Opinion: Red Deer City Councillor Vesna Higham reacts to code of conduct violation findings

Have we become a community incapable of rigorous, respectful discussion in the public square? Have we become so insulated in our siloed mindsets that we cannot abide a narrative or opinion different from our own?

These are questions I’ve pondered after last week’s finding against City Councillor Kraymer Barnstable that he “posted misinformation and his expressed opposition to an event for children at the Red Deer Public Library on Facebook, contrary to the Red Deer City Council Code of Conduct Bylaw.”

That event, held last July, was a Drag Queen Storytime called “Reading with Royalty,” about which Barnstable posted: “Drag is adult entertainment and should not be put in front of 4-8 year olds, especially not in a public setting. Like many, I am extremely disheartened by this event.”

The Central Alberta Pride Society swiftly responded last summer to Barnstable’s post, characterizing his comments as “disparaging” and unaligned with the City’s mandate to be a welcoming, inclusive community where everybody feels safe.

Barnstable immediately apologized that his comments caused hurt and offence in the community, noting that he was simply reflecting his own conservative value system.

On a 5-2 vote last week (Councillors Dawe and Higham opposed; Councillor Jefferies absent), Council accepted the report of an independent investigator, which found that Barnstable’s comments “were harmful, hurtful, offensive, and disrespectful to the LGBTQ2S+ community by opining that the event was sexual in nature. It is also reasonably interpreted that his opinion was offensive and disrespectful to the parents who chose to bring their children to the event, by inferring that they exposed them to sexual content.”

With the greatest respect to everyone, I feel compelled in this moment to speak out – not only in support of Councillor Barnstable’s right to hold and share an opinion, but respecting a few bigger-picture nuances I find troubling. My views are personal and in no way reflect the voice of Council on this issue.

Firstly, I dare say it would be a pretty razor thin line we as Canadians were to walk if freedom of speech were to end at the point where an opinion might offend people or make someone uncomfortable. Indeed, the toleration of different viewpoints – even those we find offensive, shocking, or disturbing (short of hate speech) – has long been an established legal principle in our country and has always been a foundational cornerstone of all healthy democracies.

I believe Councillor Barnstable has the right to express his personal conviction that drag culture is inappropriate for young children. He didn’t disparage drag culture as an adult choice; and contrary to the finding of the investigator, in my opinion, he didn’t assert that the Storytime event was “adult entertainment” or sexual in nature – he merely challenged the appropriateness of exposing young children to drag culture.

I submit there’s an entirely reasonable interpretation of Barnstable’s comments that connects “adult entertainment” not to the Storytime event specifically, but to a broader drag culture generally.

A quick Google search brings up numerous references in support, but here’s what CommonSenseMedia.org has to say about a popular drag queen series: “Parents need to know that RuPaul’s Drag Race is a series where drag performers compete for a title, money, and commercial opportunities. It includes lots of sexual innuendo (including references to various sex acts and blurred nudity) and a fair bit of strong language (the term “bitch” is used often, while curses like “f—k” and “s—t” are bleeped).”

In 2021, drag queen Kitty Demure took to YouTube with the following message: “I have no idea why you want drag queens to read books to your children … A drag queen performs in a nightclub for adults. There is a lot of … sexual stuff that goes on. And backstage there’s a lot of nudity, sex, and drugs … So I don’t think this is an avenue you would want your child to explore.”

While adults are free to make lifestyle choices, Councillor Barnstable merely expressed his opinion that exposing young children to drag culture is inappropriate and that public resources (like a library) should not be used to promote or normalize an often highly sexualized culture to young children.

Barnstable’s objection as I see it was not that the Storytime event was sexual in nature (it wasn’t), but that drag culture can be and often is associated with adult entertainment. This arguably reasonable interpretation was evidently not considered and/or accepted by the investigator – regrettably, in my view.

And while some affirm that the Storytime event wasn’t promoting anything but inclusion, acceptance, and empathy, here’s something to consider: any time a formal institution of learning makes the decision to host a public event to showcase anything, in my mind it has the effect (intentional or not) of promoting and normalizing that thing – so even though the Storytime itself may have been fun and uplifting, the normalization of drag culture among young children is the concern Barnstable responded to.

I believe we have a collective responsibility to not politicize our public institutions of learning so parents can remain the arbiters of morals and values – not boards, committees, government, or the internet. Teachers can’t promote God or host prayer in our public schools; why is it okay to promote drag queens in public schools and libraries?

I’ll conclude by highlighting what I find perhaps the most troubling about this entire scenario: the fact that those who don’t support things like public Drag Queen Storytime are routinely, summarily labelled as “hateful bigots” who should apologize and become better educated.

I submit that each of us should have the right to voice a respectful opinion without being labelled an ignorant hate-monger. As a free, democratic, and caring society, we need to find ways to talk about sensitive issues in a manner that respects everyone’s safety and dignity.

At this point, I’m frankly concerned about the emotional safety of individuals in our broader society who support Barnstable’s perspective (and for their ability to freely articulate these deeply-held convictions), in addition to my concerns about discrimination suffered by marginalized people.

We need to build bridges and connections, rather than slinging accusations and disgust if someone disagrees with our world view, however passionately we feel about that view. We need to find ways to balance sometimes intersecting rights and freedoms in a measured, reasonable manner by encouraging respectful discourse and differences of opinion – not by shaming and sanctioning those who have a value system different from our own.

We must defend and protect rigorous, respectful debate in our public square – or risk an alarming chilling effect on the pale of the very rights and freedoms we so highly prize in our democracy.

Vesna Higham is a Red Deer City Councillor.

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