Butte-Silver Bow cancels library event with trans speaker citing new drag story hour ban

‘It’s very spineless,’ says Billings resident slated to speak

By: - June 1, 2023 7:10 pm

A pride flag is displayed outside Montana Book Co. on Last Chance Gulch in Helena on June 1, 2023. (Photo by Nicole Girten/Daily Montanan)

The Butte-Silver Bow Public Library canceled an event featuring a transgender speaker that was slated for Friday at the request of the county attorney over concerns it could violate the newly enacted ban on drag story hours in Montana.

“We regret to announce cancellation of our highly anticipated ‘First Friday’ speaker. This decision is in response to recent legislation (HB 359) and the recommendation of Butte-Silver Bow County,” Library Director Stef Johnson wrote in a message on the library’s website and Facebook page. “Our commitment to promoting inclusivity and intellectual exploration remains, but not in violation of the law.”

The event did not involve drag. It was to feature Adria Jawort, a Billings-based trans/Two Spirit writer who has a blog in which she writes about the LGBTQ+ community and extremism in Montana.

Jawort said in an interview she was slated to talk for about 45 minutes about the history of transgender and Two Spirit people in America and the West. She said she was originally invited by Humanities Montana for a paid gig but after recent news stories about appointee Jeremy Carl, she planned to pay her own way to get to the event.

“Basically, what I always say is to show that transgender and Two Spirit people have existed in America since time immemorial, then I just kind of go through the history of the conquistadores, who came across them and used it as an excuse to kill entire tribes,” she said. “Then going up to California and the West and how colonization really tried to erase us – and still are, apparently.”

She said she received an email from a library employee Thursday morning that said the library was cancelling the event on the advice of the chief executive and county attorney “with deepest regret.”

“I would technically be talking about sexuality and gender and stuff like that, but the whole thing was that’s the point of it – teach this history of it, not to get into the graphic details or porn or whatever,” she said.

Eileen Joyce, the Butte-Silver Bow County Attorney, told the Daily Montanan that someone had sent the county a message through its Facebook page calling attention to a Twitter post Jawort made about the upcoming event which they said led them to believe it would violate Montana’s new law enacted by House Bill 359.

“Hello, there is a transexual reading to children at the public library on Friday the 2nd, the ‘performer’ has posted on Twitter that it will be discussion sexual acts and there may be children there. This is illegal under Montana state law now, will the local police be allowing this to happen,” the message said. It included a screenshot of the tweets in question.

The tweets from Jawort, reviewed by the Daily Montanan, said she would be giving an LGBTQ/Two Spirit history lecture at the library and noted it “literally might be illegal in Mont. as a flamboyantly dressed trans woman.”

A second tweet said that Jawort “will def have a book & sexuality will be discussed & minors may be present, & the State of Montana doesn’t legally recognize people being trans, so…”

Jawort said her tweets were simply meant to mock the drag ban bill and that she wasn’t planning on being dressed any more flamboyantly than normal.

“I did say I was going to be flamboyantly dressed, but for Montana, that’s wearing purple lipstick. That’s wearing my beret,” she said.

HB 359, which was sponsored by Rep. Braxton Mitchell, R-Columbia Falls, bans drag performances on public property and prohibits drag story hours – in which drag queens or kings read books to children – at libraries and schools. Violations of the law include fines of up to $5,000.

It was one of the most controversial bills of the 2023 session, as Mitchell and some Republicans consistently characterized drag performances as being sexual in nature, and was one of several that went after LGBTQ+ rights on the basis of what those Republicans said was “protecting children.”

Many people staunchly disagreed in their legislative testimony and said the bill and others were simply blatant attacks on the LGBTQ+ community and their personal freedoms. The bill was gutted in the Senate, but stricter language was put back into it before it was sent to the governor, who signed the bill earlier this month.

Rep. Zooey Zephyr, a Democratic trans lawmaker from Missoula, had told lawmakers the bill would target the trans community in addition to drag performers, but House Majority Leader Sue Vinton, R-Billings, replied to her in February: “This bill has nothing to do with the transgender community.”

Jawort said she was among the people who testified against the bill during the legislative session and tried to tell lawmakers that trans people would get looped into the drag performances bill. She also performed at a drag show in Helena in February as part of the Montana Pride Former Felon’s Ball.

In the interview Thursday, Jawort compared the new law to masquerade laws that led to the Stonewall Riots in 1969 in New York – calling the Montana law “a 21st Century version of that.”

“People thought we were being reactionary. ‘Oh, they wouldn’t target trans people; it wouldn’t target trans people.’ And I said, well technically it could. And lo and behold, there I was, like the first.” she said. “It was kind of shocking that what we were saying became literally true. But at the same time, we’re just shrugging, saying, ‘See, we told you so.’”

The cancellation of the event in Butte appears to be the first involving the new law that Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte signed on May 22 and does involve a trans person.

Butte-Silver Bow County is represented by five Republicans and five Democrats in the legislature. Sen. Terry Vermeire, R-Anaconda, was the only one of them to support HB 359 on final passage in the respective chambers.

Joyce said in an interview that her office “out of an abundance of caution” compared the language of the law and Jawort’s Twitter message that she would be “a flamboyantly dressed trans woman” and decided that there were concerns that Jawort’s dress at the event could violate the law.

She said that Butte-Silver Bow Chief Executive JP Gallagher said he believed the library should cancel the event because of the law and had contacted the library urging it to do so. Joyce said she was unaware of the planned event until this week and that she and her office had to follow the law.

“These laws, you may not agree with them personally, but until they’re challenged and found to be unconstitutional or something, you’re stuck with what’s there,” she said.

Johnson, the library director, did not return an email Thursday afternoon seeking more information about the event’s cancellation.

Gallagher led a Pride Month proclamation in Butte-Silver Bow on Thursday on the first day of Pride Month, touting the city-county’s 2013 nondiscrimination ordinance and the diversity and acceptance in the community.

Part of the proclamation invited Butte residents “to reflect on the ways we can all live and work together with the commitment to mutual respect and understanding.”

The county said in a Facebook post that it “cannot allow an event where a drag king or queen reads children’s books and engages in other learning activities with minor children present.”

“Due to this law, we have had to cancel the speaker at the Butte-Silver Bow Library that was scheduled for Friday,” the post added.

Joyce said the city-county was considering possibly rescheduling the event, perhaps having it somewhere other than the library, “to ensure that we wouldn’t be violating the law.”

Jawort said she was surprised such a decision would come out of Butte and that officials were perhaps taking the easier route.

“Hiding behind the law is very ‘sus,’ as the kids say,” she said. “It’s very spineless.”

She said she was initially shocked but has since tried to find a silver lining.

“We can expose how silly this law is, that it just targets trans people just like we said. And no one believed us, and here we are,” she said. “So, as an activist, I have to work on Step B, and work on eliminating this law so we can have free speech.”

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Blair Miller
Blair Miller

Blair Miller is a reporter based in Helena who primarily covers government, climate and courts. He's been a journalist for more than 12 years, previously based in Denver, Albuquerque and mid-Missouri.