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LGBTQ back-to-school event canceled after controversy in Fayetteville

The event would have included a resource fair, picnic, concert and dance party at the Fayetteville Public Library. Safety concerns caused the organization to cancel.

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark — Day in and day out, the Fayetteville Public Library hosts all kinds of events for a variety of organizations. 

Northwest Arkansas advocacy group for LGBTQIA+ youth, The Equality Crew, planned a back-to-school event that was supposed to happen at the library this weekend. The organization canceled the event, citing safety concerns.

The back-to-school festival would have included a resource fair, picnic, concert and dance party. 

"We thought it was an opportunity to get resources into the hands of a population of students who may not feel comfortable with some of the traditional outlets in regards to school supplies," said David Johnson, Executive Director of the Fayetteville Public Library.

The library was just going to supply the space for the event. Soon after posting information about it online, Johnson says complaints started rolling in. Many of the concerns centered around a drag show associated with the dance party.

"I know from an administrative standpoint, we were unaware until the promotional materials went out that there was going to be any sort of, quote-unquote, 'drag,' performance or appearance," Johnson said.

Fayetteville parent Paul Heck is among those who voiced their concern.

“It’s not appropriate for a drag show to be put on for children in a bar in Dallas, Texas, much less than a taxpayer-funded, you know, facility, such as a library where we actually encourage children to go to,” Heck said.

Online posts called for the cancelation of the event and encouraged people to call the library and its board members. 

Johnson says in addition to the drag show, there were also concerns about whether or not there would be adult supervision.

"Anytime we have an event that involves minors, parents are allowed to be there. And there were going to be adult chaperones," Johnson said.

The Equality Crew declined 5NEWS' request for an on-camera interview, but released the following written statement Thursday, Aug. 4:

"The Equality Crew was scheduled to host a Back to School Festival on Sunday, August 7, 2022 at the Fayetteville Public Library. This event was co-organized by The Equality Crew and the Fayetteville Public Library. The Library was to provide space for all components of the Back to School Festival which included a Community Resource & Connection Fair, a Community Picnic & Concert, and a Dance Party. The Library was also supporting the event with event management, teen library, and facilities staff.

The Community Resource & Connection Fair and Community Picnic & Concert were free and open to the public. As with most school and community dances, the Back to School Dance Party was open to incoming middle and high school students. Registration for the dance was free but required so that The Equality Crew could ensure safety by collecting emergency contact information for each attendee. 

The Equality Crew and the Fayetteville Public Library recruited approximately one dozen volunteers to act as chaperones of the dance. These volunteers were required to pass a background check, national sex offender registry check, and undergo extensive training including Arkansas Mandated Reporter Training and Promoting the Emotional Well-Being of LGBTQ+ Youth. The venue would not safely allow for 200+ youth along with 2 or more parents to remain in accordance with fire safety codes. 

The Equality Crew previously hosted a prom with over 150 students (open to only 10th-12th graders) in attendance and over 50 background checked and trained volunteers with no incidents of abuse, neglect, or injury. This event proved to provide a valuable safe and inclusive space for students who otherwise may have not been able to enjoy such a milestone due to an increasingly discriminatory and anti-LGBTQ+ environment across our state.

On Thursday, July 28, 2022, The Equality Crew was made aware of several direct communications made to the Fayetteville Public Library regarding the Back to School Festival. After reviewing the publicly posted communications and noting that they were increasing in violent and threatening language towards potential attendees, parents, volunteers, and organizations, we made the difficult decision to cancel the event. This was largely due in part to the increasing number of violent and disruptive attacks on parents, children, and organizers seeking to serve members of the LGBTQ+ community or provide inclusive programming, particularly in public library spaces around the world. 

LGBTQ+ youth in the state of Arkansas, and across the nation, are historically underserved and experience anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination from multiple angles. In a 2019 survey, GLSEN found that the vast majority (87%) of LGBTQ+ students in Arkansas regularly heard anti-LGBTQ+ remarks and experienced bias-based victimization at school. Nearly three-quarters of students reported experiencing at least one form of anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination and at least 90% of LGBTQ+ students in Arkansas did not have access to in-school resources and supports. Furthermore, The Trevor Project’s National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health 2021 found that 94% of LGBTQ youth reported that recent politics negatively impacted their mental health. Research shows that having support at home and school and in their community is the strongest defense against attempted suicide among LGBTQ+ youth. The Trevor Project reports that LGBTQ youth who had access to spaces that affirmed their sexual orientation and gender identity reported lower rates of attempting suicide than those who did not. Yet only 14% of LGBTQ+ youth in the South report having access to LGBTQ+-affirming community events. 

According to preliminary results from our LGBTQ+ Youth Survey, youth in Northwest Arkansas reported a need for safe and inclusive events, such as prom and back to school dances. 

We are disappointed, sad, and upset that this vital event could not safely take place. We will continue to move forward with regular monthly programming including events for LGBTQ+ youth in a safe and inclusive manner with increased attention to security and de-escalation needs. We know many students and families were looking forward to the Back to School Festival, including the resources and community connections to be provided. We encourage you to reach out to The Transition Closet for any back-to-school clothing needs. We have also developed a Back to School Guide for LGBTQ+ Students and Families that is accessible on our website (www.theequalitycrew.org/resources), along with our Affirming Teacher and School Staff Database. 

We look forward to gathering with you again very soon, and hope you have an amazing school year!"

Johnson says library staff met with members of the organization earlier in the week.

"They expressed apologies and concern for the response that we were receiving, and that we all agreed that we can be better at what we do. Moving forward having learned lessons from this," Johnson said.

He says that in the wake of this incident, the library will be reviewing its processes. 

"We want to just continue to support everyone in this community and make sure that everyone feels like they're getting the best value for their invested tax dollars," Johnson said.

Those who planned to attend the event can click here for helpful resources.

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