The Okotoks Public Library hosted RoyalTea Realness this week.
It was a drag story time event, which has become a staple of Pride month in North America in the last few years. The events are intended as a space where children can learn about inclusion and acceptance in a safe and welcoming environment.
Drag kings ShaneOnYou and Nolan Neptune read four books to families in attendance, including The Rainbow Zebra and Where Oliver Fits.
The event was organized in collaboration with Calgary Pride but saw attendance from members of Okotoks Pride.
Tom Barker, co-chair of Okotoks Pride, was thrilled with the turnout.
"It was an amazing event that had a really big turnout, lots of families, lots of community leaders there, and the library had a lot of staff that attended as well. It was fabulous."
The RoyalTea Realness wasn’t disrupted by protestors, which has been known to happen at other such events.
Steps were taken to ensure the safety of attendants, though Barker was relieved that the event went as planned.
"We had Bear Clan Patrol from Calgary come out to ensure everybody was safe, the kids, the parents, and of course the performers were safe. It was a really really great event, and the library has always been really fierce partners of Okotoks Pride, as libraries across Canada are partners with pride organizations."
Members of the local RCMP detachment also briefly showed up.
The success of the event was, for Barker, another promising glimmer of progress for Okotoks.
"This community has become so receptive to different types of people, whether they're part of the Pride community or not," says Barker.
Drag storytime events sometimes draw questions around their appropriateness by those unfamiliar with the LGBTQ community due to an association held by many that drag is intrinsically linked to adult-only drag shows.
Town councilor Rachel Swendseid, who is also the council representative for the Okotoks Public Library Board, addressed many of the concerns in an FAQ Facebook post the day after the event, following comments on Town of Okotoks and Okotoks Public Library posts.
Marissa Johnston, who runs the Okotoks Pride and Foothills Rainbow Connection Facebook pages, also found herself at the forefront of these conversations in the days leading up to the event.
Johnston fielded questions and concerns about RoyalTea Realness in the weeks leading up to it, and though she recalls some positive interactions with people who posed genuine questions, she also saw hateful and abusive language directed to the performers and drag in general.
She estimates the uptick in this rhetoric began with the "Don't Say Gay" discourse around the "Parental Rights in Education" bill from earlier this year, and made its way up north.
More recently, the vitriol has been aimed directly at these family-friendly drag events held at libraries.
Screenshots from a WhatsApp group named ‘CFC Comments’ (Calgary Freedom Central) were circulated the week prior to RoyalTea Realness, showing members of the group using slurs and dehumanizing language in reference to the Okotoks event, and another in Calgary.
Johnston thinks a lot of the hurtful rhetoric is being spread by people who aren’t genuinely hateful but have been misled by people who are.
"I don't think our neighbours harbor that level of hate in their hearts. They don't want to see us vanish from the face of the earth, they don't want to see us driven back into closets and suffering, the people feeding them this rhetoric do. That's what's being missed. Yes, we are the unknown to you, but we'd love to be known. Once you aren't othered, you aren't as scary."
Unfortunately, a lot of the anger has been pointed at the library and the town, which Johnston was disappointed to see.
"Libraries are for everyone, they shouldn't have to defend the choice to have a program. The library has programs all the time that I'm sure would surprise people, and they're amazing, enlightening programs but nobody cares that those ones are happening, all they care about is that someone is putting on face paint and reading a story about inclusion. It would be flattering if it wasn't so hurtful, that they're always thinking about us."
She’s been encouraging anyone with questions about the event to send her a message at the Okotoks Pride or Rainbow Connection Facebook pages.
Still, despite the animosity seen in some circles, in Johnston’s eyes, Okotoks has grown exponentially more inclusive in recent years.
She says that’s only evidenced by the success of this year’s Pride Festival and the chorus of support from community members that’s been outweighing the vitriol.
"This isn't the Okotoks we all knew 15 years ago where you couldn't walk around being slightly visibly different. I think even though it was initially very scary and maybe filled with a little bit bolder hate than we used to, at the end of the day, that room was packed, so I think Okotoks is doing a great job of turning that rhetoric back as a display of support."