It didn’t take long for misinformation to hit this library's Pride programs – but that didn't stop them.
Norwood, Massachusetts, is the town everyone returns to. With a stable population that always seems to hover around 30,000, the folklore among locals is that “more people have been born and died in Norwood than anywhere else.”
How can Norwood live up to its loyal reputation as the younger generation grows up? For Kate Tigue, head of youth services at Norwood’s Morrill Memorial Library, it’s all about keeping the town, specifically the library, a welcoming place for everyone.
In 2021, Morill Memorial Library planned its first Pride Month series of celebrations. It didn’t take long before the backlash hit. Using a fake email address posing as the library’s children’s department, someone sent emails encouraging people to write to town officials to oppose two of the events, specifically those featuring drag performers, claiming “The Innocence of Our Children is Under Attack.”
Morrill Memorial Library is not alone. According to GLAAD, there have been 166 recorded incidents of anti-LGBTQ threats targeting drag events since early 2022. Additionally, the American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom tracked 42 challenges to public library programs in 2022. Of the 42 recorded program challenges, 18 were drag queen story times and 16 were other LGBTQIA+ programs.
Tigue, along with Clayton Cheever, director of Morrill Memorial Library and Heath Umbreit, adult services librarian, spoke to Programming Librarian about the misinformation campaign they faced and why it is important that libraries continue Pride programming.
Celebrating a community that has always been here
Before Morrill Memorial Library’s first Pride celebration in 2021 and prior to the pandemic, Tigue and a colleague attended training on drag story times. “It was a program we always had in the back of our mind,” Tigue says. “But there wasn’t enough support at the time.”
It wasn’t until the social justice-focused Cheever came on as library director in 2021 that the first year of the library’s Pride programming came to fruition. Umbreit, also new to the library, started planning. As a trans person, Umbreit felt thrilled to be at a library that was “front and center with supportive staff” ready to plan the programs that had been waiting to get green-lit.
For the library staff, the Pride events were a chance to recognize and celebrate a part of the community that has always been part of Norwood. They took the opportunity to educate community members about often-overlooked figures from their town’s past, like acclaimed photographer F. Holland Day. “He was living as an openly gay man in the 1890s in Norwood,” Tigue says. “That’s a piece of our history that isn’t well known, but through our programming, we have been able to introduce our community to the fact that this is not a new aspect of Norwood. People have always been living here who need this type of representation.”
“He dedicated seven and a half hours of airtime to us”
Once Umbreit started promoting the Pride programs for June 2021, the events caught the attention of a few locals, who wrote heated letters to the editor and opinion pieces in the local paper and made negative social media comments.
Then Dan Rea, the host of NightSide, a daily radio talk show with national syndication, began talking about the library’s program. Over several shows, Rea spent a total of seven-and-a-half hours of airtime talking about Drag Kings, Queens, & Friends, Morrill Memorial Library’s virtual drag story time for kids. At the library, phone calls, social media comments and attention from outside of the community increased.
Rea reached out to Cheever to ask if he would join them live on air. “I declined,” Cheever says. “It would not have been a good way to further our agenda, and we decided to wait for him to turn his attention to something else.”
Many don’t understand the depths of hatred for marginalized groups — until this happens at home
Shortly after the first mention of drag queen story time on the radio, library staff became aware of spoofed emails and flyers distributed around the community and to library patrons.
“The flyers erroneously claimed that the children's story time would feature the drag queens from our adult program, rather than the family-friendly performers the library had booked for the event,” says Tigue. The flyers, featuring the headshots of the drag performers from the adult Pride program, were misleadingly captioned as “two programs inappropriate for children are scheduled to be offered at Morrill Memorial Library.”’
Library staff were shocked. Up to now, library complaints had been limited to a noisy HVAC system or an inconveniently scheduled story time. “It was so upsetting when this happened,” Tigue says. “We were so rattled by it and had to come to terms with our naivete around the depth of this type of hatred.”
Cheever says he received death threats. There was a dehumanizing article calling out Umbreit in a local publication, and the library’s phone was constantly ringing with complaints. The spoofed emails and flyers also led people to the impression that the library was “surprising families with drag queens or that we were tricking kids into attending sexually explicit adult-only drag shows,” Tigue says. “We spent a lot of time on phones trying to dispel that misinformation. It was draining.”
The detractors were vocal online, but despite some negativity, Umbreit says community members sent many more messages of support. Among the supportive Norwood community members were local leaders, an individual on the school committee who wrote a letter of support in the local paper, the historical society and a local science teacher. Anonymous affirming messages written in bright, rainbow chalk also appeared outside of the library one night. The library’s friends group also saw an increase in donations.
There were four planned street protests on the Town Common that, in the end, about ten detractors showed up for. “Dozens of counter-protestors came out with supportive signs,” Umbreit says. One of the counter-protests spontaneously turned into Norwood’s first Pride Picnic.
“The people who showed up to that counter-protest created a drive to make the Pride Picnic an annual event,” Cheever says. “They reached out to us last year and I said, ‘Absolutely! Let’s get some other town departments in on this as well, so it’s not just the library, but the entire town that’s standing up for Pride.’”
Pride can happen anywhere, anytime and be celebrated in many ways
Two years have passed since the library’s first Pride celebration.
“For better or worse, we were on the very front edge of the wave of rhetoric that is targeting LGBTQ people and drag performers today,” Umbreit says. “We weren’t prepared to handle and respond to waves of concentrated complaints, insults, threats and slurs. Library training is often focused on one-person complaints and not how to deal with crowds of angry people, especially when those crowds are often community outsiders.”
The library’s 2022 Pride programming and this year’s upcoming celebration will not include drag performers. “We are waiting for a point when we can do those events safely again in person,” Tigue says. “We have community support, but we are aware of the heightened threat of outsiders and groups showing up at library events right now.”
This year, Morrill’s Pride programming lineup includes a rainbow craft for kids, a teen pride party, a presentation on LGBTQ people in Hollywood and a program in partnership with Fenway Health Medical Center on gender diverse and gender-affirming health care misinformation.
“Many queer youth have generally had to leave their hometown for safety and acceptance reasons,” Tigue says. “We want them to know that Norwood has the potential to really live up to its catchphrase and that your hometown is where you can stay or feel safe returning to.”