December. For this Pride Month, the museum contacted Drag Story Hour, a non-profit literacy organization, after which Perlin’s deputy director spoke to other museums that had hosted similar events and heard “nothing but a positive experience.”

“But I’m sure everyone experienced what we heard to some degree as well,” continued Perlin Lee, referring to the social media criticism. “It shouldn’t surprise me because that’s how things seem to be these days,”

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“But,” she concluded, gesturing to a group of rainbow-clad adults outside the museum’s glass doors, “there’s a lot of support, too.”

Kat Schroeder and Melissa Desjardin handed out little Pride flags to anyone they wanted, and wore T-shirts that read “Free Mom Hugs.” With them was James Flores of Laguna Beach Pride! 365. He was not happy with the planned protests against the museum, the first anti-LGBTQ+ action in Laguna Beach he had heard of since moving to the small town 17 years ago.

“Laguna has been a part of our (LGBTQ+) culture forever,” he said. “People might feel a bit let down by this, but that’s why we need to show up.”

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“It is a pity that it had to come to this,” said Schroder, a resident of Orange.

“That’s why we need to show visibility and educate the community,” replied Desjardin of Huntington Beach — “the good part,” she emphasized with a laugh.

Laura Puente protests Saturday against a dragging story at the Laguna Art Museum. “It’s inappropriate for small children to see these adult situations,” Puente said. “I have a lot of gay and lesbian friends, and there’s a huge consensus to keep kids away.”

(Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times)

Just as Desjardin finished, Laura Puente walked past her and then stopped a few steps away. She was holding a giant purple sign decorated with hearts that read, “Love Drag Queens at Adult Venues!”

“I have two kids and I’m gay,” said the Laguna Beach resident. “It is inappropriate for small children to see these adult situations. I have a lot of gay and lesbian friends, and there’s a big consensus to keep kids away.

“We love drag queens. But there are clear sexual overtones. I’ve seen plenty of story times – otherwise I wouldn’t be spending my lovely Saturday morning here.

When Puente got no response from Flores, Schroeder, and Desjardin, she moved to the corner of Coast Highway. A few honking cars and supportive honking greeted her. A man and a woman who gave their names only as Eric from San Francisco and Carolina from Laguna Beach joined Puente. Eric was holding a sign that said drag queens should read to seniors instead of children.

“Seniors are lonely,” he reasoned. “They want a show.”

“I have drag friends,” Eric continued. “But why are these story times aimed at kids? Because they are impressionable. Kids are confused enough as it is.”

“What is going to happen now?” Carolina replied. “Burlesque for kids?”

By the time two other protesters showed up, the museum lobby was packed with children and their parents.

One of the activists walked to the window wall of the lobby and held up a sign that read “Stop Sex With Our Children.” The only response she got was tykes waving at her.

Families wait in the lobby of the Laguna Art Museum for the start of a Saturday drag story.

(Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times)

The families eventually flocked to what is normally a gallery space, but which would be the reading room for story time, to better accommodate the crowd of 40. Children lay down on mats in front; adults and young teens sat in chairs behind them.

The drag queen of the day was stuck in traffic.

An employee tried to entertain the children by playing “Simon Says,” but they became restless. “It’s very electric, I can feel it!” she bravely told the crowd. “So let’s hold that energy…”

Suddenly, a six foot blonde in a flowing neon coral pantsuit entered the room with a “Helloooooo!”

Miss Pickle was ready to read.

She’s had enough Drag Story Hour backlash this year. In April, protesters disrupted one of her lectures, at the Sherman Oaks Martin Pollard Branch Library, with cries of “perversion” and “abomination.” The day before her performance at the Laguna Art Museum, the Glendale Library announced on Instagram without explanation that it was canceling Miss Pickle’s scheduled story time at their Saturday afternoon Pride in the Park festival.

If Miss Pickle was upset by these issues, she didn’t show it in Laguna.

Miss Pickle reads from “Feminist Baby Finds Her Voice” by Loryn Brantz at the Laguna Art Museum Saturday.

(Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times)

She was funny and sassy and patient and caring. Miss Pickle asked her audience questions after each sentence, urging them to follow good manners, such as sharing toys with friends and asking parents’ permission to eat macaroni in the bathtub. She made the adults laugh with on the spot jokes. “You lost two teeth and have three wobbly?” the drag queen asked a little boy who had just informed her about his dental problems. “Glad you keep a spreadsheet,” Miss Pickle said, before suggesting that the boy file a 1099 tax form to declare all the money the Tooth Fairy would bring him.

The books for the morning: “Feminist Baby Finds Her Voice” by Loryn Brantz, another about how it’s okay to be different, and another about having a big heart. They were as problematic as bunnies hopping on the lawn while chicks chirped.

“It’s the largest crowd we’ve ever had quadrupled in story time,” Perlin Lee whispered with a tired but broad smile.

The grand finale was “The Hips on the Drag Queen Go Swish, Swish, Swish,” a Lil Miss Hot Mess songbook that the Greater Laguna Beach GOP described as, “Do you want your 4-year-old to be a ‘little hot mess’ shake loot and work it? Miss Pickle asked everyone to stand up and dance along to the text of the book – “Luckily for the museum, ‘The Wheels on the Bus’ is in the public domain.'”

Shoes stomped. Hair went up. Jewelry bling. Shoulders trembled. The talk ended, the adults applauded, and the kids swarmed to Miss Pickle for pictures and stickers.

Sasha Deming of Laguna Hills had never been to a drag story hour before but showed up to support the museum with her husband and daughter. “I had no idea what to expect, but it was amazing,” she said. Of critics, Deming said “that says more about their own inner minds than the actual reality.”

Laguna Beach residents Lauren and Graham Unterberger brought their daughter Elliott, who had a Pride flag stuck through her bun. Earlier, she had asked her mother about the protesters outside.

“It really breaks my heart to see this shift” in rhetoric in her hometown, said Lauren Unterberger. “So I told her it was hate speech, and we should be inclusive and loving. I wish those people had stepped in and given it a chance, because they judge a book by its cover.”

The kids moved to another room for an art project, but Miss Pickle had to leave. She still planned to appear in Glendale. I asked if the conservative war on drag had weighed on her.

“They’re a loud bunch, but they’re not in the majority,” she said. “In the digital space, it’s toxic and I’m starting to think it’s real.”

Miss Pickle paused. “But then you come into a room like this,” she said, “and you feel it. This is real.”

Column: Would hate to disrupt a dragging story in an hour

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