Drag queen story hour returns to Millennium Library Sunday to protest expanded security

Drag queens, kings and young families met at the Millennium Library Sunday for a gathering that was equal parts story time and protest.

Airport-style security checks at Winnipeg library have been subject of criticism since installation a year ago

Miss Assuma Gender, a Winnipeg drag queen, reads to kids and families at the Millennium Library Sunday. The event was organized as a protest against expanded security measures introduced a year ago. (Aidan Geary/CBC)

Drag queens, kings and young families met at the Millennium Library Sunday for a gathering that was equal parts story time and protest.

Metres away from the security checkpoint at Winnipeg's downtown library, drag performers read children's books to the crowd to protest the expanded, airport-style screenings and proposed cuts to other libraries.

"We're trying to show kids that … there shouldn't be a reason that anyone should be turned away from a library," said Miss Assuma Gender, a Winnipeg drag queen who started the readings Sunday with a book about friendship and a penguin who longs to fly.

"This is a space where beautiful, fun things can happen, and should happen. And it's really unfortunate that not everyone is really allowed to be here, not everyone is allowed to take part in that."

It's been a nearly a year since management at the Millennium Library implemented the new security measures, including metal detectors and bag searches.

The move prompted numerous protests and demonstrations, arguing the measures are barriers to access that will fall disproportionately on people of colour, low-income people and people living on the streets.

The Sunday afternoon story hour was held just a few metres away from the library's security checkpoint. (Aidan Geary/CBC)

At the time, management cited safety concerns amid a rise in the number and seriousness of incidents including assault, harassment, threats, intoxication and verbal abuse. The city councillor for the area wasn't notified and the community wasn't consulted.

The Sunday afternoon story hour was one of a series of events protesting the expanded security measures, organized by the group Millennium for All. The group will also host a rally on Tuesday, Feb. 25, the one-year anniversary of the security checkpoint.

"It's great to be here, it's great to interact with the kids," said Miss Gender.

"But … we want to insert ourselves back into this narrative, and show that this is what you could have, this is the kind of turnout you could have, if you open your doors and stops prejudice and stop the bigotry that surrounds the mindset that excludes people."

One-third drop in visitors in 2019

City data suggests the new security measures have led to an overall decline in the number of "incidents," which dropped from to 317 in 2019 from 560 in 2018. That figure includes more serious events like assaults, but also medical conditions, stranded children, inappropriate behaviour and more.

The same data also shows attendance dropped by a third last year. Just under 609,000 people visited the library in 2019, about 250,000 fewer than the total in 2018. A city spokesperson said last fall the decline was likely, at least in part, due to the new security. 

A spokesperson for the City of Winnipeg wrote in an email Sunday its Library Services is accountable for providing "safe and welcoming environments for all residents and staff.

"Library Services implemented screening measures at Millennium Library with the goal of improving safety for everyone who visits the library," the spokesperson wrote. "The Millennium Library remains a welcoming place for all."

Joe Curnow, an organizer with Millennium for All, argues the security measures aren't based in evidence and don't address the actual causes of violence.

"Black people, Indigenous people, people of colour, trans folks, queer folks, people who are survivors of state violence … refugees in our community, survivors of sexual assault — these are folks who are going to be driven away," she said.

"Either because they're going to self-select out of being in the confrontation with security workers, or because security tends to be extremely racist and extremely classist and hassle those people the most."

Curnow, who is also an assistant professor in the faculty of education at the University of Manitoba, said drag queen story hour was once an event hosted by the Millennium Library itself, but queens refused to participate after the security measures were introduced.

The events this week are also calling for continued and expanded support of other public libraries in Winnipeg, Curnow said, in the wake of multiple cuts proposed at city hall. In November, councillors heard a budget proposal that would shutter Westwood, West Kildonan and Fort Garry libraries and reduce hours across all branches.

"We want free, equitable, open libraries in this community, not cuts," Curnow said.

'Treat the crisis'

Winnipeg's city council recently approved a two-year, $260,000 pilot project to convert a shuttered coffee shop in the library's lobby into a "Community Connections" space staffed with trained crisis workers and community social agencies on hand.

Curnow said that's a positive development her group has called for in the past, but it doesn't address the issue of expanded security.

Smokey Trixxstar, the drag king who hosted the story hour, said the last time he visited the library, security was rude to him as they looked through his things. That was about a year ago, he said, and he hasn't been back since.

"This isn't prison. We're not flying anywhere," he said. "I think it's really unnecessary."

Smokey Trixxstar, far left, says the security measures are an ineffective 'Band-Aid' solution to a crisis of poverty. Here, Trixxstar poses with the other drag queens and kings who participated in the Sunday story hour. (Aidan Geary/CBC)

Trixxstar, who goes by Issa Kixen when not performing, said there's a poverty crisis in Winnipeg that isn't being addressed by increased security.

"If we're going to treat a crisis that's going on in the city, we should treat the crisis," he said. "Not just put … security Band-Aids on it."


With files from Bryce Hoye