Lake Luzerne, in upstate New York, is a small mountain town of weathered clapboard houses, with a spired church on Main Street and a public library that offered internet access, a food pantry and twice-weekly story hours for children.
Last April, the library announced a one-time addition to its children’s lineup: Drag Queen Story Hour.
“We knew it would probably be controversial,” recalled Amanda Hoffman, who was the library’s director of youth services. “We didn’t expect it to be what it became.”
Over the coming months, someone called in a bomb threat to the library, a board meeting ended in punches being thrown and the library itself became so tense that Ms. Hoffman was hospitalized with stress-induced vertigo. Neighbors denounced one another as “fascists” or “predators” and complained of being doxxed, threatened and harassed.
The library never held a Drag Queen Story Hour.
Finally, this fall, most of the library’s staff and trustees quit, forcing it to shut down. After 53 years of operation, the library — named for the adjacent Rockwell Falls — has not lent a book since Sept. 26.
Neighbors who grew up together have been left wondering how their quiet rural town of 1,400, about an hour’s drive north of Albany, became a battleground for a nationally polarizing debate over issues of inclusion, free speech and the role of tax-funded institutions.
“It’s the culture wars come to the Hadley-Luzerne school district, and the culture wars are raging,” said Josh Jacquard, a local minister who led the campaign against Drag Queen Story Hour and then successfully ran for a seat on the library’s board, vowing to keep “perverted” books and programs out of the children’s section.
“Wherever the culture wars are, there’s voices that want to fight it out to the death,” he added. “But the problem in fighting it out to the death is that everyone loses.”
Drag Queen Story Hours, in which a man in drag typically reads stories to children, formally began in 2015, in the Castro neighborhood of San Francisco, when a writer and parent named Michelle Tea “wanted more queer programming for their kids in the public library,” said Jonathan Hamilt, executive director of the nonprofit Drag Story Hour, which organizes many story hours throughout the country, though not all.
Early Drag Queen Story Hours were received with “curiosity and excitement,” along with some resistance, Mr. Hamilt said, and the organization grew before the pandemic to roughly 50 chapters in 45 states. But in the last few years, as libraries have come under fire for L.G.B.T.Q.-themed books aimed at children and teenagers, opposition has become more intense, sometimes bordering on violence. In September, a drag queen story hour in Brooklyn was moved after a bomb threat to the library. Protesters identified as members of the far-right group the Proud Boys have disrupted drag queen story hours in New York, California, Maryland, Ohio and elsewhere.
In Lake Luzerne, a largely conservative, economically stressed town in the southern Adirondacks, the library staff of three began planning a drag queen story hour in late 2022, consulting with the Vermont chapter of Drag Story Hour on how to hold it safely. The library has an annual budget of $220,000; it committed $400 to pay a drag queen.
“It was going to be a celebration of being who you are, no matter what that looked like,” said Ms. Hoffman, who was a library clerk at the time. “That was the important part for us.”
The library, following Drag Story Hour protocols, did not promote the event until a week before the scheduled date, to prevent an organized disruption. Then on April 8, it posted the story hour on Facebook, calling it an opportunity for patrons to “participate in cultural growth.”
The comments blew up, pro as well as con.
Three days later, dozens of angry residents packed what is usually a sleepy meeting of the library board of trustees. As the board conducted unrelated business, Mr. Jacquard, who leads Victory Bible Baptist Church in nearby Porter Corners, demanded that he and other residents be heard. The church describes homosexuality on its website as “sinful and abominable in the sight of God.”
Mr. Jacquard, a 35-year-old father of three, came prepared with statistics and an argument against what he called “transvestite story hour,” using a term many now consider offensive. “You have done something that’s insulting the integrity of this library, and are putting our children in danger,” he told the trustees, to applause from the standing-room-only crowd.
Drag queen story hour, he said, aims at “converting our children to an overly sexualized lifestyle and way of thinking.” He added: “People in this community come out in droves when you start to bring our children into it.”
Other attendees accused the library of promoting “grooming,” sexual fetishism and even Marxism.
Why, some asked, not a Firefighter Story Hour or State Trooper Story Hour?
Jade Eddy, 38, who owns a bottle return center, was one of the few attendees who spoke in favor of Drag Story Hour, calling it a theatrical event involving a character in costume, not a sexual performance. Afterward, she said, she went home and cried. “I heard so many homophobic and bigoted things coming out of people’s mouths,” she said, “things that I thought in 2023 nobody thought anymore.”
Two days later, the library postponed the event indefinitely. But the anger in the community continued.
Much of it fell on the three women who made up the library’s staff. “I was called a groomer, a pedophile, a child abuser,” said Ms. Hoffman, who identifies as queer and nonbinary, but had not come out to people at the library. “Someone prayed for Satan to leave my soul.”
