NEW PORT RICHEY — Supporters of Pasco Pride and the organizers of monthly Drag Queen Story Hour events came out in force to last week’s City Council meeting, but they left without the response they were hoping to hear.
At issue was the group’s wish to move Drag Queen Story Hour from a bookstore in Port Richey to Peace Hall in Sims Park. Peace Hall is a wooden structure that originally the sanctuary of West Pasco’s first Roman Catholic congregation. It now sits across from Sims park, adjacent to the West Pasco Historical Society’s Rao Musunuru, M.D., Museum and Library.
When the request to move the story hour to Peace Hall was made, organizers were informed that they would need to apply for a special event permit. That didn’t sit well, especially since the children’s reading events attract small crowds of 10 to 15 people each month.
But while the Drag Queen Story Hour is a positive event geared toward youngsters, it has attracted its share of negativity, too. That’s come in the form of protestors who gather outside to condemn the event and the people attending it.
Because of the protestors and the potential security and safety concerns that require a police presence, city staff deemed it necessary for the group to apply for a special event permit.
“Making us issue a special permit for an event that houses 10 to 15 people — it’s one of the smallest events housed at Peace Hall — making us do that is discriminatory in itself because your judging us based on actions of other individuals,” said Nina Borders, president of Pasco Pride. “We do not protest, we do not cause violence, we do not destroy property.
“All we’re asking is to be equal. Just allow us to rent it out and if the protesters come, they come. That has nothing to do with us. That’s in the police chief’s hands and I fully have my faith in him and I believe he’ll do the right thing.”
More than a dozen audience members, including Stephanie Stuart, creator of Drag Queen Story Hour, spoke in favor of the events and allowing the group to utilize Peace Hall without applying for a special event permit. Fewer than five addressed council to oppose the group and the event, primarily focusing on conflictions with faith and concerns about children being involved.
For council, however, the issue doesn’t involve content or agenda.
“The policy of the city, as we expressed in the resolution we passed last month, is that all city services and facilities are available to everyone regardless of faith, creed, color, sex, national origin, gender identity, gender expression … basically we don’t discriminate,” Mayor Rob Marlowe said.
At a City Council meeting after last year’s inaugural Pasco Pride, held in Sims Park, Marlowe said the people who turned out to protest against the LGBTQ event were outsiders who were spreading hate.
“Regardless of the size of the event itself, as a publicly promoted event it was very clear we were going to pick up protesters and were going to have to deal with the police and other security concerns that normally we only have to deal with much larger events,” Marlowe said. “Nonetheless, the safety of the participants, particularly the children, is first and foremost. And if that requires that our staff makes arrangements to have the proper number of police officers on duty in the park during the event, that’s part and parcel of the planning that goes into a special event that’s not normally part of the planning if you’re just having a private party in one of the pavilions or even Peace Hall.”
Other council members expressed similar sentiments. There was nothing to vote on or official decisions to be made because the discussion wasn’t associated with an agenda item. It was raised during the public comment portion of the Aug. 6 regular meeting.
“It’s a staff decision,” Councilman Jeff Starkey said. “Like Ms. Borders said, there may be 15 people inside getting read to between the children and the adults, but we can’t turn a blind eye to what’s outside. I’ve driven by, I’ve seen it on video on Facebook, on social media. What, unfortunately, comes with your event outside is the city’s concern.
“Between the protesters and the supporters of Pasco Pride going back and forth, it gets ugly. I’m not saying it’s right. It’s not right. I don’t know how to fix that. From my conversations with staff and with our city attorney, that is the sole reason why they categorized this, what you’re trying to do in Peace Hall, as a special event. You can talk about discrimination, you can talk about the ordinance you want us to pass, all of that, it does not pertain to staff’s decision to categorize this as a special event.”