Byron Hackett is the Managing Editor of the Red Deer Advocate.

Hackett: In response to Red Deer City Councillor Vesna Higham’s opinion piece

I’m writing this week earlier than I usually do, in order to help provide perspective on an opinion piece from Coun. Vesna Higham.

I think discourse is important and believe it is vital to share different perspectives on issues in our community.

I appreciate the councillor sharing her response to Kraymer Barnstable’s code of conduct violation decision earlier this month. Without discourse, our society will never move forward or grow.

I do believe the councillor misses a few key points regarding the issue of Drag Queen Storytime and sharing one’s opinion. There’s a false equivalency that because Coun. Barnstable spoke out about drag story time, “free speech” is being quelled or under attack. That debate is being limited on controversial topics.

First off, speech is not free. You can say what you want, when you want, but those words always come at a cost. Whether we agree or not, whether you intended to or not, when you make comments in a public forum, there are consequences to those words.

Depending on the topic, some words carry a greater consequence than others.

Depending on your job, those consequences carry even greater weight. For, you are no longer simply representing yourself, but others as well.

Name-calling and mud-slinging aside, there is a reason Barnstable’s comments drew so much ire. And respectfully, I think Higham is missing the point.

The reaction to Barnstable’s comments had little to do with people who are offended or afraid of discourse. It has everything to do with what those comments represent. The problem is not with the comments on the surface. You can express concern about events, especially those that involve children all you want. There should be room for debate.

The problem comes with the environment around which the comments are being made. You don’t have to look any further than the comments from Lacombe-Ponoka MLA Jennifer Johnson, who compared transgender children to feces, to understand the supercharged nature of comments surrounding this topic. Considering she garnered 72 per cent of the vote in Lacombe- Ponoka, I’m sure she’s not alone in that sentiment.

Attacks on drag storytime events have also become the norm in the United States. They’ve been banned in many states. Imagine a volunteer trying to read a book to children, not being allowed to do so. Or people protesting such an event because a section of the population believes that person is out to “corrupt” or “groom” that child.

What’s so perverse about somebody reading a book to a child? How is someone so uncomfortable with their ability to parent that they believe a child is being “groomed” the second somebody who looks or acts differently tries to carve out space in this world? Higham raises a few examples that drag events promote a “highly sexualized culture.”

I will rebuke that, with a study from the University of Northampton that concluded:

“Our findings overwhelmingly evidence that attending drag events has a positive impact on happiness and mental wellbeing. People feel that they can express themselves in a non-judgmental, safe space where they can escape from everyday life and feel a sense of joy and liberation.”

That sounds awful. How dare we expose children to joy and happiness. In 2020, the University of Guelph produced a paper titled “The Fabulousness and the Fury: Preparing for a Drag Queen Storytime.”

The paper details a drag storytime event that played out, funnily enough, in my hometown of Georgetown in 2019. They received some negative online feedback for a drag storytime event ahead of time, but 160 people showed up and nearly all of them had a positive reaction. More people attended than any other family reading time event they’ve ever had. The article explained drag storytime in this way:

“Takes traditional elements of performance for children (e.g., storytelling, pantomime, clowning, costumes, comedy, songs, and so on) and adds to that an opportunity to promote inclusion and diversity by featuring performers in genderbending or exaggerated attire.”

Sure sounds awful, doesn’t it?

Sometimes, you see what you want to see.

I believe the reason people are looking beyond the simple surface implications of Barnstable’s comments is because of what is happening all around us. Books are being taken off the shelves in many communities in the U.S. if they even mention transgender people or have any LGTBQSA+ themes.

American Conservatives were looking for a cause that would rally the base and unite the right after the supreme court declared gay marriage a constitutional right eight years ago and many believe they found it in transgender identity.

We are not the United States but you can see these undertones shifting in our conversations and shifting into our own cultural lexicon. So when people expressed concern and dismay at Barnstable’s comments, there was a reason. It wasn’t just an attempt to attack free speech.

Comments have consequences and especially when you are an elected official who represents a city that prides itself on inclusiveness.

I would suggest that anyone who has an issue with people in drag reading to kids are looking for a fight. They are looking to ignite an emotional response from their community. Because what does it cost to be generous? To be kind to individuals that are different? You can have an opinion on that if you like, but if you share it on a public forum, you deserve to face scrutiny.

If you want to walk around shouting controversial opinions, you can’t and shouldn’t expect everyone to agree with you. You can’t expect that it’s not going to anger or upset people.

Barnstable’s comments to the Advocate after the code of conduct ruling were telling: “I guess everyone is allowed to have an opinion unless it’s a conservative opinion.”

Conservatives have devised this culture war that somehow, people dressing up in drag are the enemy. I think Higham’s point about a more well-rounded debate and less siloed opinions is a valid one. We certainly need to find better ways to talk about controversial topics. Sharing those opinions on Facebook into an echo chamber I would argue, is not the best way to promote and foster a healthy debate.

Drag storytime events teach children that we should be accepting of everyone – that they should listen to those who are different and welcome them into our community.

“The wondrous capability of children to be open and accepting never ceases to inspire me,” the author of the University of Guelph study wrote in his conclusion.

If we want to open the door for more debate, we should also be willing to welcome those into our world who view it differently than us. That shouldn’t be up for debate.

Byron Hackett is the Managing Editor of the Red Deer Advocate.

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