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Magazines > Marketing Library Services > March/April 2023

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MLS - Marketing Library Services
Vol. 37 No. 2 — Mar/Apr 2023
‘Plum’ Loco: Communicating With the Press and the Public About a Drag Queen Storytime Program
by Bessie Sullivan

The first media coverage of the upcoming storytimeI have been a public librarian for 23 years and have worked for three different library systems. Prior to that, I was a financial planner for 5 years. That job involved a lot of marketing of my services and communicating to people about why they should sign up with me. I believe that all experiences in life lend themselves in some way to what comes next, and my skills in financial management, marketing, sales, and communication have served me well.

In 2019, when I was CEO of Haliburton County Public Library (a geographically large county in Ontario, Canada, with a relatively small population of 20,000), we hosted a drag queen storytime during Minden Pride Week. We had very little pushback from the community, and it was a universally loved event. Now, I am the CEO of Orillia Public Library (a small city in Ontario with a population of 32,000), which had previously held a drag queen storytime in 2018. There had been some community grumbling, but nothing extraordinary. Fast-forward to Pride Month in June 2022, when the situation was quite different.

Risk Management

The equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) committee at the library wanted to plan another drag queen storytime for Pride Month in June 2022. I wholeheartedly supported this idea and was excited about the prospect. Based on past experience and what I saw in the news, I knew that there would be potential for controversy. I like to use what I call the “Chris Hadfield Approach.” Hadfield is a retired Canadian astronaut who emphasizes anticipating any hiccups you might have during a journey. A November 2015 article in MarketingWeek (https://www.marketingweek.com/you-must-prepare-for-failure-not-success-advises-astronaut-chris-hadfield) quotes him as saying, “Don’t visualise or prepare for success, visualise and prepare for failure, as things will always go wrong and you have to know how to respond.”

With that in mind, I started introducing our Pride Month event to our board of directors in April. At the same time, we were in the process of finalizing our strategic plan, which heavily emphasizes inclusivity. One part of our 2022–2026 strategic plan says this:

“We provide equal access to programs and resources for people who might otherwise be excluded or marginalized. We monitor our systems and structure to identify those not being served.”

Additionally, the city of Orillia had recently started an EDI committee that was working toward promoting a more inclusive community.

Prior to announcing our event, I spoke to local law enforcement about our plans because I wanted a police presence in case there was a protest to manage. (I have no issue with peaceful protest and will support people’s right to disagree, but what I didn’t want was children and families being harassed as they came into our building.) This was purely precautionary; I had no reason to believe that anything would go wrong (even if Chris Hadfield says otherwise).

My marketing and communications lead prepared a press release about our upcoming drag queen storytime. I proofread it, then sent it out to the board of directors on Friday, May 13, indicating my intention to send it on to the press on Monday. I figured if anyone had any comments or suggestions, they could pass them along over the weekend. Because both the library and the city of Orillia had made a commitment to champion EDI in the community, and because I got no objections from the board, I knew we had the political support we needed in case there was pushback. In addition, since this event had been initiated by the library’s EDI committee, I knew we had staff buy-in too, at least in principle.

Our press release resulted in a May 17 article on OrilliaMatters (https://www.orilliamatters.com/local-news/orillias-library-celebrating-pride-month-with-inclusive-events-5372076), which had a positive quote from me right on top: “We wish to create an environment at the library where everyone feels included.” The article also set the tone for the special storytime, using our quote, “This free, family-oriented literacy program will instill a love of books and reading for children and their families through an imaginative storytelling experience.” The article pointed readers to event and registration info on our website (https://www.orilliapubliclibrary.ca/en/programs-events/celebrate-pride-month.aspx), and we were on our way.

As we’d said in this initial publicity, we intended to hold one morning storytime on Saturday, June 11 with our performer Auntie Plum and then a licensed, after-hours fundraiser featuring the same performer transformed into Plum Vicious. We wanted to raise funds to increase our LGBTQ2S+ collections. (2S stands for 2 Spirit; the term originated in Indigenous culture.)

Doing Research and Writing Talking Points

I had done significant research prior to the event to see how other libraries had dealt with detractors. I also prepared information for staff members to use when confronted by complaints. I told employees that if they weren’t comfortable conversing with potentially belligerent people, they should refer them to me.

One of the main talking points we could use was that events such as drag queen storytime aligned with our strategic plan. While seeking other points, I researched literacy tie-ins that come from drag queen storytimes, along with other benefits. The statement shown below was sent to staffers to customize as they wished.

