ST. PETERSBURG — As people argued in front of Community Cafe, Naomi Wright pulled up behind the building in a Jeep Compass and slipped in the back door unnoticed. She wore a glamorous floral gown and earrings the size of small chandeliers. A girl asked if she’d come in her limousine. “I wish,” she thought.
She’d traveled from Tampa with apprehension and excitement. Growing up one of the oldest in a large family, she had a lot of experience caring for children and was excited to take her turn at story hour.
Wright sat in an armchair and introduced herself as Viktoria Sommers. About a dozen children sat on the floor and couches around her. A couple of kids knelt near the side of the chair and propped their chins on the arm. The room quieted.
“One fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish," she began, pausing to display the classic Dr. Seuss illustrations, a giant bracelet sparkling on her wrist.
“Why would a fish drive a car?” a boy called out.
“Why not?” Viktoria said.
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A monthly Drag Queen Story Hour has been going on at Community Cafe, a private business in what’s been called one of the most LGBTQ-friendly cities in America, since September. Religious protesters, many from a small fundamentalist church in Pasco County, have been there from the start.
Some months, those protesters outnumbered the children inside. Other times it was vice-versa.
Coordinating against St. Petersburg’s story hour from a keyboard more than 1,000 miles away was a Christian blogger. Zanesville, Ohio-based Elizabeth Johnston is known on social media as the Activist Mommy. She has equated being transgender with a “mental disorder” and referred to public school systems that teach students about LGBTQ contributions to U.S. history as “radical leftist indoctrination centers.” She tried last week to rally her “phone warriors” to shut down story time.
She didn’t shut it down. Saturday saw the largest turnout yet for the local event. But if you passed through the Grand Central neighborhood Saturday morning, you couldn’t miss the commotion.
Drag Queen Story Hours have spread from San Francisco to New York to Middle America in the past four years, featuring people in drag reading children’s books to kids 3 to 8.
Local organizer Kyiala Williams, whose drag persona is “Samaya Sinsation,” said it’s about kids, who not only love a fabulous costume, but can learn at a young age that it’s possible for people to be who they want.
Johnston told the Tampa Bay Times by email that she crusades against the story hours because they’re “very adult and sexual in nature" and include “confusing, gender-bending books” that can traumatize the children. Online she draws a line between the events and “the homosexual agenda.”
Saturday was the first event since Johnston called on her more than 700,000 followers to flood the cafe and Mayor Rick Kriseman’s office with phone calls. About a dozen protesters stood in front of the business holding Bibles, bullhorns and signs warning of God’s wrath.
There were at least three times as many counter protesters, who came to hold umbrellas in their faces and form a “wall of love” with their bodies to protect those entering the venue.
By 10:30 a.m., it was madness.
People sang and danced to Devo’s Whip It to drown out the sounds of bullhorn preaching. People gave the finger. People stood inches from other people’s faces as they debated Bible scripture. People shouted about love and acceptance and hell’s fire. People laid on their horns as they drove down Central Avenue.
A self-described citizen journalist who came from Orlando and said he stood "with the patriots,” pointing to the religious protesters, held a microphone in a counter-protester’s face as he took video for YouTube. The woman bit a chunk out of the microphone.
It was hard to find anyone, on either side, who lived in the neighborhood or even in St. Petersburg. Everyone the Tampa Bay Times asked said they’d heard about the event from Facebook.
In a pre-social media era, it was the type of event advertised on fliers or publications around the neighborhood, where it could have gone unnoticed by outsiders. It likely wouldn’t have raised eyebrows in a district often considered the city’s LGBTQ center.
Three nearby business owners said they were fine with the event but were annoyed the cafe was hosting it during prime shopping hours, when protesters scared off customers. All declined to give their names, worried about backlash.
LGBTQ people have had to hide and accommodate other people’s discomfort long enough, said Community Cafe owner Mandy Keyes.
As Drag Queen Story Hour has expanded with chapters in 35 U.S. cities, including in more traditionally conservative areas, there has been pushback. Libraries in Ohio canceled events in June, saying they’d received threats. There have been cancellations in Texas and Pittsburgh.
A Drag Queen Story Hour in Pasco County is in limbo, seeking a new venue after protesters drove it from a New Port Richey bookstore. The landlord worried it had become unsafe.
“It makes me sad that this event can’t happen peacefully everywhere. I think that it should," said Keyes. “But they do have a different community in Pasco County than we have here. ... I have to admit, you’d think that it if it would be accepted anywhere, it would be here.”
Keyes’ phone rang for days after Activist Mommy posted. None of the calls were from Tampa Bay.
“We don’t go by community, we go by God’s word," said Deb Maxwell, who traveled from New Port Richey with a sign reading “What’s next, pedophile story hour?"
Emails to city hall were all answered with the same reply, said spokesman Ben Kirby: “The City of St. Petersburg is a City that prides itself on its diversity and inclusive practices. Hate has no home here. While we appreciate your correspondence and concern, we are proud of events like the Drag Queen Story Hour and those who participate because they showcase those qualities that make us stronger as a community, and we do not begrudge how people choose to spend their time.”
Dick Maxwell, Deb’s husband, said the event was a sin and a corruption of young children who couldn’t defend themselves.
“When a guy dresses up and parades around and twerks and whatever else they do inside there, it is sexual expression in front of children," he said. "That simply can’t be denied.”
While some drag performances for adults can be risque, there’s nothing inherently sexual about drag, Williams said, unless you find a gown, makeup and earrings sexual. And while some drag queens do identify as men outside of drag, the performance art doesn’t adhere to any particular gender. Williams identifies as non-binary. Wright, the drag queen at Saturday’s event, is a transgender woman.
“They’re men, and they’re letting children climb all over them in there,” said Jeanne DeMont of Hudson. “It’s just sick.”
That was talk on the sidewalk. What was actually going on inside Drag Queen Story Hour?
• • •
The cafe was filled to standing room. Parents and grandparents picked at their vegetarian sandwiches. Children did what kids that age do in public. Some pouted and some giggled and some picked their noses and some tattled on others who tried to sneak half-eaten brownies off tables.
A girl squirmed and stared at Viktoria with an urgent curiosity.
“What’s your favorite color?” she asked the drag queen. It was red.
Sheets hung in the windows to block the scene outside, but cheers and bullhorns crept in each time someone went in or out the door.
After reading The Bibblehops: A Carrot For Two, A Story About Being Different about a rabbit who overcomes his initial prejudice toward a large dinosaur, Viktoria helped pass out crayons and coloring books.
Parents told kids, “Go say thank you.” Some clutched their mothers’ legs. Others bounded over immediately. Viktoria handed them sunflowers, telling each child, “Take care of it."
“You’re a great drag queen," said a 7-year-old girl.
Viktoria felt like the kid was really saying you’re a good person.
The event wound down and Jen and Ian Ayres, of St. Petersburg, prepared to leave with their 4-year-old son, Wyatt. Someone mentioned that they could go out the back door to avoid the commotion, but they declined. Jen said they had a plan.
She held up two fingers to show Wyatt what to do. Wyatt held up a peace sign.