Editor's note: This is a follow-up to a story published earlier today: Church changes Drag Queen Story Time event to Leander Family Pride Festival and Story Time
Two Austin-based drag performers who were once considered possible readers at Open Cathedral's rescheduled Drag Queen Story Time event at the Leander Public Library say they have concerns about how the event has been handled by the city and the church.
Valeri Abrego-Liszewski, a drag king performer who was the individual originally contacted by the library for it's official event before it was cancelled by the city, and Tasha Contreras, a transgender drag performer, said they were interviewed by Open Cathedral Pastor Ryan Hart as possible readers during the church's rescheduled event.
Both said they were initially very happy and appreciative of Hart's understanding approach. They said they were particularly thrilled to hear about how open and accepting the church was to LGBTQ individuals. Both also said they appreciated Hart initially asking whether he could find time after the event to meet with members of the drag community and thank them.
However, when the church posted that it was changing the format of the event on Friday, eliminating drag queen readers and renaming the event the Leander Family Pride Festival and Story Time, the performers said they had issues with how the selection was handled, including Hart's questions during the interview process.
They also said no one had communicated to them that they weren’t selected, despite the church's post publicly stating that a performer was unable to attend due to an "unavoidable work committment." The church's post did not state whether it referred to Abrego-Liszewski, Contreras, or another person.
In a phone interview late Friday afternoon, Hart said he had tried his best to maintain communication and keep everyone updated on the process, but said that the church initiated dozens of background check processes in the last few weeks on performers they had contacted about reading to children at the event.
He said the church's process involved "getting the ball rolling" on backgrounds checks and then seeking to reach out as the process progressed.
Abrego-Liszewski said Hart had originally contacted them and talked just hours after the library event was cancelled on May 23. Abrego-Liszewski said Hart subsequently asked if there were any drag performers available that were also educators.
When those individuals were too busy or declined out of safety concerns due to the volume of media attention on the event, Abrego-Liszewski offered to read at the event, citing 23 years as a parent and several recent years of experience organizing other Drag Queen Story Time events.
Abrego-Liszewski said Ryan raised a concerm about them teaching a hip-hop dance class at a burlesque academy with both of them, noting the presence of a stripper pole exercise class. Abrego-Liszewski said those classes were in an adjacent building, while the hip-hop class was not inappropriate and only taught to adults. Abrego-Liszewski also noted it was not distinct from their drag performance, which stay within state laws and never involves them being completely nude.
The Hill Country News reached out to Hart for further comment by email and phone on Friday afternoon and is awaiting a response. Several of the questions in the email were submitted to Hart on Thursday, but he only replied to state that media would not be allowed inside Saturday's new-format event.
Both of the drag performers who talked with Hart said they felt hurt and judged by the questioning, comparing it to the targeted comments made by protesters such as MassResistance against Hart and the two performers.
“It’s really upsetting that someone who is supposed to be an advocate for us while all of this is going on turns around and is negative to someone for being a burlesque entertainer,” Contreras said. “That’s pretty much the same thing the city is doing to us, but in a different context.”
Both performers shared emails and texts with the Hill Country News showing Hart reaching out to Abrego-Liszewski as late as Monday, June 10, and Contreras as late as Wednesday, June 12, but then not providing any subsequent communication before the church's Friday post announcing a change in the event.
Abrego-Liszewski’s final email included Hart saying he was still awaiting on the returns of a background check, which Abrego-Liszewski submitted back in late May. Abrego-Liszewski had also informed Hart of passing a background check back in 2017 as part of a state job involving helping to administer tests.
Contreras’s final communications were on Tuesday and Wednesday. Contreras had texted that she wasn’t planning on being at the event because she had not heard back from Hart in a while. On Wednesday, Hart texted back “Oh no!” and asked if there was any way for Contreras to still be available.
Since Hart had previously texted about Contreras possibly being the only performer, she asked whether Abrego-Liszewski could perform the event, both because Abrego-Liszewski is her friend and because she had concerns about her safety if she went alone given the planned protests.
Hart responded by asking if they could chat tomorrow. Contreras responded about being busy at that moment because she was busy and forgot to follow-up with Hart. She did not receive any further texts or calls from Hart.
They both said they wouldn’t have been upset if Hart had told them ahead of time about the change, but they now feel upset given the circumstance and the questions they say he asked them during his interview process.
"As we were coming down to it, we were just moving really quickly...background checks take a while to come back, so that's why we ultimately chose people from the church that already had background checks," Hart said. "This has been our honest, best efforts to keep the event going and stay true to the values of letting kids know they are loved no matter what."
Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect comments from Open Cathedral Pastor Ryan Hart, in response to Abrego-Liszewski and Contreras' statements on Friday.