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Parsons, D’Agostino stand by drag story hour statements

Lancaster Pride President Tiffany Shirley, left, speaks to the Lancaster County commissioners on Wednesday, March 27, 2024. The commissioners are, from right: Ray D’Agostino, Josh Parsons and Alice Yoder; next to Yoder is county Solicitor Jackie Pfursich. (Photo: Tim Stuhldreher)

Members of Lancaster County’s LGBTQ+ community and their allies vehemently denounced county Commissioners Josh Parsons and Ray D’Agostino in person at the commissioners meeting Wednesday, saying their public statements condemning a drag queen story hour planned at Lancaster Public Library mischaracterized the event, stirred up hate and led to the bomb threats that forced cancellation of the event and evacuation of the area around the library this past Saturday.

“Your lies helped to foment this violence,” Pastor Angelique Chelton said.

The two commissioners pushed back vigorously, insisting that they were justified in their criticisms, that the right to speak frankly but peacefully on public matters is core to American democracy and freedom, and that accusing them of hate or of inciting hate is factually false and an illegitimate tactic to suppress dissenting opinion.

Opponents are engaging in “gaslighting,” Parsons said: “It’s Orwellian.”

Miss Aime Vanité performs at a Drag Queen Story Hour in Hanover in 2022. (Source: Drag Queen Story Hour with Miss Amie)

The library had planned last Saturday to host a drag queen story hour featuring Miss Amie Vanité, the drag persona of Christopher Pasolini. Lancaster Pride sponsored and paid for the event.

Parsons and D’Agostino sharply criticized the library in social media posts, TV appearances and in a letter to the library, leading to a storm of controversy. Interest in the event swelled, as did opposition, leading to safety concerns and the development of a comprehensive security plan.

Commissioner Alice Yoder, the sole Democrat, did not initially comment, but subsequently posted a statement supporting the event and saying it was not something for the commissioners to concern themselves with.

On Saturday, a K-9 sweep of the library identified a suspicious package (later determined to be coloring books); subsequently, an email threat was received claiming bombs had been placed at the library, LNP and several people’s homes. The story hour was canceled and the area around the library was evacuated for several hours, severely disrupting downtown business on a busy day.

On Wednesday, supporters of the event said D’Agostino and especially Parsons bore full responsibility for the fiasco.

Emotions ran high, as they have at previous meetings. Parsons allowed applause between speakers, but cautioned audience members not to catcall or otherwise interrupt speakers, or they would be thrown out.

“You owe the city of Lancaster an apology,” Shirley said, after describing the torrent of hate mail and threats she and Lancaster Pride received. Her home was one of those named in the email threat; she described the horror of knowing her daughter was there alone.

“Shame on you for allowing divisive rhetoric to sow seeds of hatred and violence,” she said.

John Meeder and Sam Wilsker own and operate Holiday Inn Lancaster. It was crowded with guests attending Zenkaikon, a Japanese pop culture convention. Due to the bomb threat, the hotel had to be evacuated “at the busiest time imaginable,” Meeder said.

All the negativity around the event can be traced “to your words,” Wilsker told the two commissioners.

Maria Weaver reads “Be Who You Are.” (Photo: Tim Stuhldreher)

Chelton and other speakers read several children’s books, saying they were part of Miss Amie’s performance and would illustrate that nothing inappropriate for children had been planned. They included “Seeds,” by Carme Lemniscates; “Be Who You Are,” by Todd Parr; and “Pink Is for Boys” by Robb Pearlman.

While most of the 22 speakers Wednesday upbraided the two commissioners, several expressed support and urged them to hold their ground. Not all parents agree drag is appropriate for young ages, and those who don’t shouldn’t have to worry about encountering it when they take their children to a public library, they said.

Emily Tomko thanked the commissioners “for standing in your convictions and for caring about the community.”

As is standard, the three commissioners waited until the end of public comments before responding.

D’Agostino said the threat was “abhorrent” and the perpetrator must be brought to justice. However, he said, he and Parsons aren’t to blame for a third party’s criminal act, and those reading hate or discrimination into the commissioners’ words “are the ones fanning inflammatory rhetoric. … It creates angry division through victimhood and sows deep distrust.”

Audience members listen to the discussion on Wednesday. (Photo: Tim Stuhldreher)

Yoder reiterated her support for the LGBTQ+ community. The past few days have been a “dark moment” for Lancaster, she said, but offered hope that they will lead to constructive conversation about healing divisions and moving forward. Lancaster County was built by people who embraced “compassion and kindness,” she said.

Parsons said he agrees that violence and violent speech aren’t acceptable. Assuming that’s the consensus, he said, people should agree that Lancaster Stands Up was wrong to deliver the commissioners a poster containing the comment “Watch your back, 1917 can come twice”; that the protests that convulsed downtown Lancaster in 2020 were wrong; and that the person who sent Saturday’s threatening email, like those arrested in the 2020 protests, should have their bail set at $1 million.

“There is a difference between threats of violence and actual violence; and public debate and speech,” he said. Good-faith opposition is welcome, he said, but not efforts to shut down free speech by declaring certain opinions out of bounds.

“I’m directing this,” he said, “to those of you who came here as a political tactic to suppress free speech, to say, ‘You don’t agree with me, so you’re not allowed to speak out.’ You’re using the media and your friends at LNP to do that, and it’s an orchestrated campaign.

“Let me say to you very clearly: I will not be silent. I will not be canceled. I will continue to speak out on matters that are important to this community.”