Lawsuits and suicide: Fallout of Drag Queen Storytime fiasco

 

Fervently chanting as they burst into the meeting room where Drag Queen Storytime was winding up, the group had to know they'd shock, possibly anger and distress performers Diamond and Queeny, along with the assembled parents and mostly under-fives enjoying a fun morning of stories, song and craft organised by Rainbow Families Queensland.

Fervently chanting as they burst into the meeting room where Drag Queen Storytime was winding up, the group had to know they'd shock, possibly anger and distress performers Diamond and Queeny, along with the assembled parents and mostly under-fives enjoying a fun morning of stories, song and craft organised by Rainbow Families Queensland.

The Drag Queen Storytime fiasco had tragic consquencences for all involved.
The Drag Queen Storytime fiasco had tragic consquencences for all involved.

The University of Queensland Liberal National Club (UQLNC) members probably expected - if not hoped for - media coverage to highlight their concerns that ratepayers' money was funding an event that "was an attack on every conservative value" and "designed to indoctrinate and sexualise young children".

Given president Wilson Gavin's posts on the club's Facebook page prior, debate on social media would have been a given in this era of the internet warrior.

Still, there was really no way to gauge what the impact of the relatively small protest would be.

The late Wilson Gavin, 21, in a tense stand-off with Diamond at Drag Queen Storytime in Brisbane Square Library on Sunday, January 12. Picture: Twitter
The late Wilson Gavin, 21, in a tense stand-off with Diamond at Drag Queen Storytime in Brisbane Square Library on Sunday, January 12. Picture: Twitter

Within minutes of gatecrashing the event, the protesters were bundled out of the room, "Drag queens are not for kids" echoing through the stacks of the CBD library's open-plan second floor. Parents used mobile phones to film Gavin in a tense stand-off with Diamond amid chaotic scenes.

Inside, Queeny and other parents comforted distressed children, reassuring them that none of the protesters had guns. Security removed the interlopers. Police were called. No charges were laid.

Within hours, the footage went viral - helped by singer Jess Origliasso of Brisbane band The Veronicas, who lambasted the "bigoted" protest to her more than 300,000 Instagram followers. Social media lit up in condemnation and support of Gavin and his fellow protesters, and Diamond and Queeny alike.

Newspaper, television and radio reports stoked the already raging debate, as Opposition leader Deb Frecklington and the Liberal National Party distanced itself further from the club it had disaffiliated two months previous, Brisbane City Council condemned the action and individual politicians blasted protesters as "ratbags".

Within less than a day, Gavin, 21, was dead, his family was mourning a loved son and brother, and the shocking tragedy reverberated around the world. As well as international headlines, blame, hate and vitriol dominated social media.

It's been eight months and the effects of that traumatic event - the attention of social media opinionators long turned elsewhere - continue to ripple through suburban homes, lecture halls, council chambers and court rooms.

The late Wilson Gavin, 21. Picture: supplied
The late Wilson Gavin, 21. Picture: supplied

 
The level-five balcony of the University of Queensland union complex was Wilson Gavin's favourite spot on the St Lucia campus, a place where he "spent many hours debating, joking and philosophising with friends and rivals alike''.

So, it's fitting the popular gathering point for student politicians and activists will be named in honour of the student union councillor and UQLNC president; the first student office bearer to die in office in living memory. A commemorative plaque will be unveiled in a private ceremony this month after a unanimous vote by the University of Queensland Union (UQU) council.

Gavin, an openly gay conservative, took his own life the day after leading the protest. The Young Liberal was a spokesman for "Our Voice, Our Vote'' which argued against 2017 changes to the Marriage Act and, in 2018, he defended the British monarchy on Sky News' Outsiders program. Queensland Police said a report is being prepared for the coroner.

A family photo of the late Wilson Gavin, 21.
A family photo of the late Wilson Gavin, 21.

Parents Michael and Bridget Gavin paid tribute to a compassionate young man with an unwavering sense of his convictions, who was determined to make the world a better place.