Then the Complaints Began

As the week of our event drew nearer, what had started as a trickle of complaints about it became a deluge. This took place via phone messages, emails, visits in person, and responses on social media. I started to see a pattern with the terminology used. Language like “pedophilia,” “grooming,” and “gay agenda” was frequent. Claims that a performer in drag was “highly sexualized” were made. Many of these messages did not come from local people, and we even traced some back to the U.S.

During this time, I saw a YouTube video with the results of a 4-year research study about reactions to drag queen storytimes. In the video, the detractors used all of the same vocabulary I was hearing. It was strangely comforting to know it wasn’t just our experience, and the backlash wasn’t new.

I also contacted the police chief to voice my concerns about the escalating agitation, and he assured me that there would be officers on-site the day of our event.

The library CEO owned the drag event and bravely had her photo and statement posted on the library’s social media account.Standing Our Ground Despite Adversity

On Tuesday, June 7, just 4 days before Auntie Plum was scheduled to appear, we posted my photo, along with a statement, on Facebook. This drew more attention from local media outlets.

Here’s the text of the Facebook statement:

A Message From Our CEO, Bessie Sullivan: The Orillia Public Library actively supports equity, diversity, inclusivity, and tolerance throughout our community. We strive to reflect those same principles through our collections, programs, and social media platforms.

We welcome respectful, open dialogue regarding these and other current issues, acknowledging that public policies and personal opinions are part of the ever-evolving mosaic that make our community such a wonderful place to live. Please contact me at bsullivan@orilliapubliclibrary.ca or call 705-325-2573 with any questions, concerns, or compliments.

OrilliaMatters ran another story (http://bit.ly/3XUXNXw) that included quotes from me and from our corporate sponsor, who said he had “been contacted by individuals who were angry with him for sponsoring an adult-only, ticketed Pride Month event.”

When I came into work on Thursday, I found my phone blinking madly with messages. With some trepidation, I started to listen to them. Every single one was a message of gratitude for using our position to fight a battle that others cannot afford to fight. I’ll admit that I cried—and then I got angry.

Later that morning, the staff took a beautiful pride photo and assured me that they wanted to forge ahead despite many calls for the event’s cancellation. (I think it’s important to remember that as stresses mount for front-line staff members, what they may have been in favor of at one point may later be too much. So keep checking on them.) I also wanted to be sure that I was not dragging my employees into what might have become a personal crusade.

I then spoke to the person in charge of programming and asked if we had the capacity to add a second storytime on Saturday. I suspected that we would have the demand, but I would be lying if I said that was my only motivation. She very willingly agreed to a second storytime, and I hoped that in doing so, the library was sending the message that we would not back down and that more people wanted the event than didn’t.

The local affiliate of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) picked up the story, and Auntie Plum and I were asked to do an interview with the weekday radio show “Ontario Morning” the next day. It was a great segment during which we were able to get some key points across:

  • As a society, we need to be inclusive of all families, not just ones that look like our own.
  • We must celebrate, not vilify, differences.
  • If we truly believe in freedom of expression, we need to live and let live. (In other words, “If it isn’t hurting you, mind your own business.”)
  • When faced with something we don’t understand, it is our responsibility to become informed.
  • When we disagree, we must behave civilly.

During this upheaval, commenters threatened my job multiple times. I’m really close to retirement, so this wasn’t much of a threat. One (uninformed) person said they would go to the press—little did they realize that the press was supporting me every step of the way. I got off lucky in some ways; other library CEOs in Ontario have had much worse threats to contend with.

Controlling the Narrative—Most of the Time

Thankfully, the day of the event yielded no issues whatsoever. I did two interviews that morning, during which I refused to give the detractors any promotion. I simply referred to what we had dealt with as a “noisy minority.” I’m sure that was really annoying to them. (See the resulting articles at http://bit.ly/3jQRW7X and https://bit.ly/40Pkzmx.)

MLS readers can see a Facebook photo album of the event at https://bit.ly/Orillia-Plum-Storytime.

After surviving two full storytimes and a sold-out evening fundraiser, we felt we had accomplished great things, with more positives than negatives.

That Saturday was an 18-hour day for me, and I got home at 2:00 on Sunday morning. So, I was still tired on the Monday after the event. I got into the office and had an interview request from an investigative reporter from the CBC. Because I was relieved the whole ordeal was over, I wasn’t as guarded as usual, and I said the following: “They pissed me off. So actually, what we did, as this ratcheted up, I added a second storytime.”

