GOP House speaker punishes fellow lawmakers for hosting educational drag story hour at AZ Capitol

group of people standing behind Drag Story Hour Arizona sign

A photo from the Drag Story Hour event at the Arizona Capitol on April 30, 2024. (Twitter Photo/Planned Parenthood Arizona)

By Alyssa Bickle

May 2, 2024

The story hour entailed a drag king in a sparkly suit and face makeup reading aloud to a group of people that included no children.

Republican Arizona House Speaker Ben Toma on Tuesday banned all House Democrats from using conference rooms after House Rep. Lorena Austin, D-Mesa, who identifies as nonbinary and gender nonconforming, and Planned Parenthood Advocates of Arizona hosted a scheduled drag story hour.

In a tweet, Toma wrote that he would ban Democrats from using meeting rooms in the House until “trust can be restored” because “Democrat Rep. Lorena Austin deliberately misled House leadership.”

Austin, who uses she/they pronouns, refuted this. They said their assistant called the speaker’s office, made the request, and spelled out the name of the event, including that it would be sponsored by Planned Parenthood, and the request was accepted.

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Austin’s staff had to reschedule the event a few times, and called Toma’s office several times after the initial request to reschedule it, they told The Copper Courier.

“I wish he [Speaker Toma] had talked to me just 10 minutes earlier,” Austin said. “That morning at 8:30 a.m. my assistant sent out an all members bulletin, inviting people, so there was no reason to hide it.”

Toma did not respond to a request for comment.

 

What Happened at the Event

Planned Parenthood Arizona had been holding a series of “lunch and learns” that are often centered around reproductive and LGBTQ health, and they reached out to Austin to ask if they would sponsor one.

Austin said they thought it would be a nonchalant event and a way to provide a safe space and a teachable moment to have a conversation at the Capitol.

The story hour entailed a drag king in a sparkly suit and face makeup reading aloud to a group of people that included no children. The event included no content that would have been unsuitable for a child, Austin said.

Despite this, Toma referred to the event as “radical activism” that was promoting a “dangerously perverse ideology.”

 

The Purpose of the Event

Sen. Priya Sundareshan, D-Tucson, who was present during the story hour, said she found the event to be a very educational experience.

“Being in the Legislature provides an incredible opportunity to learn about so many places and people and communities in Arizona that I don’t have firsthand knowledge of,” she told The Copper Courier.

Sundareshan said the drag artist at the event explained that drag story hour is an early literacy program and read a few stories that were relevant to the audience at the Capitol, such as stories about important figures in LGBTQ history.

She said she was very surprised that Toma would react so strongly to such a calm, and what she believed to be appropriate, event.

“What I’m trying to do at the Legislature is just show that my community should be treated like any other community,” Austin told The Copper Courier.

“We appreciated the opportunity to meet members of our legislature and educate them about our organization and how we promote inclusive early childhood literacy,” Drag Story Hour – Arizona said in a statement.

 

A Campaign Issue

The pushback on the event began when Sen. Anthony Kern, R-Glendale, called out Toma in a series of tweets, writing that the drag story hour was happening under Toma’s leadership and that he was allowing it to happen. Kern also linked to a video of the event posted on the Arizona Senate Republican’s Instagram, with a warning that the content might not be suitable for children.

Because Kern and Toma are both vying for the same congressional seat in a packed Republican primary, Austin said, they believe Toma’s actions were a knee-jerk reaction.

“That made me the villain of their political battle. I don’t think that’s right. I don’t think it’s right to put the LGBTQ community in the middle of their personal politics,” Austin told The Copper Courier.

Sundareshan agreed, saying, “Rep. Austin has been an incredible champion for the LGBT community. I think this, specifically targeting Rep. Austin, is a result of her being such a powerful voice.”

Now, the Republican Caucus’ chief of staff has to physically open the meeting rooms for all Democrats. All rooms that were reserved prior to Toma’s ban are still being held, but any reservations going forward will be approved on a case by case basis.

“I don’t think it’s going to be very realistic to do this for the rest of the session or the foreseeable future,” Austin said.

“It’s going to have a chilling effect on the Democratic caucuses’ ability to meet and to host organizations,” Sundareshan said.

 

A Fear of Further Suppression

The day following Toma’s ban on Democrats using House meeting rooms was the inaugural LGBTQ+ Youth Day at the Capitol, which was organized by Austin and several other LGBTQ organizations, including Human Rights Campaign Arizona (HRC AZ).

“Yesterday had us running around quite a bit because we were fearful that our event would be canceled,” said Bridget Sharpe, Arizona state director for HRC AZ.

Sharpe was nervous that Toma would cancel the Youth Day, which had taken months to plan and organize, since it was associated with Austin.

“Our community just wants to be left alone, and what happened in the last 24 hours, provides even more evidence of why this day is so important,” Austin said during a speech at the LGBTQ Youth Day.

While HRC AZ was not involved in the drag story hour the day before, Sharpe said the retaliation towards Austin “felt an awful lot like a temper tantrum to be totally honest, and very much a disgusting abuse of power.”

Author

  • Alyssa Bickle

    Alyssa Bickle is an affordability and LGBTQ+ reporting intern for The Copper Courier. She expects to graduate in May 2024 with degrees in journalism and political science and a minor in urban and metropolitan studies. She has reported for Cronkite News and The State Press and is an assistant research analyst at ASU’s Center for Latina/os and American Politics Research.

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