Editor's note: This is an updated version of the story published Thursday, including new comments from city officials and additional information made available on Friday.
The Leander Public Library has canceled two events originally scheduled for June, purportedly after receiving public backlash over one of those events.
Valeri Abrego-Liszewski, an Austin-based performer who was scheduled to be a part of a Drag Queen Story Time event on June 15, said they were informed by email Thursday that the event has been canceled by the “city council of Leander.”
Neither the mayor nor city council members responded to inquiries on Thursday in regard to whether the cancellation was taken as an official action of the city council. Mayor Pro Tem Chris Czernek responded late Thursday evening, referring all inquiries to City of Leander spokesperson Mike Neu. In an email late Friday, Czernek said, "Council did not vote on a decision to cancel this event. This decision did not rise to the level of council action. City and library management staff have discretion in making these decisions."
Neu clarified on Friday that the council did not take any action, and that the cancellation decision was “made collectively by city and library staff after receiving input from many citizens and community stakeholders.”
The city released a statement late Thursday and provided follow-up information Friday morning in response to the Hill Country News’ inquiries about the cancellation.
The Leander Public Library is managed by a third-party contractor, Library Systems and Services, LLC (LS&S). Neu clarified the staff involved in the decision included the Acting City Manager, the Library Director, the Parks and Recreation Director, the City Attorney and himself.
The statement said, “Neither the Mayor nor members of Council order the city and library staff to perform any action directly. By contract, city staff is responsible for setting all policies and guidelines that govern the operations of the library, and LS&S agrees to adhere to set policies and guidelines.”
In addition to canceling the Drag Queen Story Time, the city also canceled a Summer Superhero Saturday event, originally scheduled for June 8.
Further addressing the reasons for the cancellation of the two events, the city’s statement said, “Periodically, either on its own or because of stakeholder questions, the City undertakes a review of its Library’s programs and staff procedures, including evaluation of upcoming children's events, the summer reading program and activities, as well as events that come from outside sources,” Thursday’s statement said.
The statement also said the decision was made after, “receiving input from many citizens and community stakeholders.”
After further inquiry, Neu clarified in the city’s updated statement that the other live events had not been not canceled, but the two that were canceled were done so because those events involved “live entertainment with outside guests that were not included in the Central Texas Library System’s slate of recommended entertainers.”
Though he never responded to repeated requests for comment from the newspaper, Mayor Troy Hill did take to Facebook on Friday afternoon to address the controversy, noting, “Our library, which is run by a company contracted by the city, chose to wade into social issues water without approval from City Staff.”
“I propose we designate areas where we don’t wade into politics, social issues, or divisive discussions. Schools, music venues, churches, and yes libraries are a great start,” Hill’s post continued.
The Hill Country News on Friday submitted a request for further information including whether any prior events at the Public Library had been canceled for similar reasons, and whether listing in the Central Texas Library System’s recommended entertainers will be a criterion used in scheduling future live events.
The city’s statement also said the city plans to conduct a survey, soliciting input from Leander citizens “on their interests in future library activities,” and noted that the survey will be shared on the city’s website within 24 hours of the original informational release.
“Our review process will consider how live entertainment groups are selected and screened prior to being added to the library’s promoted events and programs, as well as community interest and input in such events,” the statement said.
Abrego-Liszewski said as far as they understood, the cancellation was a result of the controversy the city has faced.
The city’s statement confirmed that the review of the program was a result of “input from many citizens and community stakeholders.”
Social media posts about the event generated thousands of comments either supporting or opposing the event in just 24 hours.
“What’s vile is letting the liberals get their way, for instance it looks like we’ve got drag story hour for the kids at the Leander library already. That’s disgusting,” Leander resident Jay Ordway posted on Facebook.
Most of the posts on the Leander Public Library’s Facebook page, however, were supportive of the event, with many residents expressing anger and frustration that the city had cancelled it.
“There is a considerable (number) of LGBT tax-paying constituents/residents in Leander, not to mention our wonderful allies,” a post from Kate LeClair read. “If I don't like an event at the library or sponsored by the city, guess what? I don't go. Anyone who is against this inclusive, educational, amazing event needs to realize that they have a choice in attending, and let those of us who would love some diversity in this town go and enjoy.
Despite the largely supportive slant of the posts, there were still a number of residents ardently opposed to the story hour.
“Good to see children will not be indoctrinated with Leander tax payer dollars who are against this type(sic) of inappropriate acts,” Stella Williams posted.
Abrego-Liszewski has performed as a drag king in the Austin area for four years. They occasionally help organize Drag Queen Story Hour events with a loose group of other drag performers. Abrego-Liszewski said they have been performing the event at Book People in downtown Austin every quarter for the last two years.
Abrego-Liszewski said a former Leander library staff member originally made contact “a while ago” in regard to performing the Drag Queen Story Hour event in Leander.
Emails provided to Hill Country News show a library staff member following up with Abrego-Liszewski earlier this month, offering assistance, and asking if any books could be reserved.
A follow-up email from the staff said that two performers “would be perfect,” as a large crowd was not anticipated, and they are “hoping to gain community support so we can make this a recurring event that gets larger every year.”
The final two emails came Thursday, May 23, the day the event was canceled.
The first of those involves a member of the library’s staff stating they had received pushback from the community and inquired whether the performers had been background checked.
Abrego-Liszewski said the next email, which came 28 minutes later, canceled the event before they could respond to the first inquiry.
“I'm so sorry to do this but because of the controversy the city has faced the city council of Leander has decided to cancel our drag queen story hour event. I appreciate your support and regret that this had to happen,” the email said.