Jake Evans, who performs as Scarlet Sagamore, was studying for a master’s degree in business administration when he agreed to read at Drag Story Hour. Mr. Evans, a gay man who is not transgender, said he had experienced depression and anxiety growing up because he did not have a queer figure to look up to. With Drag Story Hour, he said, he wanted “to show these children that you can still live a happy life even if you’re different.”
Opponents accused the library — a public institution supported by tax dollars — of using children to push an agenda about gender fluidity.
“The kids get caught in the middle, like a rope in this massive ideological tug of war,” said Aaron Rayder, 50, a visual communications consultant who grew up in Lake Luzerne and now lives in Porter Corners. “Why do we have to get the kids involved in these adult questions? That’s the bigger thing. A lot of people are looking at this and saying, ‘We didn’t ask for this.’ It just showed up on a docket one day, but it wasn’t like the community said, ‘We need this.’”
Mr. Evans, who was preparing for final exams and graduation, said he received death threats and had his personal information revealed online. Patrons in the library now had new complaints — about queer-themed books and how the library spent money — that grew so impassioned that the three women tried to make sure no one was ever working alone, Ms. Hoffman said.
But there was also another response to the attacks on the library. Several area residents formed the Upper Hudson Queer Alliance and organized the town’s first Pride event, a two-day picnic to take place in June, that included area drag queens reading to children.
Mr. Jacquard redoubled his opposition, posting a campaign video accusing the library staff of imposing “the values of San Francisco, New York City or Portland, Ore.,” on Lake Luzerne. In May, a month after the aborted story hour, he won election to the library board of trustees.
At his first public meeting he asked for a list of all books the library had bought in the fiscal year, saying that there were books in the young adult section that “promoted a gay lifestyle” and were pornographic. Again, several in the audience applauded him.
Patrons started to flood the library with requests under the Freedom of Information Law, asking for “clarification on every nickel and dime that had been spent by the library,” said Kathleen Jones, a retired schoolteacher who was elected to the board of trustees at the same time as Mr. Jacquard. Others yelled at or insulted the staff, prompting police reports, Ms. Hoffman said.
Monthly meetings of the volunteer board — which had been low-key affairs, with few residents attending — became increasingly contentious. Mr. Jacquard repeatedly squared off with Ms. Jones or the library manager, Courtney Keir, who complained that the board was not protecting the library staff from abusive patrons.
Mr. Jacquard accused Ms. Keir of imposing an outside agenda rather than attending to the needs of the library and the community. At one meeting, Ms. Keir called the police to remove Mr. Jacquard, saying he was harassing another board member. The officers arrived but took no action. Ms. Keir did not respond to requests for an interview.
One trustee, citing advice from her doctor, quit in June, writing in a public resignation letter that Mr. Jacquard had made the library’s work impossible.
Mr. Jacquard, too, felt under attack for his stand, saying his family had faced death threats. “I’ve been doxxed,” he said. “I’ve had unwelcome visitors at my home. People have harassed my wife and my children.” He had a security system installed at his home and gave his children pepper spray for protection.
In September, after yet another heated board meeting, two employees, Ms. Hoffman and Ms. Keir, resigned from the library, leaving it with only a clerk, who could not run it on her own. With the new school year just underway, the library shut down, along with all its programs.
Any efforts to hire replacement staff quickly fizzled. Two more trustees resigned from the five-member board in October, leaving only Mr. Jacquard, Ms. Jones and a third member, Jason Hall.Ms. Jones then resigned, to force the state to appoint new trustees, she said. With just two votes, Mr. Jacquard and Jason Hall could neither hire staff nor hold elections for new trustees. The library remained closed.
At a board meeting just before Thanksgiving, police had to be called after two men exchanged blows. A handwritten sign taped to the door read, “I Miss the Library.”
Finally, on Dec. 8, the state Education Department’s Board of Regents appointed three new trustees, with no input from area residents.
The five-member board can now start the process of interviewing job applicants, hiring a manager and getting the library back open. But the divisions remain.
“We need to re-establish trust with our community,” said Rosemarie Gardner, one of the three new board members, who had clashed with Mr. Jacquard in the past. She added, obliquely: “People’s personal beliefs can’t stand in a library.”
The collateral damage has been significant. For nearly four months, adults and children alike who relied on the library have had to travel to other libraries or do without. The library previously averaged about 750 visits per month.
Mr. Jacquard remains on the board, though he was unsuccessful in seeking the board presidency. He said he was not backing away from the issues he ran on, including “making sure the library isn’t pushing an agenda on children.”
As for when the library might reopen, that remained up in the air. “I would love to say, within the next month,” Ms. Gardner said. “But that’s hard to know.”