Protests targeting drag story hour at Chelsea library launch NYC into simmering culture wars

An ongoing conflict over a literacy program where performers dressed in drag read books to children took a dramatic turn Monday night, when protesters targeted the home of a local lawmaker who attended the event at a downtown Manhattan library.

The clash, which led to arrests outside the home of Council Member Erik Bottcher, is rooted in a much broader campaign that tries to link educational programs related to gender identity with sexualizing or “grooming” children — as demonstrators try to turn the LGBTQ-friendly neighborhood of Chelsea into the latest battlefront in a culture war gripping libraries and schools across the country.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - APRIL 14: Glennda Testone and Erik Bottcher attends the 2022 Center Dinner at Cipriani Wall Street on April 14, 2022 in New York City. (Photo by Cindy Ord/Getty Images)

Bottcher, who is gay and advocates for LGBTQ issues, attended the so-called Drag Story Hour this weekend at the Andrew Heiskell Braille and Talking Book Library in Chelsea, where a group of anti-trans protesters accosted the arrivals, while counter-protesters and a couple dozen of police officers formed outside.

After the event, police had to escort attendees out one at a time, while the drag performer, who was the last to leave, changed into men’s clothes inside the library before ducking into a car.

“I expected to attend a low-key children’s event, like many others that I’ve attended,” council member Erik Bottcher, who represents the West Village, Chelsea and Hells Kitchen, told the Daily News. “When I walked up, I saw just pure bedlam outside — protesters with vile signs, saying things like ‘stop grooming our kids for sex.’ They were viciously screaming at anyone going near the door of the library.”

The story hours — where drag performers, often in bright and engaging clothes and makeup, read age-appropriate picture books to young students — have become a hot spot for protests across the country, with multiple instances of anti-trans activists interrupting or even canceling the educational events.

While demonstrators have insisted that children be shielded from the program, the storytimes are widely viewed throughout the five boroughs as a family-friendly way to promote reading, open-mindedness and self-expression.

“Drag Story Hour is an educational literacy program that helps to normalize a historically marginalized community,” said council member Rita Joseph, who chairs its education committee, “and attempts to paint it anything other than that are clearly malicious and in bad faith.”

Joseph told The News the bigotry targeting Bottcher is “sickening” — and that violence toward him and others who identify as LGBTQ “cannot go unpunished.”

Drag Story Hour protesters wrote messages in chalk outside the home of CM Erik Bottcher.

Following this weekend’s conflicts at the library, the protesters returned to Bottcher’s district office to try banging down the door and vandalized the hallway. Later that night, they broke into his apartment building and chalked hateful phrases on the sidewalk. Two were arrested.

“What’s up with that? Are you grooming them, Erik? You’re trying to sexualize children,” shouted a protester, according to a video posted to Twitter.

Drag Story Hour protesters wrote messages in chalk outside the home of CM Erik Bottcher.

Bottcher told The News that the protesters are a known group of people who have also come out against COVID vaccine mandates. They have shown up or threatened other drag story hour events, including in Manhattan and the Bronx since the summer — as have others in cities such as Chicago and San Francisco.

The News was unable to immediately reach members of the group.

This fall, conservative activist Christopher Rufo, who has been credited with inventing the conflict over Critical Race Theory in schools, published an article in the Manhattan Institute’s magazine “City Journal,” calling drag story “far more subversive than its defenders claim.”

In New York City, the local demonstrators have also repeatedly shared council members’ personal information online and called them “groomers” and “pedophiles” outside of their homes and district offices, according to the LGBTQIA+ Caucus.

This is not the first time local elected officials have pushed back against critics of the program in New York City.

A series of tweets from Queens councilwoman Vickie Paladino over the summer about the reading program, which she described as “‘drag queen’ degeneracy,” sparked significant backlash for referring to it as “child grooming and sexualization.”

New York City Council Member Vickie Paladino

At the time, Mayor Eric Adams, NYC Council Speaker Adrienne Adams, and many other local pols came out against the remarks.

Bottcher said at the library this weekend, a drag storyteller read four books — “all just regular children books,” including two that Bottcher said he recognized from his family’s bookshelf — to a group of children with disabilities as young as three years old. For their part, the kids appeared unperturbed by the assigned reader: “They weren’t focused on who was reading the book. They were focused on the story,” he added.

“If you don’t like the program, don’t go to it,” Bottcher told The News. “If someone wants to go to it, leave them alone. It’s their choice.”

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