I have had copious amounts of media training throughout my career. But I proved that no matter how seasoned we are, we can say things that might have been better left unsaid.

As soon as I saw that quote in print, I sent it to both my mother and the library board chair. I sent it to my mother in an attempt to beat any of her friends to it, and to the board chair, as my employer, to point out my honest but injudicious remark. Fortunately, that outburst had a really positive effect, and we started getting donations, flowers, and requests for interviews from all over.

Here are examples of messages that came in with donations through our online donation platform:

“Thank you for standing up for inclusion.”

“Kudos to Bessie Sullivan for adding a second Drag Queen Storytime in response to hateful calls!”

The American independent editorial book site Book Riot picked up the story (https://bookriot.com/canadian-librarian-drag-story-hour). And for a brief time, I was trending on Reddit (https://www.reddit.com/r/onguardforthee/comments/vlrqx2/libraries_in_canada_hit_by_wave_of_hate_threats). This was my extremely uncomfortable 15 minutes of fame.

Later in June, investigative journalist Jonathan Montpetit published a piece for CBC News about the sudden backlash that many libraries in North America were experiencing when they tried to offer this sort of programming (https://www.cbc.ca/news/investigates/libraries-threats-all-age-drag-1.6501247). This article covered contested drag events from across Canada and carried quotes from me, including the one I hadn’t meant to say. Montpetit linked some of the origins of the backlash to the Ottawa trucker’s protest and to special interest groups in the U.S. The CBC article concluded that this was a well-organized, planned attack on intellectual freedom. Personally, I find it ironic that the very same people who want the freedom to do what they like don’t afford me the same courtesy.

Key Takeaways and ‘Plum’-Good Advice

In the interest of freedom of expression (that’s what free speech is called in Canada), and since libraries represent all points of view, I think I took a bit more abuse over this than I should have. I tried to professionally listen to people and their concerns. The problem was that people seemed unable to refrain from spewing hate, personally insulting me, or using unacceptable language. We certainly wouldn’t listen to racism or antisemitism, so I’m not sure why I calmly listened to expressions of homophobia and transphobia. If and when the situation arises again, as soon as someone uses a term that is objectionable, I will shut down the conversation. Polite discussion should not include profanity or hate, nor should it include graphic descriptions of sex acts.

I think the key takeaways from this experience are the need for support and the importance of communication. When planning anything that could stir up trouble, start by getting political buy-in, board buy-in, and staff buy-in. Make sure all stakeholders are informed, supply them with responses, and anticipate what might happen. Make sure that all of your actions align with your policies and strategic plan. Keep repeating the same messaging so that what people hear is consistent. When managing press, control the narrative, and know what to say to reporters. Media training is never wasted, although we can slip sometimes. Be sure to thank everyone after the crisis passes.

Standing up for freedom of expression, inclusion, and diversity in the face of hateful vitriol is not easy. But as a mother, librarian, and citizen of the world, I felt I had no choice. To quote Auntie Plum, “There are good humans and bad humans. Be a good human.”

Statement Provided for Staffers to Use Before the Controversial Event

Programming at Orillia Public Library supports the library’s mission to create possibilities for everyone. Programming provides information, invites public discussion, encourages curiosity and creativity, and promotes literacy and reading.

We are excited about the opportunity to present Drag Queen Storytime in the morning of June 11 and a fundraising event in the evening.

In celebration of Pride Month, the morning event focuses on books, songs, and making. It is also a support for our LGBTQ youth, parents of queer and trans kids, community relationship building, and creating a space where LGBTQ youth know they can access programs at the library. Dress up, costumes, make believe and role play are part of children’s play and entertainment, and drag aligns with this.

It is a program for families and open to all ages, children, teens and adults. This program exemplifies the Orillia Public Library’s commitment to inclusion and diversity and has the full support of the Orillia Public Library Board. We understand that our community is comprised of a mosaic of personal beliefs, and we respect an individual’s decision to not attend this program.

Bessie Sullivan is the CEO at Orillia Public Library in Orillia, Ontario, Canada. She holds a degree in library and information studies from McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. Sullivan has more than 2 decades of experience, beginning as a branch librarian and eventually becoming a CEO. She is a columnist with the Ontario Library Association’s online magazine, Open Shelf, and she teaches a course about public libraries at the University of Western Ontario. Her email address is bsullivan@orilliapubliclibrary.ca.
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