Happy birthday to ... Oh nevermind. Back to critics and supporters of drag-queen story hours

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It was on the first day of February in 2004 that GetReligion co-founder Doug LeBlanc clicked a mouse and put the first version of this website online. That post — “What we do, why we do it” — is still up, for those who have never seen it.

That was the day after my birthday, the last day of January. That was a coincidence, back in 2004, and that fact has never been all that relevant.

But now it is, because today is my 65th birthday and, as old folks know who read GetReligion, for many people that starts all kinds of clocks ticking. In my case, that means I am one year away from retirement as editor of GetReligion.

That doesn’t mean that I will vanish. After all, for a decade GetReligion was my part-time work, while I was a full-time professor in West Palm Beach, Fla., and then Washington, D.C., while also writing my “On Religion” column for Scripps Howard and then the Universal syndicate.

But Jan. 31, 2020 will mean changes at GetReligion, of one kind or another. That’s fine with me, since the realities shaping news and commentary work about religion have radically changed, over the past decade and a half. Still,  I hope to keep doing some GetReligion-esque work at this site or whatever evolves out of it. I’d like to do more writing, for example, about the religious content of popular culture — one of the topics that pulled me into teaching back in 1991, at Denver Seminary.

But back to the our digital world and the American Model of the Press. Consider, for example, the current mini-wave of coverage of drag queen story hours.

Yes, Julia Duin just wrote a post on this topic: “Drag queens: Reporters can't comprehend why many parents don't want them in kid libraries.” I would urge you to read it. Here’s a key quote:

Just what is the religious case against drag queens, as it would be articulated by people who hold that point of view? Is there one?

Think like an old-school journalist. Wouldn’t it have been nice if we could have heard more about what that is, like there was an actual debate taking place? And are these folks not so much against drag queens as their presence in children’s programs representing a kind of slippery slope? Read this Atlantic magazine article if you don’t believe that gender dysphoria is a huge trend among teens.

Now we have, as part of this national mini-wave of coverage, an oh-so-similar story at The Philadelphia Inquirer: “Protesting story hour? A drag queen event at Lansdale library sparks a furor.” Here’s the oh-so-familiar overture:

When a local drag queen named Annie Christ wanted to book a room at the Lansdale Library to host a story hour, staff did the state’s required background check and reserved a room for this Saturday, Feb. 2. After all, drag queen story hours have become a trend in libraries across the country and around greater Philadelphia.

Then, the phone calls began.

“There’s definitely more complaints about this than any other event we’ve done,” said beleaguered library director Tom Meyer. “But the amount of support for having it is also overwhelming.”

He estimates about 50 phone calls have come in, many of them from outside the area, expressing concerns. He figures maybe a dozen protesters will show up, based on Facebook activity — but he also expects so many families to attend he’ll have to start turning people away after the room hits its 64-person capacity.

Interesting name, “Annie Christ.” As Rod “Benedict Option” Dreher noted, that seems to be a tongue in rouged cheek nod to a different title — “Antichrist.” Maybe?

As you would expect, the entire story is written from the point of view of the supporters of this rising tide of mainstream-media publicity for this free-expression trend in public-libraries.

Drag-queen strategists receive lots and lots of ink offering their beliefs and convictions, drawn from multiple interviews with Philly.com.

In this case — Hurrah!?!— critics of the event are given several sentences of comments taken from a real, live, in-depth email exchange. Thus:

… Steve Piotrowski, who created a Facebook page criticizing the event, said he and co-organizer Ken Souder will be outside the library Saturday for a protest, prayer gathering and press conference.

“We strongly believe that it is very dangerous to use publicly funded libraries and government in general to promote radical ideas,” Piotrowski said in an email.

Actually, that comment about public funds raises an interesting point. This is not a story hour at the local neighborhood Episcopal or Unitarian church.

However, as a First Amendment liberal (and as the husband of a public librarian), I am in favor of all kinds of free expression in the public square. In this case, I would support both the library staff and the people who are protesting the actions of the library staff. Free speech issues are best addressed with more free speech.

However, let me ask this question, thinking about follow-up reports at Philly.com (and elsewhere): Would it be relevant to ask what kinds of content-producing partnerships these local public libraries have with religious schools (left and right) as well as home-school coalitions (left and right)? Could we expect a positive #MSM response to public-library events dedicated to readings from classic Christian literature or even apologetics? How about a public-library event with detransitioned women and men reading from memoirs about their experiences with rapid onset gender dysphoria?

With that in mind, consider this unedited GetReligion comment to Julia’s earlier post, offered by reader Greg Giovanni:

Googling up on this story (I really wanted to hear 200 people sing ‘Baby Shark’) I came across a few ‘religious’ posts rationally (actually) discussing their point of view. The argument goes, “They are making gender dysphoria accessible to children.” Um… not quite:

The queens are making ‘dress up’ and ‘fantasy’ and ‘inclusion’ tangible and real. The children who see gender dysphoria probably need positive re-enforcement (so once again, ‘Religion’ gets perverted to hurt children who think differently).

These creeps coming to a library screaming ‘sin, sin, sin’ are exactly like me bursting into their church and yelling blasphemies. I would never do that. I respect your freedom, wish you would respect ours.

Of course, the GetReligion post didn’t call for people shouting “sin, sin, sin” at a public library. I would also note that churches are public spaces, but they are also non-profit voluntary associations — not public libraries. If a bunch of Baptists crashed a Unitarian or Metropolitan Community Church rite shouting “repent, repent, repent” then we could discuss how to handle mainstream news coverage of police responses to that protest.

But, let’s talk journalism, not church-state law.

The particular GetReligion post — as always — noted that drag queen story hours are generating news and that this is a valid topic for coverage.

The issue — as always, for a decade-plus — has been whether it is possible for the mainstream press to cover hot-button events of this kind, especially those focusing on religion and culture, in a balanced, accurate, old-school liberal way that shows respect for believers on both sides of the debate.

Is this possible, in the current media marketplace, one defined by digital-niche choirs and, heaven help us, Donald Trump? And on this day, let me ask: What is the future of a website calling for that kind of old-school coverage, one that allows readers to hear LGBTQ apologists make a case for their beliefs — in their own words, on their own terms — and then offers the same opportunity to traditional Jews, Christians, Muslims on the other side of many of these debates?

Is there anyone on the cultural left who thinks this is possible?

Is there anyone on the cultural right who still thinks this is possible?

Happy birthday to GetReligion.

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