Drag queens, gender-fluidity, sex-themed youth books and difficulties with conservative parents were prominent topics at the annual Alaska Library Association’s conference late last month in Fairbanks. Community and school librarians gathered from across the state to attend workshops, a number of which aimed at equipping them to overcome parents who make “a big stink” about these issues, as one attendee put it.

Additionally, the three-day gathering also taught librarians how to “decolonize” their book collections, while improving access gender and queer-based history books.

Permeated throughout the conference was the notion that librarians are waging an ideological battle against conservative, religious and traditionally minded families. They were characterized as threats to the library’s mission of helping youth and others question and/or undermine long-established cultural, religious and moral values.

As the largest and most influential library association in the state, the Alaska Library Association’s membership includes more than 500 community and school libraries throughout Alaska. The annual conference offers librarians ideas for how to improve their programming, collections and operations. The decision to focus on advancing leftist social ideologies during the 2023 conference comes at a time when libraries across the nation are facing immense controversy surrounding left-leaning programming and sexual books targeted to children.


According to the American Library Association (ALA), of which most public libraries in the nation are members, 2022 saw the most formal challenges to controversial books since the ALA began tracking this data 20 years ago. Most frequently the challenges dealt with sex-themed children’s books.

While librarians claim to take every book challenge seriously, the ALA website suggests otherwise. ALA President Lessa Kanani’opua Pelayo-Lozada dismissed book challenges outright, claiming they amount to “censorship” efforts that “distract from the core mission of libraries: to provide access to information.” Likewise, Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, blasting book challenges as attempts to “suppress the voices of those traditionally excluded from our nation’s conversations, such as people in the LGBTQIA+ community or people of color.”

This disdain for those who challenge books was overwhelmingly present during the Alaska Library Association’s meeting.

During one workshop, by Fairbanks Borough Public Library Collections Librarian Davin Helkenberg, attendees were urged to push back against parents who object to sexualized children’s books.


Fairbanks Borough Librarian Davin Helkenberg

In a talk titled, “The Context for Sexualized Fiction and Its Value for Young Readers,” Helkenberg extolled the “necessity” of sex-themed books for youth 12 years and older.

Sexualized fiction, she asserted, is “meant to teach lessons about sex and relationships … for the reader to carry away the information and incorporate it into their lives.”

Helkenberg told workshop attendees that sexualized books have immense power to influence how teens think about themselves, their gender and their sex lives. Additionally, these books can connect youth to the larger queer community, while normalizing non-heterosexual sex, including how to perform certain sexual acts, she said.

“It’s a gentle gateway into the world of sex,” Helkenberg asserted.

For youth who come from what she called “conservative families,” sexualized novels are a “kind of safe or secret source” for kids. They are “not as obvious as a nonfiction book on sexuality,” she explained, which means “parents would often not question the reading of these materials. The information is kind of hidden within.”

Helkenberg’s personal research indicates to her that that teens want more – not less – access to books containing sexual bondage and sadomasochistic scenes, as well as more novels with detailed and descriptive sexual encounters. She said those books are “not only appropriate for young people,” but they also have the “potential to contribute to their wellbeing.” Helkenberg claimed librarians have a “responsibility” to stock these types of books for young patrons.

No one attending the workshop openly objected to the notion that children should be exposed to highly sexualized books, and several boasted about how they secretly help teens, including embarrassed boys, find graphic sexual romance novels.


Ketchikan Library Director Pat Tully

One of the most controversial talks was by Ketchikan Library Director Pat Tully, who gave a March 25 presentation detailing the drama that unfolded when her library hosted a drag queen story hour last June. The event was part of a larger library-wide effort to highlight LGBTQ sexuality during Pride month.

Amid frequent laughter and chuckling from her audience, Tully recalled how the drag show and Pride activities drew “quite a lot of controversy” from conservative and religious minded residents in Ketchikan. Tully boasted, however, that she and her colleagues remained resolute in their determination to expose children to these ideas.