"We admired Wil's drive to contribute, so often in ways not many knew about - like serving at a soup kitchen every Saturday or the year he spent teaching kids in Mongolia. He would regularly give the last note in his wallet to a homeless person on the street. Wil worked tirelessly for causes without personal gain, gratitude or, in some cases, loyalty," the Gavin family wrote in a statement.

They urged young politicians to seek "kind and wise mentors who guide you, and not use you or wash their hands of you when you no longer serve their purposes" and expressed their own anger at how Wilson "regularly got the 'how' wrong and occasionally got the 'what' wrong".

"To the LGBTIQA+ communities and Rainbow Families Queensland - we love and support you. We remember (Wil) as a devoted and loving son and brother. We will love him always and will be forever grateful he was part of our family."

UQU president Ethan Van Roo Douglas, 22, was a friend and colleague of the late Wilson Gavin, 21.
UQU president Ethan Van Roo Douglas, 22, was a friend and colleague of the late Wilson Gavin, 21.

UQU president Ethan Van Roo Douglas was a friend and colleague of Gavin's, though one who held opposing views. "Regardless of how you felt about him, no one can deny he had an impact on the community for the few years that he was part of it. He was very well known, respected by many and there were many who very, very strongly disagreed with him," says Douglas, 22, a fifth-year law honours student.

"He loved getting involved and he was obviously a very political person but he was passionate about his beliefs and used whatever opportunity he could to advance them, and stand up for them. I've never met a more principled person in my life."

The UQLNC was disaffiliated for misconduct by a disciplinary hearing of the Clubs and Societies Committee in February, meaning the club can no longer access any union grants or support. Existing policies and procedures governing the more than 200 clubs and societies on campus were considered adequate.

"It was an extremely shocking event, a very tragic one, and its reverberations are still being felt among the clubs and societies, and student political community. I know what (Gavin's) legacy is to me as someone who knew him, but I hope to the public it is a reminder of how ugly things can get, how awful we can be to each other and frankly, that nothing in student politics is worth another person's life."

Rainbow Families Queensland co-ordinator Holly Zwalf suffered PTSD in the aftermath of the Drag Queen Storytime protest and Gavin’s death. Photo: Mark Cranitch.
Rainbow Families Queensland co-ordinator Holly Zwalf suffered PTSD in the aftermath of the Drag Queen Storytime protest and Gavin’s death. Photo: Mark Cranitch.

"The internet was a very intense place tobe around that time," says Rainbow Families Queensland co-ordinator Holly Zwalf without a hint of irony. The queer solo mother, performer and writer developed post-traumatic stress disorder in the aftermath and only recently returned to her role after a four-month leave of absence. As well as fronting media and dealing with the online blame game, especially in the wake of Gavin's death, Zwalf, 39, was organising counselling and support for families who attended the January 12 event and any other affected community members. She would have been there but her young son fell asleep in the car, so she returned home.

Rainbow Families Queensland co-ordinator Holly Zwalf, her partner Maaike and their respective children.
Rainbow Families Queensland co-ordinator Holly Zwalf, her partner Maaike and their respective children.

"Some of the kids were really traumatised. Some of the kids were asking their parents if they would be safe at other events we held ... kids were asking why people were saying those things. It made the children feel unsafe and that there was something wrong with the event, which had never been in their minds before."

Drag Queen Storytime, founded by queer writer and activist Michelle Tea in San Francisco in 2015, has been held by Rainbow Families Queensland at libraries, Pride Fair Day and other family events for several years. All performers hold a Blue Card and are trained by a primary school teacher in age-appropriate language, dress, behaviours and activities before hosting the hour-long sessions, which generally include stories, craft, songs and dance. Diamond also holds a Yellow Card, enabling her to work in aged care and disability sectors.

Diamond and one of her young fans at January 12 Drag Queen Storytime, held at Brisbane Square Library.
Diamond and one of her young fans at January 12 Drag Queen Storytime, held at Brisbane Square Library.

