Talcott Library board votes 4-2 to proceed with Drag Q&A
In preparation for our next story, we are going through hours of videos of the meeting and the protests. We welcome thoughtful, friendly opinions on the issue.
Hundreds of protesters met each other, but with little productive conversation, outside the Rockton Community Center on Monday, June 26, 2023. The Talcott Free Library board was meeting inside, where they eventually decided to confirm a July 14 youth event called Drag Q&A, by a 4-2 vote in a meeting that lasted more than two hours.
More about the issue
An earlier version of this story said that equal numbers of residents on each side of the issue were admitted to the meeting, which supposedly was the library's original intention. In fact, opponents of the event had blocked the front door to keep supporters from entering the building. Supporter had to enter at the side door. Most of the audience who eventually made it into the board meeting were against the drag event. We regret the error. However, the speakers at the meeting alternated equally between pro and con.
At first, the Talcott Library asked attendees to "give priority for seating and comments to residents of the Rockton library district." Since the capacity of the building is only 99 persons, board members limited the number of people who could enter the building though the front and side doors. But with hundreds wanting to get in, by the end only residents of the library district were allowed in. Before the first part of the meeting, members of the public signed up to speak for three minutes each, taking turns speaking for or against the planned event. Supporters of the event wore rainbow colors, which helped distinguish them.
Megan Gove, head of the Talcott Free Library told us that the library's Teen Advisory Board members were the ones who had originally requested the Drag Q&A. The youth librarian passed along their request, so library staff asked Rockford University for a recommendation.
Contacts at Rockford University recommended that the library hire the drag performer whose stage name is Krystal Ball. We have reached out to him for comments.
Gary Kovanda, the president of the Talcott Free Library board, voted with vice-president Bob Geddeis to decline the drag event. Kovanda said that the community had showed exceptional support of the library when it asked for expansion funds, and he didn't want to jeopardize that relationship with the community. The other four trustees voted in favor of the event. The vote put Geddeis on the same side as Hononegah school board candidate Jenny Maragia, who was critical of him during the April election.
Secretary Loren Floto told us that one reason he voted for the event was that he was unimpressed by the objection that tax money was being used for the event. He said that since the event would only last for one hour, not much tax money was being spent. However, Gove acknowledged that Krystal Ball wasn't coming for free. We didn't ask how much the fee was.
Outside the building, hundreds of others waited for the board's decision. Each side faced the other, chanting, singing, or praying, under the watchful eyes of Rockton Police. At one early point, Rockton Mayor John Peterson observed the proceedings from the edge of the street.
Though there was no physical violence and the police only served to control the crowd and traffic, Police Chief Matt Hollinger told the library board afterwards that they would do things differently next time. He clarified that "if another meeting would take place, the officers would need to be in place prior to the start of the meeting to prevent potential problems."
Neither side was clear about how admission to the building would be handled and suspected the board of playing favorites on who was let in. In fact, the fire marshal had already limited the capacity of the building long before this issue came up. Someone suggested there should have been a loudspeaker so everyone outside could hear the proceedings.
The first anti-drag people arrived more than an hour early, while the Pride rally was going on. So if there was a line at the door, the anti-drag people were at the head of it. When the Pride marchers arrived, having cut their rally short, at least one of their Rockton opponents says they suspected the marchers of wanting to cut in line to keep their opponents out. So, the anti-drag group refused to let the other side in. Of course, the marchers say they just didn't want to be excluded. Leaders of the Rockford Family Initiative indicated that they intended to exclude their opponents, but we have reached out to them to confirm that.
At any rate, there was enough confusion that none of the local media managed to get into the meeting before capacity was reached, even though seats were reportedly reserved for media. So reporters for Rockton-Roscoe News, the Herald, Rockford Register-Star, Beloit Daily News, WREX, and WTVO waited outside, covering the protests instead and waiting for the results of the board's vote to be announced. Marianne Mueller said it was the first time this had happened in her 22-year career as a reporter.
Opponents of the drag event had arrived at the front door by 5 p.m. They told us they were mostly all from Rockton. Later arrivals, including from Rockford, eventually covered the sidewalk and front lawn of the Rockton Community Center. Many held professionally-printed signs in blue ink, with messages such as "Keep your Hands off our Children" or "Keep drag away from children."
