ZooMontana undeterred from ‘Drag Queen Story Hour’ despite threats

Billings Mayor, Chamber, condemn threats against Zoo leaders

By: - June 16, 2022 2:26 pm

(Provided by them, via a promotional site for Tall Tales with True Queens, a short film about the story hour. https://www.them.us/story/tall-tales-with-true-queens-short-film)

“Drag Queen Story Hour” at ZooMontana in Billings is still set for June 22 despite the hateful rhetoric and threats directed at the zoo director and some board members late last week through social media, emailed messages and phone calls.

During a City Council meeting this week, Billings Mayor Bill Cole publicly condemned the threats made against the Zoo for its plans to host the event, part of a week-long Pride celebration in Billings next week. 

Hosted by 406 Pride, a Billings-based nonprofit and resource center for LGBTQ+ Montanans, the story hour was advertised as family-friendly with reduced admission to the Zoo. “Drag Queen Story Hour” is held across the U.S. and beyond and bills itself as a celebration of reading “through the glamorous art of drag.”

“Want to come hang out with some Drag Queens while they read awesome books and then go check out the zoo for reduced admission?” the event description reads on Facebook. “Then this family-friendly event is for you!” 

This year is the zoo’s first “Drag Queen Story Hour,” but not its first Pride event, and community and business leaders pushed back against the insults and threats. Last week, zoo director Jeff Ewelt was sent messages like, “I know where you live!” along with threats to run him out of town and false accusations of pedophilia, ZooMontana board member Shelli Fish Mann confirmed in an interview Thursday.  

She also said the threats make up a minority of people’s responses to the event and that the Zoo actually sold a record high number of memberships, the most sold in one day, on Saturday, June 11.  

This week following the threats, the Billings Chamber of Commerce put out a statement backing the Zoo and 406 Pride’s right to hold and host the event, and on Monday it called for leaders like Cole to denounce the threats. 

That same night at the City Council meeting, Mayor Cole condemned the untrue statements and the calls for physical violence.

“Any credible threat of physical violence is beyond the pale, likely illegal and will not be tolerated in Billings, Montana,” Cole said, as the Gazette reported. “Unfounded claims that the zoo intends to ‘promote child abuse’ or that the zoo director is a pedophile, as stated in two emails made sent to the City Council… are morally unacceptable, corrosive, and perhaps slanderous, and legally actionable.

“Billings is better than that.”

The event also garnered the attention of both Republican members of Montana’s Congressional delegation, U.S. Sen. Steve Daines and U.S. Rep. Matt Rosendale, who tweeted out their opposition. Daines referred to it as “destructive woke ideology” and Rosendale called it “child abuse.”

The Chamber responded to the Twitter comments as well. In Monday’s Bulletin, the Chamber referenced Rosendale’s tweet, commenting that there are “real-world consequences that unfounded allegations of child abuse have had in our recent past.” It gave the example of Pizzagate, where a man shot an assault rifle into a Washington, D.C., pizza shop that was at the center of a false conspiracy about child human trafficking. ​

“Should any violence of this sort come to our community, under the auspices of saving children from pedophilia, irresponsible leaders like Rep. Matt Rosendale will have blood on their hands,” read the Bulletin, the Chamber’s newsletter. 

This is not the only Drag Queen Story Hour to be targeted in the West this week. The white nationalist group the Proud Boys stormed an event just outside San Francisco on Sunday. 

And in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, law enforcement also arrested 31 members of the white nationalist group Patriot Front who allegedly were planning to riot at a local Pride event this past weekend. 

In Billings, Zoo board member Mann, who has served for the past six years, said that Ewelt has 100 percent support from the board, and she personally attested for his “love of all living beings.” 

“I think it’s small-minded people who are reacting out of fear,” Mann said. 

She said other board members have also been contacted with messages, and that she’s been called names, but she stands by the Zoo’s decision to continue to hold the event as a matter of being inclusive and showing diversity. She said she respected the opinion of those who feel strongly that this does not fit their agenda, and their right to cancel their membership, even if she didn’t agree. 

“Everybody has the right to attend an event like this if it fits their agenda, and we are not the ones to make the call as to whether it’s right or wrong. That’s an individual decision, and it needs to be respected,” she said. 

Ewelt of ZooMontana also posted on Facebook following the threats, saying “While personal threats and threats of no longer supporting the Zoo are concerning, we will not let unwarranted fear and hate deter our decision to move forward with this harmless and fun reading event that is held throughout the country. 

“At the end of the day, if your personal agenda does not fit this event, we simply ask that you do not come to the Zoo that day. It would be a shame to never allow your children back to the Zoo because of one simple event. Happy Pride month.”

406 Pride posted in response to Ewelt’s statement asking folks to “give the zoo lots of support to drown out the hate.”

“This is a time that everyone needs to show grace. I think this is a time where we can respect differing opinions with kindness,” Mann said. 

Billings Pride is scheduled for June 25. 

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Nicole Girten
Nicole Girten

Nicole Girten is a reporter for the Daily Montanan. She previously worked at the Great Falls Tribune as a government watchdog reporter. She holds a degree from Florida State University and a Master of Science from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.