The city’s updated statement said the contractor operating the library does “not currently conduct or request background checks of its presenters and guests,” but added that the Central Texas Library System’s screening process for recommended presenters includes obtaining references from previous clients and other libraries in the Austin area.
Hill Country News submitted follow-up questions asking why this specific performer was asked about a background check when that is not the standard procedure, according to the city’s release.
Friday afternoon, Abrego-Liszewski told the Hill Country News they had been contacted by Leander’s Director of the Parks and Recreation Department, Mark Tummons, who said that the earlier email indicating that the city council had been involved in the decision was incorrect.
“Please rest assured that there was no City Council group discussion or decision on this matter,” Tummons wrote.
Abrego-Liszewski said they were disappointed about the cancellation but also said they weren’t surprised, noting that similar events in other cities have also been met with backlash from some community members. The second email from a member of city staff said the two events were cancelled "until further notice to allow us some time to review our procedures as well as assess what types of programs our community desires to see and hear." But other live events the city said would continue include several other June events in the near future, including one set for June 4.
Performers were also initially apprehensive about bringing the production to a new place like Leander out of concerns that some of those opposed to the event could become violent. Instead, Abrego-Liszewski said they had hoped the event would have provided an opportunity to dispel concerns about drag performers and the LGBTQ community at large, particularly because their own children have seen their performances and had no problems with the event.
As it turns out, fears of violence might be justified.
Amongst the many — often heated — comments on the subject of the Drag Queen Story Time event, there were a number of reported incidents of citizens proclaiming they would show up to the event armed. One post, however, involved what some residents perceived as a credible threat.
“…After I rope, hog tie and drag by horseback all those that show up at The Library for the Transgender presentation… Was supposed to be in Argentina shooting birds! Guess I need to be here. There is a crematorium close by. Short drag for my horse,” the poster wrote.
A concerned citizen, who asked not to be identified publicly for this story, said the post was forwarded to the Leander Police Department for investigation.
“It was a shame. This kind of invalidates anybody who is part of the LGBTQ community and has children and has family. What about them? They live there too,” Abrego-Liszewski said. “I felt like I could break down barriers… that they could feel better about (themselves)… because I’m also a parent.”
Abrego-Liszewski said children really respond to the colorful costumes and positive atmosphere presented during the performance.
“They love seeing these performers come through with their big, gigantic dresses and their big, gigantic hair. The children feel like they’re seen a real queen coming through,” Abrego Liszewski said. “I’m disappointed for the families that were interested in this story time or could be interested in it. I’m disappointed they took such a positive experience and make it such a negative thing.”
Tracy Shannon contacted the Hill Country News on Facebook Thursday, stating she was a founding member of the Houston chapter of MassResistance Texas, which bills itself as a “pro-family activist organization,” and said that group planned to hold a protest at the Leander Library if the event goes ahead as planned.
An event posted on MassResistance Texas – Houston Facebook page titled “Close the Book on Drag Queen Story Hour” showed 11 people were interested in attending as of 5 p.m. Friday.
Shannon’s Facebook page references protests at other similar events in other cities, including one in Houston.
The Southern Poverty Law Center has designated MassResistance an anti-gay hate group. MassResistance has rebuked the claim in past statements and a representative of the group called the Hill Country News on Friday to further protest the SPLC’s designation.
Austin radio personality Dale Dudley, whose talk program airs on KLBJ-FM, lives in Leander and addressed the controversy during a segment of his Friday morning radio program. Specifically, Dudley said he didn’t understand why anyone would be opposed to the event planned at the Leander Public Library.
“I found it personally offensive to the point that it fired me up this morning,” Dudley told the Hill Country News Friday afternoon. “If you’re against it then don’t go. Don’t take your kids.”
In a development that began late Thursday afternoon, Abrego-Liszewski said the performers are working on details with Open Cathedral Church that could provide a way for the performance to go ahead at the Leander Library.
Dudley said he plans to attend the event in support of the performance. He used his platform to promote the Facebook event for the rescheduled Drag Queen Story Hour, which showed more than 1,000 people either expressing interest or confirming to attend as of Friday afternoon.
Open Cathedral Church, a member of the United Church of Christ that opened in Leander three years ago, confirmed that it has rented a Leander Library conference room for 3 p.m. June 15 to host the Drag Queen Story Hour, based on word it received that the city was canceling the originally-scheduled performance.
The church plans to use the same performers and will run a background check on them as part of the church’s usual operating procedures.
The city’s updated release confirmed that the church has rented a room and does plan to “provide a forum similar to Drag Queen Story Time.”
Lead Minister Ryan Hart said Thursday afternoon that he had not yet heard whether the event was an official event nor whether it had been formally cancelled. But he said the church is reserving the room in case the city decided to proceed with its cancellation.
United Church of Christ has deep roots in the LGBTQ rights movement, the women’s suffrage movement and the abolitionist movement, Hart said.
“Our mission is open minds, hearts and faith. We want to create space for people to be able to be themselves,” Hart said. “In the message of the Good Samaritan, the Samaritan is an outsider to the people who would have been hearing the story. Jesus is saying we should love our neighbors, even when we feel they are different than us and that they’re outsiders… This fits with that message of creating space for people to be different and still be neighbors and loved in that space. I think that’s a message all of us always need to remember and be willing to hear.”
Hart said he had planned to attend the original event with his own children.
Tummons’ email to Abrego-Liszewski on Friday confirmed that the city is aware that the Drag Queen Story Time event will be the featured program during Open Cathedral Church’s reservation at the library.
“I also want to assure you that the City takes the first amendment rights of our citizens and performers seriously, and we are in conversations with the city’s police department and others to ensure your program will be conducted in a safe environment,” Tummons wrote.