Last year, the House of Coxx, a drag collective based in the Triangle, planned a family event to take place at the Cary Theater located in downtown Cary for Pride Month, scheduled for April 1. Raafe Purnsley, a member of the House of Coxx, says he was extremely excited to finally introduce Cary to drag, especially to those who had had no exposure to it before.
“We were going to read and talk about the history of drag in the LGBTQ community. [The event] was really to introduce families to drag in a more in-depth and genuine way,” Purnsley says.
Drag queen story hours are family events that are hosted by drag queens who read books to children. Purnsley says he had intended for it to be family-forward and even modeled the drag queens’ performances around some Disney songs that the kids would recognize; “Surface Pressure” from Encanto was on the set list.
Days before the event, Purnsley received a message out of the blue informing him that the theater show was no longer happening (the Town of Cary owns the Cary Theater and events are administered by the town’s Department of Parks, Recreation, and Cultural Resources).
Some Cary locals, including Emanuela Prister, a lawyer active with the Wake County GOP, had complained. On March 16, Prister sent a strongly worded email to Cary town manager Sean Stegall about the use of “derogatory language” in the queens’ stage names, arguing that the names referenced body parts and sex acts and were inappropriate for children.
“It is in fact grooming,” the email stated. “It is criminal in nature, and it is nefarious and not acceptable in a civil society.”
In his response the same day, Stegall said he was not aware that the theater had been rented for the event and that he “decided to terminate the show based up [sic] the use of vulgar language and it’s promotion to children.”
“While the Town supports and wants to encourage diversity in its offerings certainly not in this form or manner,” Stegall wrote. He did not respond to a request for comment from the INDY.
Following the cancellation of Cary’s event, more Triangle locals started harassing and sending violent threats to the organizers of Apex Pride, according to Purnsley. A drag queen story hour scheduled this month was originally canceled for Apex Pride, too, due to homophobic backlash from some residents. Equality NC stepped in to sponsor the event and took over the annual Apex Pride Festival, and the story hour went on as planned this Saturday at Apex Pride.
Drag Queen Story Hour (DQSH) North Carolina chapter leader Mary Elise says she knows how much kids love these events and how significant drag queen story hours are for them.
“Some kids just love it because it’s another story time, but for other kids, it’s a life-changing experience,” Elise says. “They need to see this representation … whether it be someone with the same skin color as them or someone who might present their gender differently …. There are so many different ways that we represent people in our story hour and our stories.”
Elise says drag queen story hour isn’t just about talking to children about Pride or LGBTQ+ issues. On the DQSH website bookshop, recommended booklists include various sections not solely focused on LGBTQ+ pride. In fact, some of the lists involve themes such as self-expression, what makes a family, and the amplification of Black and brown voices.
Unfortunately, the cancellations of these story hour events were not the only acts of discrimination occurring across Wake County during this Pride Month.
In Holly Springs, first-term Republican mayor Sean Mayefskie refused to make a proclamation for Pride Month and also refused to join Wake County and other municipalities in enacting a nondiscrimination ordinance (NDO) for its residents.
Carrie Randa, a resident of Holly Springs and 2021 town council candidate, says she reached out to Mayefskie in April to ask if Holly Springs would be signing onto the NDO and issuing a Pride proclamation. Mayefskie didn’t engage much with Randa, but he did send her one response stating, “I am aware of the LGBTQ+ community,” and nothing else.
“I sent statistics on why I thought [a Pride proclamation] was important, especially for LGBTQ+ youth,” Randa says. “A lot of the statistics were about mental health impacts, suicide rates—all sorts of things to show why this proclamation is important for our town.”
Randa continued following up with Mayefskie and included screenshots of hateful comments left on a Pride event Facebook post that was scheduled to take place in neighboring town Fuquay-Varina in the correspondence. The mayor responded that he didn’t think a proclamation would curb hate speech but said that he is adamantly against it.
Mayefskie did not respond to requests for comment from the INDY.
Randa started a petition on May 26 to see if she could convince the town’s leadership that Holly Springs residents want to be considered inclusive and welcoming. Randa received more than 500 signatures and planned to present the petition to the town council during its June 7 meeting and demand an explanation as to why the town wouldn’t issue a Pride proclamation.
Before the town council meeting took place, on May 31 Randa and a town council member, Kristi Bennett, had a meeting to discuss the Pride proclamation and NDO. Randa says they didn’t reach an agreement, but she left the meeting feeling like it was a good conversation.
But on June 5, Bennett made a Facebook post about refusing to make the proclamation and told her followers to come rally against Randa at the town council meeting.
“It would do a lot for our town to see one or more residents speaking on the opposite side of the issue,” the post read. “If you’re willing to take a moment and write an email to the mayor and council in support of NOT adopting the wake county NDO or declaring June Pride month in holly springs, I know myself and others would probably appreciate the support. Thank you.”
Bennett did not respond to the INDY’s request for comment.
“It’s a little embarrassing, I guess,” Randa says. “In 2022, and we are still fighting this battle.”
A livestream from the June 7 Holly Springs council meeting shows Randa and several others speaking about why a Pride Month proclamation is much needed. Speakers ranging from young people to longtime residents of the area said they were disappointed, angry, and upset that the council would not issue the proclamation.
“In this inaction, one can only conclude that Holly Springs has decided that some of its most vulnerable citizens are just not worth the effort and don’t require the same protections afforded to everyone else,” Randa told the council. “Pride Month is meant to acknowledge difference, promote acceptance, and show and welcome diversity.”
Outright homophobia is something that Purnsley says he has experienced before, but he says it is ridiculous that it is still occurring in the Triangle in 2022. He says he also didn’t anticipate this kind of backlash or locals’ response to the planned story hours because the events had, in the past, been welcoming and joyful events for children and adults.
“It was not lost on me, the picking and choosing that this community continuously does, every year, when it comes to the ‘protection of our children,’” Purnsley says. “Specifically, with the reality and the threats that real children in schools are facing … gun violence, food insecurity, and inaccessibility to school supplies.”
Elise says she worries about new initiatives from lawmakers targeting the LGBTQ community, such as the so-called Parents’ Bill of Rights, also known as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. She says proposed legislation like that frightens and angers her.
“It worries me that children out there will identify with what you don’t want talked about at school,” she says.
But in spite of the backlash in some of the more conservative corners of Wake, Pride events go on as planned—and proudly—in Raleigh, Durham, and Orange Counties.
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