WATERVILLE — The owner of a children’s bookstore on Main Street said Monday she is surprised and disappointed at backlash she’s received over a “Drag Queen Story Hour” event that will feature a man dressed as a woman for a children’s story hour at the store.

The event is being organized as part of the 2019 Central Maine Pride Festival and is intended as a way of promoting diversity and educating people on the LGBTQ community, said Ellen Richmond, owner of the Children’s Book Cellar.

“I’m not inviting pedophiles in to pet little children,” Richmond said. “I have one man coming in dressed as a woman to read stories to children, and then we’re going to make wands and crowns.”

Ellen Richmond, owner of the Children’s Book Cellar in Waterville, in her shop Monday, said she wants “to educate people about other lifestyles.” Chuck Locke, whose drag name is Valerie Honeywell, will read there during the Waterville Pride celebration on June 1. Morning Sentinel photo by David Leaming

The event is planned for June 1 and has been in the works since before the Waterville City Council voted last week to pass a resolution declaring June 2 Central Maine Pride Day.

Richmond said controversy blew up on social media over the weekend, including a Facebook post by Waterville Mayor Nick Isgro on his personal page and a thread about the event on the page Maine Conservative Grassroots.

A screenshot of the post by Isgro shared with the Morning Sentinel includes the event page and his question, “Is this what our city council endorsed on Tuesday night?”

In the comments, Isgro wrote, “Scandalizing the children in our community — trying to make us San Francisco. Unanimous vote to celebrate by our entire council!”

In another comment on the Maine Conservative Grassroots page, Isgro wrote: “this is scandalous to our little children and should be stopped. This is what happens when last week our city council INCLUDING OUR REPUBLICAN CHAIR endorsed this group. They did so because I refused.”

Isgro did not respond to requests for comment Monday.

Richmond said the backlash she’s received has mostly been on Facebook, by way of reviews and comments on the store’s page, and via reviews on the website Yelp.

In addition, she said she also contacted police and officials at Waterville City Hall on Monday after learning a protest was being organized against the event.

The story hour has prompted debate on social media from parents and community members, with some expressing concerns about the appropriateness of the event itself as well as some LGBTQ-themed books Richmond sells in her store and whether it will confuse children’s perceptions of gender norms.

Others, meanwhile, have voiced support for the book cellar and its right to hold the event.

In one Facebook review, Brittany Bertocchi, a mother of two from Pittsfield, wrote she wouldn’t recommend the store “Because they are having drag queen story hour for pre-pubescent kids! This is wrong!”

Bertocchi said in an interview she has nothing against the LGBTQ community, but she didn’t think the event was appropriate for children.

“They’re young,” said Bertocchi, who has children ages seven and eight. “They get confused easily. It shouldn’t be brought into their life until they’re older. That was my big thing.”

Bertocchi and others are planning to protest the event June 1 and have organized a protest called An End to Child Indoctrination At The Cellar Bookstore.

“We’re hoping that (the Drag Queen Story Hour) will not happen or will not happen again,” Bertocchi said.

Books dealing with LGBTQ+ experiences are offered Monday at the Children’s Book Cellar in Waterville, where drag queen Valerie Honeywell will read during the Waterville Pride celebration on June 1, according to owner Ellen Richmond. Morning Sentinel photo by David Leaming

Drag queen story hours are not unheard of around the country, although Richmond said she believes hers might be the first in Maine.

Drag Queen Story Hour, an organization that promotes and supports drag queens reading stories to children, has chapters in 14 states, Puerto Rico, Sweden and Japan.

According to its website, drag queen story hours are intended as a way of sharing the diversity of the LGBTQ community and exposing children to LGBTQ culture and history in a safe and appropriate way.

The site also says such events can provide safe and important spaces for LGBTQ youth and their parents to feel accepted and express creativity.

But drag queen story hours have also been met with controversy and protests elsewhere, like Michigan and New Jersey, mostly led by conservative and religious groups.

Richmond said the idea was introduced to her by two drag queens who modeled a story hour at an American Booksellers Association conference last year.

She said she has friends who are part of the LGBTQ community and thought a story hour would fit in well with the Central Maine Pride Festival planned for May 30 through June 2.

“They’ve done them all over the country with a mix of acceptance and protest,” she said. “I thought there might be some rumblings, but at the same time, I’m not dragging people off the street. If you have a problem with it, you’re free not to come.”

A majority of the more than 30 reviews posted on the store’s Facebook page over the weekend are positive and show support.

“For many years, This store has been the place for children and their parents to find adventure, travel the world, gain knowledge & start a lifelong reading habit … all from the pages of books,” read one review written by Fairfield resident Tim Forsman.

“I support any program that Ellen may host and know that her intent is to introduce young readers and their parents to the wide diverse world around us.”

In an interview, Forsman, the father of two grown children, said he didn’t see anything wrong with the event.

“There are definitely some areas that are more age appropriate, but from what I’m seeing about this program, I’m not seeing anything I think would be harmful to younger children,” he said. “They’re just going to find out there’s someone a little different from them who wants to read to them.”

On Monday, the backlash over the event prompted a meeting of the Central Maine Pride Festival Committee at which co-chair Matthew Crane said the group will be discussing safety concerns.

“People who re-share the event are posting negative comments with it, I guess on Facebook, and there are people who embolden them like the Mayor of Waterville Nick Isgro,” Crane said. “He adds his own comments and gets them all fired up.”

Crane said the story hour, like other events that are part of the pride festival, is intended to educate people and help the LGBTQ community feel welcome.

“All this hate isn’t necessary,” he said. “We’re just trying to live and be part of the community.”

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