The Ketchikan controversy intensified when area residents successfully gathered signatures to put forth a 2022 ballot proposition aimed at partially defunding the library. While this measure narrowly lost, it caused considerable consternation among library staff and their supporters.

“Luna, as you can see was magnificent as a sparkly princess,” Tully told the librarians as they viewed images of the drag queen event. “Small children looked at her in wonder.”

Tully noted that tensions remain high. Earlier this year, the library faced the first book challenge in more than a decade over the title, “Let’s Talk About It,” a children’s book that teaches minors how to create digital porn, engage in anal sex and explore sexual fetishes. Tully refused to pull the book and the library advisory board backed her up with a 6-1 vote to keep the book.

Despite stirring considerable controversy since taking the helm of the library in 2017, Tully has no plans to dial back her activism, especially with regards to pushing controversial children’s literature.

LGBTQ-themed books on display at the Ketchikan Public Library last summer.

To this end, she launched “Celebrate Pride” events last summer with prominent LGBTQ displays, “Pride Family Wonder Bags” on gender identities, and a “Read the Rainbow” book challenge that included prizes for kids who read certain LGBTQ-themed books.

The grand finale occurred in June when the library invited a local male high school teacher – who regularly doubles in gay bars as “Luna” the drag queen – to perform during the children’s story time event.

Library staff worked with Luna in selecting books about drag dancers, gay romance and gender fluidity to read to the children.

Despite emails, phone calls, letters and in-person visits from concerned parents, Luna showed up in a wig, make-up and dress to interact with the children.

“Luna, as you can see was magnificent as a sparkly princess,” Tully told the librarians as they viewed images of the event. “Small children looked at her in wonder, and many families asked to take pictures with Luna after the program.”

Tully praised Luna and her staff for being “amazingly brave and steadfast.”

“And the library staff went all out with their outlandish costumes,” Tully exclaimed. “Most members of our staff – with the exception of myself – can rock a crazy costume,” she added with a chuckle.

“There wasn’t a single conversation that ended with any of us dramatically changing our minds,” Tully said of her interactions with Ketchikan residents.

In total, 105 children were taken to the event by parents or guardians. Tully called the event a “triumph,” and dismissed those who said it was confusing and harmful to impressionable children.

“I remember one phone call especially,” she said. “A man, who after unsuccessfully attempting to explain to me that a woman was a biological, and not a psychological concept, yelled at me that I was wrong and illogical, and the damage that children would suffer would be my fault.”

“It was wearing to be sure,” Tully said of the conversation.


Towards the end of her talk, she noted that a couple of groups have since asked if the library would formally sponsor a bible story time, just as it did drag queen story hour.

Tully said she conferred with the borough attorney and decided that, because the library is a government program, it could not sponsor an event that included a particular religious perspective. She suggested, without explanation, that sponsoring Bible story time would violate the First Amendment, which states that, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”

Instead, the library agreed to provide a meeting space for the bible story event, without formally sponsoring or funding it. To date, no group has held a Bible story time, Tully said.

Her talk ended with several take-aways, including the observation that dialogue and discussion with concerned citizens often fails to change minds when it comes to Pride celebration and drag events for kids.

“There wasn’t a single conversation that ended with any of us dramatically changing our minds,” Tully said of her interactions with Ketchikan residents.

She then encouraged Alaskan librarians to double down in the wake of controversies, and vigilantly “guard against the tendency to self-censor.”

“The library is not a place to be safe from the world,” Tully concluded. “After all, the objectionable idea of today is often the wisdom of tomorrow.”

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AK conference equips librarians to thwart parental objections to drag queens and sexualized youth books

Joel Davidson
Joel is Editor-in-Chief of the Alaska Watchman. Joel is an award winning journalist and has been reporting for over 24 years, He is a proud father of 8 children, and lives in Palmer, Alaska.