NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Once upon a time, in 2015, a writer in San Francisco named Michelle Tea got the idea for "Drag Queen Story Hour": men in full drag reading children's books to kids and parents in programs aimed at providing "positive and unabashedly queer role models."
Since then, Drag Queen Story Hours have been held at libraries or book stores in big cities including Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, and costume-loving New Orleans — where over-the-top hair, makeup and gowns and stories about gender fluidity aren't exactly new.
In some smaller communities, however, the programs have sparked protests from conservative and religious groups.
In Lafayette, Louisiana, west of New Orleans, the president of the local public library board resigned amid debate over plans to hold "Drag Queen Story Hour." Mayor Joel Robideaux has indicated he may seek to cancel the Oct. 6 program.
A handful of protesters showed up in the rain outside an August event at a library branch in Columbus, Georgia, according to the Ledger-Enquirer.
And, on its Facebook page, a group called Common Sense Campaign Tea Party is calling for protests of a planned Sept. 8 event at a public library in Mobile, Alabama. That's where drag queen Khloe Kash is scheduled to read "Rainbow Fish," a 1992 story about the value of sharing, and "Stella Brings the Family," about a little girl fretting over what to do about her school's upcoming Mother's Day celebration because she has two fathers.
"It's growing all over the nation, including the South," Jonathan Hamilt, a New Yorker who provides help in organizing the story hours nationwide, told The Associated Press. He said there are DQSH chapters in 40 states and in other countries.
Hamilt performs as his drag alter-ego, Ona Louise, at charity events and at Drag Queen Story Hours. He acknowledges that the story hours draw protests in some cities. But he has also been surprised at the acceptance it has received in some rural areas and conservative states such as Wisconsin and Georgia, where he grew up.
"You never know how the community is going to react to the programing," Hamilt said. "It's kind of a toss-up."
Critics see something sinister: "The program is designed to purposely target children so as to make sexual perversion acceptable through repeated exposure," a poster on the Common Sense Campaign Tea Party page wrote. AL.Com reported that opponents at a Mobile County Commission meeting described the programs as a "plan to indoctrinate children."
But, so far, the reading sessions are still on. At a Mobile City Council meeting, according to news accounts, some members expressed sympathy with opponents but also cited First Amendment concerns that made them reluctant to try to block the program. Scott Kinney, executive director of the Mobile Public Library system, said the system's policy on use of meeting rooms stresses maximum availability to the public, and he noted that library facilities have been used by faith-based groups.
In Lafayette, the planned October story hour is being coordinated by members of the Delta Lambda Phi Social Fraternity at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette. The national fraternity, founded by gay men in 1986, issued a news release supporting the chapter as the controversy erupted last week.
"This program teaches love, diversity and acceptance — powerful and positive messages from which all can benefit," it said.