ITHACA, N.Y.—A week before the instructional course local drag queen Tilia Cordata planned to teach at the Tompkins County Public Library started, she was told that right-wing Twitter personalities had gotten ahold of the press release for the events and started sharing it around. 

“Initially, it was mostly out-of-state stuff, and then eventually, some local right-wingers got a hold of it,” Cordata said. 

While Cordata said nothing happened at the event — something she credits to the actions the library took to provide increased security and a secure space — she said safety is always a heightened concern of hers when doing events involving children and families. The drag instructional course was held for children ages 11–18.

One of the larger Twitter accounts that took aim at Cordata’s event, Libs of Tik Tok, was briefly suspended (a direct reason is unclear, but the suspension shortly followed after the account published a long thread notifying followers when and where drag events involving children were occurring. 

“Several other events that I have run with children have had public outcry and Facebook posts about it,” Cordata said. “And I’ve done some events outside of Ithaca that have caused some conservative anger. So yeah, that’s always a concern.”

The course, held at the library throughout the month of June as a part of the downtown pride celebrations planned by the Downtown Ithaca Alliance, was not the only LGBT-focused event that garnered backlash. 

Lisa Swayze, the general manager at Buffalo Street Books, said she had heard that right-wing groups had encouraged parents to check out all of the books on the Pride month display at the TCPL, to prevent other people from reading them. 

“I think that our public library is under the impression that they’ve had that experience,” Swayze said. “And so it’s not that it’s unheard of, even in our lovely little progressive bubble here in Ithaca, that the negativity can come.”

Teresa Vadakin, assistant director of the TCPL, did not directly confirm those suspicions, but said in a statement to The Ithaca Voice that attacks on public libraries are nothing new. 

Credit: Casey Martin / The Ithaca Voice

“People who fear free speech, who fear free and open access to information, and who fear people who aren’t like them have always targeted libraries because we are beacons of freedom and tolerance,” the statement said, continuing that TCPL strives for an environment of belonging. “For a very small minority of people, that’s threatening. By providing diverse programs and defending the freedom for community members to attend or not attend, we send a powerful message – that, in this country, everyone has a place at the library.” 

There has been a surge in anti-LGBTQ rhetoric in the last few years, with lawmakers targeting transgender athletes in girl’s’ and women’s sports, attacks on LGBTQ Pride events and laws banning discussions of gender and sexuality in schools.

Recently, drag queen story hours (DQSHs) have come under fire from protesters and far-right groups. Members of the Proud Boys disrupted a story hour in California and DQSHs in North Carolina, Colorado, New Jersey and Texas, among others, have also been disrupted by protesters.  

The events, usually held at bookstores and libraries, are a part of a larger organization, Drag Queen Story Hour that originated in San Francisco in 2015. DQSH has now grown into a global network of local organizations, with chapters in five continents and across 29 states, including one in Ithaca. 

Swayze said that the store has been an official chapter of DQSH since 2018, usually attracting at least 20 families for each drag story hour. The event used to occur monthly, but has been held more intermittently during the pandemic, including occasionally virtually and outdoors. 

Swayze said the drag story hour has not had any issues with protesters or backlash, pointing out the set of core values that are posted in the store.

“We spell it out very, very clearly that we will not tolerate racist, homophobic, transphobic, sexist, any nasty behaviors toward anyone in our store,” Swayze said. “I would say that we almost never have to see that in any overt or horrifying way. So I don’t know if we’re already self-selecting by being in Ithaca, and by being so forward with our values. But in any case, they exist and they’re posted so that if it ever comes up, we’re ready to just say, ‘you have to leave.’”

Cordata has been involved with drag story hour since 2018 and co-leads the event with Coraline Chardonnay. Cordata said that while she’s faced backlash with other drag events she has held in Ithaca, including the drag course at TCPL, she has never experienced any issues with drag story hour. 

Cordata said her overall experience with drag story hour has been positive and uplifting, especially the amount of representation that is shown in children’s books — something she said didn’t exist when she was younger. 

“By powerful, I mean we have a book that features two women falling in love, like a fairy tale, [and] we’ve had a girl go, ‘that story is really important to me, because I have two mommies and I don’t ever see that in my book,’” Cordata said. “Seeing the kids also respond to that amount of representation is really powerful and important and meaningful to me.”