The Leander 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 Hour event on June 15, said they were informed by email Thursday that the event has been canceled by the “city council of Leander.”
However, no public record of a city council meeting addressing the issue could be found at the city’s public meetings website, and it is still unclear whether the city council did in fact order the cancellation.
Leander public information officer Mike Neu directed media to an information release posted on the city’s website late Thursday, which stated, “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.”
While not providing details on why certain events were canceled and others were not, and whether any public controversy played a role in the decision, the city's release goes on to confirm that the Drag Queen Story Hour has been canceled. A Summer Superhero Saturday event scheduled for June 8 has also been canceled.
A number of other summer events were listed as being subject to an overall review — but not canceled — including "Stories and Songs with Sue Young" and "Brett Roberts, Magician & Puppeteer."
Emails from library staff to the performer, however, indicated the Drag Queen Story Hour event's cancellation was a result of “the controversy the city has faced.”
Requests for details on the alleged controversy were not provided by the city, however, social media posts showed some amount of unrest related to the scheduled event.
“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.
Posts about the event on social media have already ignited intense debate over the event, generating hundreds of comments for and against allowing the event across several posts. 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.
Neither library officials nor the mayor or members of council returned calls on Thursday seeking comment and clarification on the matter.
The Leander Public Library is managed by a third-party contractor, Library Systems and Services, LLC, and Neu said the city has the right to provide input about services and direction for the library. However, it is not yet clear whether the mayor or individual city council members have the authority under the city’s charter to direct employees of a third-party contractor, such as order — or even request — the contractor to make changes to its programming.
The city has not yet provided information about whether the council convened a quorum in order to discuss the issue and take action in accordance with Texas Open Government laws.
City of Cedar Park spokesperson Jennie Huerta said that any contractor for Cedar Park typically answers to a commission or board, and is ultimately directed by city staff. According to City of Cedar Park's FAQ page about it's City Council-Manager form of government — the same form of government used by the City of Leander — the mayor, council members or the council itself cannot direct city staff, other than the city manager.
The Hill Country News has submitted a series of open records requests seeking clarification on how the event was scheduled and ultimately canceled, and whether the mayor or council members were involved in that process.
Leander’s public statement Thursday afternoon 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.
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 regards 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.
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.
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.
“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.”
Corpus Christi resident 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.
The group’s Texas Facebook page did not yet list anything about Leander Thursday afternoon, though its website includes several articles about their opposition to a similar event in Houston earlier this year.
The Southern Poverty Law Center has designated MassResistance an anti-gay hate group. MassResistance has rebuked the claim in past statements.
In a development 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.
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.
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.