LEANDER PRIDE FESTIVAL AND STORY TIME

Hundreds of protesters and LGBTQ supporters descend on Leander for Pride Festival and Story Time

Elected officials from Cedar Park and Leander make appearances, Leander council member reads to children inside private event.

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The staccato rat-ta-tat of a snare drum by supporters of the Leander Pride Festival and Story Time couldn’t quite overpower the steady proclamations of protesters shouting in opposition to the event across a narrow barricade dividing the two sides outside the Leander Public Library Saturday afternoon. 

A steady buzz from approximately 275 people went on for nearly two hours as several dozen Leander police officers stood by in the event any of the protesters took a turn toward violence. None did. 

Meanwhile, less than a hundred yards away, more than 100 people gathered to hear a reading of three books inside the library — which was closed to the public for the day. City of Leander spokesperson Mike Neu said the city made the decision to close the library out of a concern for the safety of participants and to minimize the chance for conflict between supporters or protesters of the event.

"Today, inside the building, has been all about community and supporting each other," said Leander City Council Member Christine Sederquist, who was one of the readers at the private event.

The weeks leading up to the event were marked by a social media firestorm that led to national media attention after the city canceled the initially-scheduled Drag Queen Story Time, and a local church — Open Cathedral — stepped in to keep the event on the schedule for June 15. 

A day before the event, however, the church announced that the event would no longer be known as a Drag Queen Story Time, but instead would be broadened into a “bigger, more inclusive” LGBTQ-friendly event. 

Open Cathedral Pastor Ryan Hart thanked Sederquist for participating, and said he thanked, "All of the city organizations and city employees who worked so hard and so very professionally to make this happen."

Leander public spokesperson Mike Neu later confirmed that 130 people were inside the library during the event, and said the total number of protesters was around 275, gathered mostly in the northeast corner of the library’s parking lot. 

A high-profile event brings out high-profile people

Unlike Sederquist, not all the local elected officials who showed up on Saturday were in support of the event. 

Across the barricade from an estimated 150 supporters, Cedar Park City Council members Tim Kelly, Rodney Robinson and Dorian Chavez gathered with nearly the same number of protesters aligned against the Leander Pride Festival and Story Time.

Kelly said his libertarian views dictate that he doesn’t have a right to interfere with what people do in their own homes, but he said Saturday’s event was a different matter because it involves children. 

"I have three young children… I'm a born again Christian. And they'll tell you that I never forced it on them,” Kelly said. “I never made them go to church… but to bring them to something like this? I never would have done that." 

Kelly and Robinson both said they oppose the idea of people being targeted or harassed for “being gay” and they don’t feel the government should interfere in people’s private lives. 

Both also said they strongly oppose, "exposing children to this stuff at a young age," and argue children suffer from participating in these types of events because they are too young to process what they are experiencing.  

"You are giving children a responsibility that they just don't have the mental capacity to understand,” Kelly said. “I see these families come here with little children that are 4, 5 and 6 (years old). What those parents or caretakers are doing, that is child abuse! That is child abuse! That's what bothers me the most… it's grooming them."

Kelly and Robinson also said they took issue with the event occurring in taxpayer funded building.

Robinson said he doesn't agree with homosexuality on religious grounds but would take no issue with any gay person on a person-to-person basis. He said he wouldn’t have such a problem if the event had been an LGBTQ-friendly event for adults. He said his concern was the involvement of the children, saying he saw young people with scared looks on their faces when they entered the area.

A view from the inside

Several of the parents who participated in the event disagreed that their children were scared, saying instead that their children were excited for the event and enjoyed playing with the older children or listening to the stories.

Leander resident Amy Dark attended with her two daughters. 

Dark said she and her children enjoyed the event, and felt that it brought a lot of Leander residents together who are more open and liberal on social issues. 

“I am a big LGBT supporter, my whole family is,” Dark said. “I’m really glad that the church stepped in,” adding that she was pleased that the event was mainly focused on supporting the community and wasn’t really about the church itself. 

“I’m disappointed that it turned into this, but I'm really glad that the city turned out,” Dark said. “It really brought the community together… it was a good teaching moment for them.” 

Dark also said that the large police presence at the event made her feel safe. 

Hart said he believes the event also achieved one of its goals of helping local LGBTQ families and allied families to connect and bond with others who share their views of acceptance.

"I think the most popular part of the event was people being together and being able to see families that look in some ways the same and in some ways different, but knowing they all love each other no matter what,” Hart said. “I think that was really the spirit of the event and what showed through the entire time we were in there.”

Inside the library, parents said the children were far removed from the noises of protesters outside, sitting attentively as parents read, "Love Makes a Family," "Red: A Crayon’s Story," and "And Tango Makes Three.” 

