In spite of objections and even threats from community members, ZooMontana is sticking to its plans to host “Drag Queen Story Hour” as part of Pride Month.
Drag Queen Story Hours, in which a person in drag reads storybooks to children, have been held around the world since about 2015, usually in libraries, parks or schools.
406 Pride, a Billings LGBTQ+ resource center, is sponsoring the story hour at ZooMontana Wednesday, June 22 from 12 to 4 p.m. Tickets are $4. For Pride Month, 406 Pride is also holding a poetry open mic night and a queer young adults event for people ages 18-30.
Shortly after the story hour was announced, ZooMontana heard an uproar.
On Friday, Republican Rep. Matt Rosendale tweeted, “I’m appalled by ZooMontana’s decision to promote child abuse and expose children to inappropriate, sexual content. There is no place for this at public family venues, and ZooMontana should be ashamed.”
Republican Sen. Steve Daines also weighed in. “Montana kids deserve better than story time with a drag show. Let’s let kids be kids, not tools of this destructive woke ideology,” he tweeted.
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ZooMontana has refused to back down. On Thursday, the zoo’s long-time director issued a strongly-worded statement on Facebook.
“Let me be clear – Zoo Montana prides itself in being inclusive of all living beings,” Jeff Ewelt wrote. “While personal threats and threats of no longer supporting the zoo are concerning, we will not let unwarranted fear and hate deter our decision to move forward with this harmless and fun reading event that is held throughout the country.”
One political backer of the zoo is Gary Buchanan, an Independent candidate running to unseat Rosendale this fall.
“Give me a break,” Buchanan said of Rosendale’s tweet. “My family has been supporters of ZooMontana for over two decades. They have opened the gates for events of all persuasions, Evangelical Christians and other religious groups, local charities, youth groups and god forbid, politicians.”
The privately-funded zoo relies on ticket sales, fundraisers and the goodwill of donors to sustain itself, so threats to withdraw membership could risk the zoo’s stability. Some community members promised to never return to the zoo.
“We have loved ZooMontana for years, and have had a membership many times. We will no longer be going to the zoo or attending any events there due to this,” Leah Looney commented on Ewelt’s statement. “There are many parents who do not think that these types of events are ‘harmless and fun.’”
“Exposing children to drag queens is not ‘inclusive.’ It is perverted,” Jimmy Woolyhand said, repeating what others have said about the story hours.
“These inappropriate events place young children in close proximity with adults who are intentionally and explicitly sexualized,” he said.
ZooMontana’s Ewelt takes the personal threats against him seriously, but isn’t budging. One warning heard by his staff said, “We know where Jeff the Nature Guy lives.” Other messages were riddled with slurs, he said.
Ewelt has been a popular figure in the region with “Jeff the Nature Guy” educational videos and programs in which he and other zoo staff take animals into schools. When the Rimrock Opera Company needed a live lynx for its 2013 production of Verdi’s “Aida,” Ewelt provided one from the zoo, and a great horned owl.
For 406 Pride president Walt Donges, the resistance wasn’t unexpected. Donges said he and his team have received countless phone calls, emails and messages condemning the story hour.
“Our community was aware that we’d probably be attacked in some level,” Donges said. “They’re seeing what it’s like to be gay in Montana.”
Donges said there’s nothing sexual about the story hour, comparing the drag artists to women in dresses and makeup.
“Children are killed in schools these days. They are not groomed or conditioned by drag queens,” Donges said. “Someone in a dress reading and presenting and getting kids engaged — I don’t believe that it matters if it’s a man or a woman, personally.”
Donges said dissenters are only a loud minority. Ewelt agreed, saying the zoo receives two positive messages for every negative one.
“You’ll see that many businesses downtown will be flying rainbow flags during the festival,” Donges said. “Our community has been asking us to celebrate Pride downtown in Billings for a few years.”
On social media, praise is pouring in for ZooMontana’s resolve.
“Thank you for supporting inclusion and putting kindness ahead of hate,” Julie Schultz commented on Ewelt’s Facebook announcement.
“Positivity always shines through! I’m so encouraged today by the outpouring of love for the zoo, and for what the event stands for!” Justin Hutchinson, a local radio personality, said on the same announcement.
Ewelt asked those who disagree with the story hour to not completely withdraw from the zoo.
“At the end of the day, if your personal agenda does not fit this event, we simply ask that you do not come to the Zoo that day,” Ewelt wrote. “It would be a shame to never allow your children back to the Zoo because of one simple event.”