Oblivious to the recent headline-grabbing disruptions of Pride events across the nation or the dueling rallies held within earshot of the Castro Valley Library’s front doors, Ambika Najaraj’s daughter cared about just one thing:
Entranced by a storytelling drag queen in platform heels, rainbow stockings and a kaleidoscopic headpiece resembling her favorite fantasy character, the girl gave an enthusiastic nod of approval Tuesday evening to her new favorite storyteller, King Art Babe. Her review capped a peaceful return of Drag Queen Story Hour events to the Alameda County Library system after authorities say a group of apparent Proud Boys members barged into a similar reading earlier this month in San Lorenzo and spewed homophobic slurs at another performer.
No disruptions were reported Tuesday as King Art Babe — bedazzled in a blue dress and rainbow mascara — held a group of preschoolers and kindergarteners in rapt attention, flipping through several books about Pride parades and dressing in drag. Often, the performer stopped to remark on the characters’ lavish outfits.
“Who likes to dress up?” King Art Babe asked the children, as several hands shot up. “I like to dress up as a princess, too.”
For Najaraj, the event offered a chance to normalize drag and LGBTQ Pride, with the hope that her daughter would grow up to be an accepting, worldly woman.
“I want to normalize it,” said Nagaraj, of Castro Valley. “I think this is probably the best story time of her life so far.”
Other parents snagged signed copies of books read by the performer to add to their home bookshelves, vowing that “we’re not going to be afraid.”
“Things that are unknown are what’s scary to people,” said Julia Ramirez of Castro Valley, who attended the reading with her 4-year-old son. “The more he’s exposed to, the less he sees things as weird or not normal.”
Tuesday’s event came as the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office continued its investigation into an incident at the library system’s last story hour on June 11, when authorities say at least five men who appeared aligned with the far-right extremist Proud Boys group barged into a reading at the San Lorenzo Library. The men acted “very aggressive” while hurling homophobic and transphobic slurs at the story hour’s performer, a sheriff’s spokesman said at the time.
At one point, the library’s staff helped the performer, Panda Dulce, flee to a back room while others called the sheriff’s office for help. Dulce later returned to finish the reading after deputies responded and the apparent Proud Boys members left.
The June 11 incident garnered national attention amid a wave of anti-LGBTQ rhetoric across the country in recent weeks. Alameda County sheriff’s detectives have since initiated a hate crimes investigation into the incident, though investigators are still working with the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office to determine whether what happened in San Lorenzo was a crime or protected speech. No arrests have been announced.
In a statement Wednesday, Panda Dulce called the June 11 incident “a brazen act of vitriolic intimidation” against the queer community. But she added that “we have always faced threats. We will rise above every time.” And she was “heartened” that the subsequent Castro Valley reading went off without incident.
On Tuesday, dueling protesters and supporters of the story hour waved signs outside the library as about 15 children and 20 adults shuffled inside for two readings by Carrie King, 52, who has performed as King Art Babe for about four years.
The library system coordinated with the sheriff’s office to have deputies available during the readings, though they remained outside the building throughout the event.
King acknowledged that Tuesday’s reading felt different than other performances — adding that her husband initially wanted her to cancel her appearance just a few hours before it was scheduled to occur.
“It’s more important that we don’t let hate win,” said King, pointing to Panda Dulce’s decision to continue reading after being confronted in San Lorenzo. “I thought, ‘If she could do that, after that horrific experience, I can do the Castro Valley reading.’”
Smiling through glittery purple lipstick, King flipped through four books and led the children in two songs – including a lively rendition of “The Hips on the Drag Queen Go Swish, Swish, Swish,” sung to the tune of “The Wheels on the Bus.”
One book – illustrated by King herself – detailed a girl’s relationship with an uncle who enjoyed dressing in drag. One scene depicted several people shouting their disapproval at the girl’s uncle – prompting King to remark “that’s not very nice.” Drag, the book countered, “was for everyone.”
“This is something that is completely wholesome, family-friendly and just fun — it’s just joyful,” King said after the reading.
All the while, about a dozen opponents stood outside the library holding signs declaring “There is no pride before sin,” and “Pride goes before the destruction.”
Waving a Christian flag, Manny Morales, 53, of Castro Valley, decried how the event was aimed at preschoolers and kindergarteners. Fellow protesters cited Biblical verses in voicing their opposition to the reading.
“I don’t think children should be exposed to this type of behavior,” Morales said. “Children should live an innocent life. Kids need to be left alone.”
Standing just a few steps away with a group of several dozen supporters of the reading, Renee Rettig, 51, said she was “happy” to co-exist with opponents protesting peacefully. Still, she was “heartened” by how many more supporters came to the library – about 50 of whom waved flags and signs declaring “Love trumps hate”.
As the owner of the Books on B bookstore in Hayward, Rettig has hosted several Drag Queen Story Hour events in the past. But she said Tuesday’s event took on a special significance in light of what happened in San Lorenzo.
“To think they had to go through that experience is just traumatizing,” Rettig said. “You definitely have to jump back in the saddle and double down on kindness. Kids are paying attention.”