Rotorua councillors clash over library Rainbow Storytime event

A Rainbow Storytime session in Rotorua facing calls for protest and counter-action has seen councillors clash after one questioned its “appropriateness” for children.

But Sunita Torrance – one of the drag queen entertainers hosting Thursday’s event at Rotorua Library – says it is harmless and opposers should consider “there are more important things going on in the world than two people dressing up in frilly costumes reading to children”.

The library promoted the Rainbow Storytime as a free and “family-friendly event aimed at younger children”.

Hosted by Taranaki’s Coco (Torrance) and Erika Flash (Daniel Lockett), it would include reading books such as Giraffes Can’t Dance by Giles Andreae, music such as ‘Baby Shark’, singing, dancing and themes of acceptance, anti-bullying, inclusion, kindness and self-confidence.

Destiny Church leader Brian Tamaki last week pledged to shut down the event and one to follow in Hastings, NZ Herald reported.

Event organisers, meanwhile, have called on social media for a “counter group to provide a barrier from protestors to ensure the safety of the families” attending the sessions.

Rotorua Lakes Councillor Robert Lee raised his opposition to the event at Wednesday’s Community and District Development Committee meeting.

He said his social media had “lit up like a Christmas tree” with community “concern … about the appropriateness of the event”.

Councillor Robert Lee

Lee said councillors had been emailed by a grandmother “deeply concerned” about promotional material she believed was “harmful to children”.

He said he would “not support that event going ahead” and asked how councillors could “influence” the decision.

Council community and district development group manager Jean-Paul Gaston said people could choose to go or not.

“There is nothing about sexuality or gender in the presentation.”

Gaston referred to a FAQ page the library manager set up that said the hosts were police-vetted to work with children.

It also advised the library provided materials, services and information on a range of topics with differing viewpoints, “respecting people’s right to freedom of information”.

“We recognise that not everyone will share the same beliefs. It is not the role of a library to hide or withdraw access to challenging ideas or topics.”

Meeting chairman Gregg Brown said councillors “cannot participate in every discussion and every decision of this organisation”.

“I think we have to be a permissive society, within reason.”

Rotorua mayor Tania Tapsell said she would not expect members “to start deciding who and who cannot have their freedom of expression”.

There was no harmful nature of the event and she hoped community members who disagreed would allow it to remain a “safe space”.

Rotorua mayor Tania Tapsell.

‘Horrible comments’

Councillor Fisher Wang later posted on social media he had “seen some very horrible comments directed towards this [event] like, ‘filth’, ‘gross’, ‘disgusting’, ‘corrupt’ … a movement which the councillor [seated] to my right [Lee] supports”.

Wang told Local Democracy Reporting he was referencing comments he had seen on social media and in emails.

“It does really sadden me when I see words like that used to describe other people in our community who are themselves. That’s all it is.”

He said he believed people had a responsibility to “call out” “horrible comments” and stand up for LGBT people facing hurdles.

“We look at some of the stuff that’s said about them and we wonder why they don’t feel like a part of society.”

Rotorua Lakes Council elected member Fisher Wang was first elected in 2019.

Wang said no one was forced to attend the registration-required event, which he described as positive, innocent and family-orientated.

He said he saw the Rotorua community overall as supportive and inclusive, and believed the event would be well-attended.

“I’m confident the love and kindness will trump the hate. That inclusiveness will persevere.”

‘Children’s innocence is best protected’

In response to Wang’s comments, Lee told Local Democracy Reporting it was his job as councillor to advocate on behalf of the community.

“I acknowledge councillor Wang’s constituency is probably younger than mine and many may have quite different views from many of my constituents.”

Lee said about 90 percent of his social media commenters “opposed or strongly opposed” the event.

“My impression is most people don’t object to drag queens per se, but struggle with the idea of them being presented as a role model for children in a public library.”

He said he would not take his children to the event and it did not strike him as age-appropriate.

“I think children’s innocence is best protected and I consider that part of my job as a parent.”

He said he would attend so he could comment after the event.

Rotorua Lakes Council community and district development group manager Jean-Paul Gaston (right).

Storyteller: Content ‘absolutely not’ harmful

Torrance spoke to Local Democracy Reporting in response to criticism of the event.

She said the promotional content from the pair’s production company was “absolutely not” harmful to children.

Speaking generally, in her view people opposed to events like Rainbow Storytime were fed “scaremongering ideologies.”

Torrance said she created Rainbow Storytime in 2017, and care went into the image, songs, costumes and messages.

When libraries invited them to read she asked if they wanted a more pride-focused message or more generic – these tended to be about dancing animals, she said.

They also did shows for adult audiences, including R18 cabarets, “but even then we do not do stripping”.

“It is imaginary the harm they think we put towards children or anybody.”

Torrance said their events enabled “people of many ages” to ask about drag queens if they wanted.

“They can be straight, they can be gay, they can be transgender they can be non-binary. They can be allies.”

It was not about pushing a transgender or gay agenda: “You can’t teach it, you can’t learn it. It’s either in you or it isn’t.”

– LDR is local body journalism co-funded by RNZ and NZ On Air.

According to the news on Radio New Zealand

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