Monday, August 15, 2022

A week after Pride Storytime protests, county to meet with families, LGBT community for feedback

The Pine Valley Library was the center of protests last week during a children’s Pride Storytime event. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — “There’s safety in numbers,” Caroline Morin-Gage said.

It’s one of the points the executive director for the LGBTQ Center of the Cape Fear Coast will bring up next week when she meets with the county and its Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Office, as well as the city and county’s Community Relations Advisory Committee. Morin-Gage, along with 15 families affected by the controversial Pride Storytime event that took place at Pine Valley Library last week, have been invited to share their feedback with the county. 

READ MORE: Proud Boys, other demonstrators disrupt children’s Pride Storytime 

This comes after the reading hour, hosted for youth 7 and under, was protested by FBI-recognized extremist group Proud Boys, who gathered with independent Christian demonstrators June 21. It resulted in parents telling Port City Daily — and writing to the county — they left scared, with their children fearing their safety.

The aftermath has raised questions from the community: Why didn’t the county put in place a better security plan? Why didn’t they publicize it more and team up with organizations that could help provide more comprehensive support?

Discord had been brewing ahead of the scheduled event. Social media posts were circulating and instructed people to show up and speak out against “sexualizing” and “grooming” children. County emails highlight individuals on both sides of the aisle reaching out as early as the first of May to share concerns. 

Morin-Gage was one. She said she connected with the county to ask if there would be a plan in place to thwart potential threats and was assured the event would be “safe and free of harassment.”

Post-storytime, she followed up with the county in an email: “What is the County doing to respond to this situation?”

County representative Jessica Loeper said library staff reached out to the families the day after the protest to hear first-hand about their experiences. 

Morin-Gage told Port City Daily the LGBT+ community is disappointed their concerns weren’t taken seriously ahead of time. “The county had advance notice that this might happen,” she said. “We were hoping more would be done to provide a feeling, if not a reality, of safety for our families.” 

Though the event did not require police at the scene, Loeper said the county, library staff and sheriff’s deputies met prior to discuss all possibilities of opponents showing up, so they would have a plan of action to combat potential conflict. Law enforcement remained “alert, nearby and quickly available” as needed, she said.

New Hanover County Sheriff’s Officers arrived before the 5:30 p.m. event began, due to a 911 call. Around 20 protesters were aligning sidewalks and holding signs that stated “NHC Public Library: Guilty of Child Abuse” and “Stop supplying pornography to our students.” Many called out after families to “stop indoctrinating our children” and “let kids be kids,” according to protester Pastor Tim Russell of Beach Community Church. 

One mother who brought her two children — and chose to remain anonymous for safety reasons — said protesters also yelled at the kids “you’re going to hell.”

The sheriff’s office confirmed one pepper spray incident — between a demonstrator and ally — which in effect also sprayed a library staff member. (Read the full recount of the protest here.)

Only a handful of allies of the LGBT+ community were there, around seven according to sources at the scene. Morin-Gage said the community is normally tight-knit and looks after one another. With LGBT events, she indicated the more people who are aware of it, the more support it encourages normally.

“Sometimes in a case like this, we would have broadened the scope,” Morin-Gage said of the LGBT Center, which hosts events on an ongoing basis. “We would have tried to invite community partners and hold it in a prominent location — basic anti-bullying things tend to center around not shrinking to the fear and the pressure.”

Morin-Gage said the county closing registration for families of storytime, for example, and scaling back the event size would not have been her approach. 

“If families came to the event who were not pre-registered and they had a child with them, they were able to attend because there was available space,” Loeper clarified.

The county’s diversity, equity and inclusion officer Linda Thompson released amid the fallout that the county had protocols in place, such as having the library code of conduct printed to disperse as needed and honing its registration process. Loeper said it was to make sure only registered families — or parents with children — entered the room. Some protesters fake-registered children to fill slots early on in an attempt to usurp the event.

Morin-Gage recognized planning county events may be different than private ones, but added that small events tend to have poor outcomes — “because we know that bigots thrive in the dark.”

Families were led into the Osprey Room, a private setting away from the library’s congregate areas, to engage in storytime. Thirty minutes into the event, a handful of Proud Boys and other protesters not affiliated with the group entered the library and were allowed to peek into the window of the reading room. 

Pastor Russell told Port City Daily last week he wanted to confirm there wasn’t a drag queen reading to children, as some cities have hosted during Pride Storytime. Many consider the performers an engaging and comedic way to break limitations and boundaries on the constructs of masculinity and femininity. The county did not have a drag queen at last Tuesday’s event. 

“We looked into the room,” Russell said. “Then we left and were escorted the entire time by the sheriff’s department. No screaming, no harassing — all of that is false.”

Allies and families have a different take, saying obscenities were being expressed indoors, blanketed by complaints of taxpayer dollars being used to promote “pornography.” Yet, the books being read — “Daddy and Dada” and “Heather Has Two Mommies” — address how all families look different. 

Many implicated deputies led protesters toward the reading room where families were located. The sheriff’s department dispels the accusations, calling it completely false.

“Deputies entered behind them to ensure they weren’t causing a disturbance,” NHCS spokesperson Lt. Brewer told PCD last week. 

“A lot of the narrative seems to be around whether the police were intentionally assistive or not,” Morin-Gage said. “And, really, at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter to us what the intent was when the outcome is that families felt unsafe.”

The Diversity, Inclusion and Equity Office’s public statement after the event seemed to counter families’ concerns. It stated: “Parents and children were not in danger at any time.”

Loeper unpacked the statement to mean the county and police worked diligently to “ensure patrons remained safe.” She followed up Wednesday by saying: “We understand that people did feel scared, anxious and even traumatized at times because of the protesters.”

The library brought in more staff and volunteers for the night, as well as county representatives, including Loeper and Thompson. They were positioned near the storytime room, hallway, parking lots and sidewalks — also where deputies posted when called to the scene. 

“The county cannot control what protesters say as long as they are not a danger to others or inciting imminent violence, and are within their rights on public spaces like sidewalks,” Loeper said. “In this instance, protesting took place near the entrance to the building and along the sidewalk, so families did have to walk near the protesters to enter the building, and we understand things that were said by protesters outside made some families feel uncomfortable, upset, and alarmed. But deputies and library staff ensured that the entrance was not blocked, and tried to ensure families received a friendly and welcome greeting as they entered. In addition, no protesting or disruptions were allowed to occur inside the library at any time.”

Families were escorted out the side door rather than the main entrance by the end of the evening, some guided by library staff, others by deputies.

“My children were traumatized by this whole event,” one parent wrote to the county that night after storytime ended. “Officers are there to protect them, but [the kids] are learning at a very young age that that is not always the case.”

Morin-Gage emailed the county after as well to encourage its Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Office reach out to those who attended. She said it’s important for the county to continue hosting more inclusive events and not back away just because one went awry but instead listen to those affected.

Next week Morin-Gage said her top priorities in the county meeting will be “oriented toward education, training and publicity.” She also intends to address the lack of resources LGBT+ individuals have in New Hanover.

Loeper said county staff is already taking notes from “helpful conversations” they have engaged upon.

“In the future, the location of any events will be top of mind to determine if it is the right and best space, to ensure an even larger separation of the program from any potential protesting that could occur,” Loeper said.

All of the input next week will help form a better path forward, create firmer guidelines and collaborations for Pride events the county hosts, which Loeper confirmed will continue.

“The county is always focused on continuous improvement,” she said.

“LGBTQ folks are entitled to use county resources and county services the same way as everybody else,” Morin-Gage said. “And we believe that the county is responsible for ensuring our safety when we do so, just like everyone else.”

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Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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