Zwalf says August 29's Drag Queen Storytime with Diamond - the first since the protest - was online due to COVID-19 restrictions but future face-to-face events would ensure guests' safety by requiring them to register, have details confirmed at the door and hiring security. Brisbane City Council confirmed the event would return to libraries once pandemic conditions were lifted, and stated existing security policies and procedures were adequate.

"For me, (this incident) really confirmed why we hold these events; it really confirmed for me why these events are important, because there's this idea that we're in a post-homophobic world and it's not true. There's a reason our organisation exists - because the education system, childcare and parenting groups are all still really geared towards heterosexual couples. Our families are still in the minority, our families are still incredibly vulnerable," she says. Zwalf and her partner Maaike, 43, made international headlines when he, in March, became the first person to birth a COVID baby in the western world.

Holly Zwalf and her partner Maaike, 43, a transgender man who in March became the first person to birth a COVID baby in the western world.
Holly Zwalf and her partner Maaike, 43, a transgender man who in March became the first person to birth a COVID baby in the western world.

"This confirmed just how important it is to talk about gender diversity and sexuality in a child-appropriate way, not only so that our families feel supported and visible, but also so we can educate younger generations about diversity and equality."

In expressing her "absolute devastation" in the days after Gavin's death, Zwalf cautioned people against jumping to conclusions around the reasons for his decision and described LGBTI suicide as a "national crisis demanding more attention". It's a view she reiterates today. Latest figures from the National LGBTI Health Alliance report LGBTI young people (16-27) are five times more likely than the general population to attempt suicide and LGBTI people generally are nearly twice as likely to self-harm and twice as likely to be diagnosed and treated for mental health disorders - health outcomes it says are "directly related to experiences of stigma, prejudice, discrimination and abuse on the basis of being LGBTI".

"There's a sentiment in certain conservative parts of the community that this is exposing children to something harmful. My rebuttal is that the harmful thing is when gender expression is quashed … the danger is when this stuff isn't talked about, when kids aren't educated, when they're told there's something wrong with it," Zwalf says. "The whole point of Rainbow Families is to give our children pride in their community."

Diamond and Queeny, ready to perform, at the Brisbane Square Library on the day of the University of Queensland National Liberal Club protest.
Diamond and Queeny, ready to perform, at the Brisbane Square Library on the day of the University of Queensland National Liberal Club protest.

Queeny and Diamond have taken theirfight for pride, dignity and equality to the top - and could set a legal precedent in the process. Queeny - aka Brisbane humanities student Johnny Valkyrie, 23 - and Diamond - aka Dwayne Hill, 41, an award-winning chef, teacher and hairdresser now working in Ipswich's mental health care sector - lodged three complaints with the Queensland Human Rights Commission (QHRC) under the Queensland Anti-Discrimination Act 1991.

Dwayne Hill, 40, Aka DIAMOND, is the drag queen at the centre of the Drag Queen Story Time scandal at the Brisbane City Library earlier this year.
Dwayne Hill, 40, Aka DIAMOND, is the drag queen at the centre of the Drag Queen Story Time scandal at the Brisbane City Library earlier this year.

The complaints were against an individual petitioner, Brisbane City Council for publishing online what they claimed were "derogatory" petitions and former Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) managing director and conservative activist Lyle Shelton for publishing an article, described as "degrading and dehumanising" by Valkyrie, on his website.