The early arrivals prayed together briefly. One man prayed in cheerful resignation, "The system will be the system." Others asked God to give them love and humility toward their opponents, saying "We're all sinners," and praying for God's blessings on the rainbow marchers who would soon head their way in support of the drag event.
As more opponents of the event arrived in front of the Community Center, one of them, Danniel Pribble, brought out a white bullhorn and began giving instructions. Pribble moved from Chicago to Rockford about 2020 and became a spokesman for the Rockford Family Initiative, which organized Rockford's anti-abortion March for Life.
Though Pribble and his wife Dolores are traditionalist Catholics and have led the Rosary Rally for the Latin Mass each month in Chicago, Pribble has a complicated relationship with authority. Using his bullhorn, Pribble tried to suggest creative ways for his listeners to get around certain rules that were being set.
Pribble said that under the Open Meetings Act, library officials has no right to limit the meeting's attendance. (However, the fire marshal does.) Conversely, he indicated that when the pro-drag marchers arrived shortly, wanting to come into the board meeting, the anti-drag faction should set limits at the doorway and not let them in. "Maybe they'll turn around and go away," he said jokingly. (Anti-drag people did block the door. Library officials let in some of the pro-drag residents of the library district through the side door.)
Pribble was not unaware of the rules. He acknowledged that the board had restricted picket signs within the meeting, allowing them only on the side walls. His solution: conceal small signs that could be pulled out when desired. (Rockton residents didn't seem impressed by that scheme even if they weren't impressed by the drag event.)
Pribble also suggested that when opponents from outside Rockton were asked if they were actually residents of Rockton's library district, they should answer, "We're taxpayers." It is unknown if any library officials were deceived by someone trying that tactic. In his Summa Theologiae, St. Thomas Aquinas discusses such questions as Is all dissimulation a sin? (He says it isn't always.)
Meanwhile, supporters of the drag event were rallying at the Talcott House. They marched to the Community Center with a variety of homemade signs, hair colors, and rainbow attire.
A typical moment outside the building after they arrived: one group on the grass was saying, "Hail Mary, full of grace," while among the other group in the street, people were chanting "Pride not prejudice" or "When trans lives are under attack, what do we do? Stand up, fight back."
Even when one group heard a sentiment that the other group would theoretically have agreed with, such as "Love your neighbor," they apparently weren't free to admit it. If a young person wanted affirmation that his or her assigned gender identity was the correct one, it might have been hard to find a welcoming face just then.
One man kept shouting in the faces of pro-drag protesters, "Go home, go home, we don't want you here!" Eventually a young woman piped up, "Well, we want you here!" Meanwhile, pro-drag protesters were chanting, "Hey hey, ho ho, you homophobes have got to go!" A young woman in a cheerleader-length skirt swayed and danced as she waved her trans flag in rhythm.
Not every protester took on a mob mentality. Most opponents of the event stood quietly on the grass holding signs, while supporters of the event were more vocal and colorful. There were some conversations between sides, tense though they might be. Some pro-drag protesters, including some in clerical stoles, were quiet at least some of the time the anti-drag Catholics were reciting prayers.
By 5:30, a man in his seventies draped in a rainbow flag sat alone on a bench waiting for the pride march to arrive (he'd been misinformed about where the march was to start). He said his family includes a whole spectrum of views and experiences: Catholic teacher, gay, trans. He pointed at one of the most vocal and tallest people in the anti-drag group, Kevin Rilott, who is director of Rockford Family Initiative - and a relative of his. Rilott grinned and waved back. The older man said he wasn't worried for himself as an old gay man, but he feared for the life of a young trans relative in a small town. A woman with an anti-drag sign sat next to him on the bench for a while. The conversation was active but polite.
Asked about coverage of the protests, the drag performer at the center of it all, Krystal Ball, told WREX,"... It made me emotional on both sides, seeing all those people protesting. I understand they have one way to think and you can't force someone to feel a certain way about something but seeing all the love and the people showing up for the community... "
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