Christine Sederquist, who read "Love Makes a Family," said she was honored to have been asked just a few days ago to read to the children by Hart, who she said is a neighbor. 

Hart said the other two readers were two mothers from the church.

Sederquist acknowledged that her participation would generate controversy, but argued that teaching children to be inclusive, accepting and to love their neighbors is nothing out of the norm of what children are already taught in schools.

"I used to work here at the library. I read to a number of younger groups here and there. On that level, I was excited to do another reading," Sederquist said. "But as somebody in the community with a little bit of platform, I thought it was a good opportunity to show that we've got a great community in Leander, we support each other and not everyone out here is protesting."

Sederquist said she respects the protesters’ right to protest and respects that people have different views. She said she just expects them to express their views in a peaceful way and to not attack the children… something she felt happened during Saturday's protest outside the library.

Hexa Dulce, a Cedar Park-based drag performer, said they turned out to demonstrate in support of the event as a way to show support for the entire community and its allies.

Dulce said the church supporting the event is "awesome."

"I'm glad to see the churches opening up and becoming far more aware of the needs of the community. Hopefully, the community in general will see that," Dulce said.

Despite changes, protesters persisted

While drag performers didn’t read to the children as was originally planned weeks ago, there were several drag queens outside supporting the festival. 

Protesters held up signs with Bible verses calling homosexuality a sin, and others taking aim at everything from abortion to pride, while speakers took turns on a loudspeaker calling those on the other side of the barricade “sinners,” and decrying Open Cathedral Church as an “apostate church.”

Among the protesters were several members of MassResistance, which describes itself as a “pro-family” group. The group has been a prominent voice in the protest against Drag Queen Story Time events in several states.

Tracy Shannon, a founding member of the Houston chapter of MassResistance, said she and others from her group came to “support and amplify local residents opposed to the event.”

“The library is being closed because of this event,” Shannon said. “We’re questioning why the library is allowing this event to be held. People want to know if their church is going to be allowed to have their own private event next week.” 

The Leander City Council voted in 2018 to allow the library to rent rooms for political and religious events. 

Another notable figure attending in opposition to the festival was the Christoper Ritchie, an Austin resident who is the vice president of Texas Nomads SAR — which describes itself as “an organization of everyday people who are prepared to stand up and protect our streets and communities.”

Ritchie said he is a strong support of the LGBTQ community, although he believes it is a sin. He said he has a long record of taking action to support members of the LGBTQ community, from his sister and her "very lovely wife," to his transgender friends. Ritchie also said he previously protested against Westboro Baptist Church members when they visited. 

"(That’s) a real hate group who spews anti-gay rhetoric," Ritchie said.

But Ritchie said he was in Leander on Saturday because he objects to drag queens reading to children, because he believes their background — especially if they participate in events at adult clubs — makes them an inappropriate choice to run the event. 

Ritchie also said he also feels young children are “unable to process” a drag queen, and that exposure at a young age could harm them.

"If they're teenagers and you want to introduce them to something like this, fine. But these young children are impressionable," Ritchie said.

Another of the protesters was 64-year-old Gaylon George of Leander, who said the event is unacceptable because “drag queens are a sin.”

"Part of what I put in my survey — and it was aimed at the City Council — was asking 'Would you be comfortable if somebody wanted to come in and rent the library to promote adultery?'” George said. “Because it's the same thing as they're doing right here. I just wanted to stand with the people who are against this immortality being promoted in our community. I don't think I'll say anything to anybody. I just wanted to stand here and be counted so they couldn't say nobody showed up and nobody cared."

A peaceful event, despite protests

Sederquist and Neu stayed until the last remaining groups of protestors and supporters finally broke up and walked out of the library’s parking lot. 

Both shared a moment of reflection, thankful that the protests were generally peaceful. 

Hart said going into the event that his church’s purpose was to provide support for the LGBTQ community and their allies. 

“Our church believes that if churches still have any kind of influence in society, we should only use our influence in terms of amplifying the voices of the people who are ignored and oppressed,” Hart said.

Amanda Onks, 35, of Leander, said she was excited to see the event.

"There's nothing wrong with some drag queens wanting to read books to kids,” Onks said. “If anything, it shows kids that, 'Hey! There's other people like you out there and you can be anything you want to be.’”

Onks said she was grateful for Hart and Open Cathedral making the event happen, and said she was skeptical that protesters would change anyone’s mind. 

"I just want to be here being counted as another body on the side of love, peace and accepting everybody," Onks said.

She did say that she hopes it will encourage people opposed to the event to be less combative about future events. Onks said she was hopeful similar events would be held locally in the future, noting that it would be nice to not have to travel into Austin for these types of supportive events.

"Hearing the kids giggle, laugh and love the stories made every single moment worth it," Hart said. 

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