Lyle Shelton , pictured with wife Wendy Shelton, will face the Queensland Civil and Administrative Tribunal for publishing an article, described as “degrading and dehumanising” by Valkyrie, on his website. Picture: AAP/ Ric Frearson
Lyle Shelton , pictured with wife Wendy Shelton, will face the Queensland Civil and Administrative Tribunal for publishing an article, described as “degrading and dehumanising” by Valkyrie, on his website. Picture: AAP/ Ric Frearson

Peter Hayden, of Runcorn, lodged a petition signed by 363 people. The petition linked the LGBTI community to paedophilia among other inaccurate and offensive statements, called on council to apologise for allowing such events and to remove all LGBTI programs, activities and literature from public libraries. No complaint was made against a second petition lodged by ACL state director Wendy Francis, of Mitchelton, signed by 7127 people, deemed lawful by the LGBTI Legal Service representing Valkyrie and Hill, which contended the "divisive" event should not be publicly funded, the sexual nature of drag entertainment was inappropriate for children, drag was offensive to women and "medical experts warn of the danger of confusing children about their "biological gender". A third petition in support of Drag Queen Storytime, lodged by Richard Bakker, of inner Brisbane's West End, publisher of online LGBTI media outlet QNEWS, attracted 8812 signatures.

Rainbow Families Queensland contacted council, arguing the first two petitions breached its guidelines stating petitions must "be respectful, decorous and temperate and not contain any language which is offensive or likely to be offensive to any member of the public" and should not be published. At council's February 4 general meeting, attended by Diamond and other drag queens, Mayor Adrian Schrinner refused to take the petitions down, saying he was "not the censor-in-chief", supported a tolerant and respectful community, and legal advice cleared council of any wrongdoing. Ultimately no action was taken on any of the petitions, tabled at the August 11 meeting amid heated debate on the extent of council's responsibility to monitor potentially offensive material.

Queeny - aka Johnny Valkyrie, 23, university student, of Brisbane. Picture: Facebook
Queeny - aka Johnny Valkyrie, 23, university student, of Brisbane. Picture: Facebook

Valkyrie, a gay transgender man, who hopes to pursue an academic and writing career, says regardless of the legal outcomes it is clear homophobia remains a significant problem in everyday society.

"This is not just about the Drag Queen Storytime protest. This says to me there is a festering under-body of homophobia and transphobia very much alive in Australian society today. And that's what disturbs me the most,'' says Valkyrie. "I believe in justice and I believe power should never conceal justice. If somebody is in a position of power or believes they are, like Brisbane City Council or Lyle Shelton, they should not get special treatment. I have no qualms in taking an everyday person or the Queen of England to court," he says.

Valkyrie says this was a great opportunity to create education, conversation and awareness. "This is an opportunity to really highlight the level of homophobia, transphobia and hatred that still thrives in Australia today; and that it is in governments, it is in public servants and it is in the commentators we allow on platforms, and that needs to be stopped."

 

At the time of publication Brisbane City Council had yet to be named by the QHRC as having a case to answer. Conciliation between Lyle Shelton, Valkyrie and Hill failed and the matter will proceed to the Queensland Civil and Administrative Tribunal on a date yet to be set. Shelton, who is being advised by Human Rights Law Alliance, released a statement refusing to apologise or withdraw his January 16 comments, instead reiterating them. "Even though I face this new pressure to be silent, I will not be apologising. I will not be taking my blog down . I will not amend it."

Shelton - who led the No campaign against marriage equality and has described drag shows as "pornography'' and children of same-sex couples as a "stolen generation" - has repeatedly praised Gavin and his team for their "brave" stance. "Drag queens and what they represent are not for kids. They are dangerous role models and they should not be provided a place in front of children in public libraries," he wrote.

LGBTI Legal Service president Matilda Alexander, who is representing Valkyrie and Hill, argues there needs to be a stronger obligation on council to ensure its own guidelines and state laws governing vilification are complied with; a message reinforced by the outcome of the QHRC conciliation between her clients and the second petitioner Peter Hayden. A petition lodged with council by Glen Nilsson, of northside Nundah, in mid-April, signed by 95 people, mirrored this demand.

LGBTI Legal Service president Matilda Alexander is representing Valkyrie and Hill before the Queensland Human Rights Commission and the Queensland Civil and Administrative Tribunal.
LGBTI Legal Service president Matilda Alexander is representing Valkyrie and Hill before the Queensland Human Rights Commission and the Queensland Civil and Administrative Tribunal.

In a joint statement provided by Alexander, after mediation in the QHRC, Hayden apologised to the performers and the LGBTI community and expressed his regret at the harm and offence unintentionally caused. Hayden said council should have alerted him that his petition might breach the law and their guidelines, and if he'd known, he would not have lodged it.

"Both the petitioner (Hayden) and the drag performers call for better communication and more responsibility for compliance with existing vilification and human rights laws to be exercised by Brisbane City Council at the time of lodging petitions."

Alexander believes this is the first time such a case involving a government authority could be brought before the QHRC and the outcome could have ramifications for councils across Queensland - all of which have to comply with the state anti-discrimination laws. "It is unique that Brisbane City Council would be drawn into a matter like this. There's never been a government accused of vilifying people in a governmental capacity," she says. "They will be arguing freedom of speech and that people should be able to write petitions to council, and we would be saying those petitions should not infringe hate speech provisions. They need to be clearer about applying their own guidelines in the first instance to protect against potential unlawful actions flowing from that." Brisbane City Council has consistently maintained their petition process is in line with State Government requirements and practices.

Dwayne Hill, 40, at home in Ipswich, preparing to return to the stage as his drag persona, Diamond. Picture: David Kelly.
Dwayne Hill, 40, at home in Ipswich, preparing to return to the stage as his drag persona, Diamond. Picture: David Kelly.

Hill's nightmares have eased, the death threats have stopped and he has been back on stage - figuratively, if not literally thanks to COVID-19 - for several months.

He and Valkyrie sought counselling to deal with trauma, public scrutiny, online trolling and grief surrounding Gavin's death. Valkyrie, who has struggled with mental illness and attempted suicide in the past, tweeted a message to Gavin offering love, prayers and forgiveness: "What you did on Sunday was unacceptable. Who you were was not."

Both he and Hill - who also used social media to offer his condolences - were comforted by the support shown by Gavin's family, with Hill receiving a personal message from grieving mum Bridget.

However, Valkyrie still struggles with feeling unsafe. The QHRC matters have triggered his original fears. He declined to disclose personal details or be photographed, wanting to protect himself and his family from harassment, and has decided not to return to Drag Queen Storytime at this stage.

"This is very important - this does not mean the bigots have won, it does not mean people who are hateful have won. It means I recognise I am not going to be safe in my community if I engage in this, and that should send alarm bells ringing in the legal offices of this country, that certain groups of people feel unsafe in society. This is not about freedom of speech; this is about dignity, this is about vilification and discrimination law, this is about civility - and in civil society, these things do not happen," says Brisbane 2019 Young Trans Person of the Year.

Diamond ready to perform.
Diamond ready to perform.

Diamond - 2019 Drag Performer of the Year in the XY Awards - launched her own online storytime, in partnership with QNEWS, in April and returned to the physical stage with Outback Divas, at the Goodna and District Rugby Leagues Club, last weekend. "It's been a rollercoaster and with court dates and hearing dates rolling in, everything starts to get brought up again. But it's not like I'm going to go, 'all this has happened and (Diamond's) going to put herself in the closet, sell her wigs and dresses'. No, that's not happening," says Hill, who has written children's books about his drag persona and Hugo - one of his two French bulldogs - who makes cameo appearances with canine sister Bindi.

"I want to show the community and our sisters as such - the drag community - we have a right to perform, regardless if it's to children or adults, and not to be ridiculed. And that for the LGBTI community itself to be ridiculed and called something (members) are not, whoever they are, is appalling," he says.

"Whatever I've done in my careers, I've excelled at ... and the same goes with my drag career. With Drag Queen Storytime, I want to educate people in the LGBT community and the children of today's society to respect and be loving to everyone.''

As a final thought Valkyrie says, "There are consequences for everything and accountability is an extremely important quality everyone should be held to." 

 

Originally published as Lawsuits and suicide: Shocking fallout of Drag Queen Storytime fiasco

Dwayne Hill, now 40, in his cheffing days.
Dwayne Hill, now 40, in his cheffing days.


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