WASILLA — In early April, Taylor Jordan wrote a cheerful Facebook post announcing an event at the Wasilla bookstore she owns, Black Birch Books and Curiosities. She added some emojis.
“Join us for a fabulous and inclusive Drag Storytime at our bookstore! Our special guest readers will bring children’s books to life with charisma and style, making this a fun event for all ages! We can’t wait to see you there!”
Hitting “post” instantly put Jordan and her business — Wasilla’s only bookstore — squarely in the middle of a culture war playing out in Alaska and across America. Conservative groups have targeted all-ages events featuring drag performers, saying drag is inherently sexual and a corrupting influence on kids. In March, a small group of protesters picketed outside of a drag event for families at an Anchorage coffee shop.
Organizers of the events say drag is a light-hearted art form, and that the events are designed to be kid-appropriate and promote literacy and diversity.
After the Wasilla event announcement, a flood of more than 300 comments accumulated on the store’s Facebook page. Some were enthusiastic. Others were enraged.
Jordan was suddenly bombarded with one-star reviews. Then came threatening phone calls, talk of a boycott. The bookstore needs to be “Bud Lighted,” wrote one commenter, referring to a campaign against Anheuser-Busch after the beer maker worked with a transgender influencer. “I’m betting this store is going to go out of business,” posted another. Some people warned Jordan they’d “turn her into the police” for hosting the event.
“Anyone who takes their child to this should have their parental rights terminated,” one person wrote.
In the reactions, Jordan found a microcosm of the polarization playing out nationally over issues of gender expression. It got Jordan thinking about why she’d started the bookstore in Wasilla to begin with.
The 38-year-old former U.S. Air Force police officer who grew up in a tiny farming town in Iowa started Black Birch Books and Curiosities after a spinal injury ended her military career. Stationed at JBER, she had grown to love Wasilla — the land, the views, the people — and decided to stay.
Wasilla, she thought, could use a place where children, teenagers and adults could forge a sense of belonging and community in a sprawling, car-dependent town.
She opened Black Birch Books in 2018, with her own collection of books as inventory. The pandemic soon followed, and later a move to a new space in a strip mall off Bogard Road, between a gym and a carpet store. The store doesn’t make much money. Jordan says she just wants to keep the lights on and bills paid. The things for sale — paperbacks, handmade candles, pagan wreaths, various handicrafts made by local artists — are almost incidental. The store reflects Jordan’s own Goth sensibilities. (Yes, that is a framed taxidermied bat on the wall.) But the idea is a kind of radical inclusion: Jordan says she wants every person who walks through the door to find a reason to linger.
“Here is a space where you can absolutely be,” she said.
Her clientele runs from teenagers who walk the 1.9 miles down a road with no shoulder from Wasilla High School to adults with special needs and their caregivers to homeschooling families looking to get out of the house. People sit and knit or drink tea from the cafe for hours. She only hires homeless teenagers, through a program with MyHouse and Nine Star Employment.
“This is not a normal store,” she said. “And that is my intent.”
Black Birch Books has hosted all sorts of events — open microphone nights, meetups for Spanish speakers, a Celtic and Druid religious traditions class — for community groups and individuals seeking a place to gather. Jordan said she’d been getting requests for an all-ages drag event for years.
“People have asked for this,” she said. “Over and over.”
Drag story hours have been held in Anchorage since at least 2018 or 2019, including events at the Loussac Library. Cafecito Bonito, an East Anchorage coffee shop, has been hosting an all-ages Drag Loteria event monthly. Brenden Badd is a drag performer in Anchorage known for flawless stage makeup and backflips. Before moving to San Francisco in late April, Badd performed in Anchorage regularly, including participating in all-ages drag events at Cafecito Bonito.
“Before coming out I was a little gay boy in Wasilla confused about my sexuality and very uneducated,” Badd said. “It put me in dangerous situations which led to suicidal thoughts.”
Drag offered an outlet that grew Badd’s confidence and happiness.
“There’s no hidden ‘agenda,’” Badd said. “When I perform I want to entertain people. The narrative conservatives try to spread that drag artists are groomers and pedophiles is absurd.”
Last month, a few protesters showed up at the Cafecito Bonito event, holding signs. They were far outnumbered by a contingent from the Queen’s Guard, an LGBTQ+ group based in Wasilla that occasionally assembles to provide a “positive greeting” to attendees of events such as all-ages drag performances that have been picketed.
Vincent Feuilles founded the Queen’s Guard in 2019, some time after a pastor interrupted a drag storytime held at the Loussac Library for a pride month event. “I didn’t want it to be something where we were a bunch of angry people standing there shouting back at protesters or something like that,” said Feuilles, who lives in Wasilla. “It needed to be something that was positive.”
Drag storytimes can promote acceptance, diversity and literacy, he said. But the events “seem to automatically push this button with folks” who are “caught up on this narrative that drag is only a sexual thing,” he said. “That’s not true. It’s like the idea that drag performers are all gay men. That’s also not true.”
If you look deeper into the criticism, “you find out that the actual reason these people are so upset is because they have the mistaken belief that if you are a gay person, you are automatically a predator and a pedophile,” he said.
Jordan says she expects there may be protesters at the June event. That’s fine, she says, as long as they keep their distance.
“It was my job to keep people safe for an entire career that I just retired from. And my eyes are not closed to anything,” she said. “I am well prepared.”
The day after the announcement of the drag story hour, as Jordan dealt with the fallout, a different event at Black Birch Books was planned: an author signing by Marie S. Walker, an 84-year-old retired schoolteacher from Settlers Bay who writes and illustrates Christian children’s books.
Walker’s books feature the dogs in her life — especially her German shepherd Sweet Saucy — giving Bible lessons. One book focuses on having dogs relate the Ten Commandments. Another features Sweet Saucy telling the story of Adam and Eve in the garden.
Walker said she feels called by her faith to write the books, sometimes rising from bed in the middle of the night inspired.
Walker encountered Black Birch Books when she was searching for a place to sell her self-published books. A few other stores had told her no. Jordan not only took the books to sell on her wall featuring Alaska authors, she offered to host Walker for a book-signing event.
On the morning of Walker’s author signing event, Jordan received some ugly phone calls from people mad about the event. It turned out Walker had gotten a phone call of her own.
“It was the opposite,” Walker said. “It was: I’m the religious person, so I’m the bad guy.”
But “I thought it was interesting that people thought both Taylor and I — we were both the bad guys.”
There was even a moment where Walker wondered if “some kook would come through like you see on TV,” as she signed books at the store, she said.
But everything went just fine. “We proceeded to do the book signing for three hours, met some awfully nice people and nothing happened,” she said.
Walker says she doesn’t agree with Jordan on everything, including the drag storytime. “I don’t believe the Ten Commandments are multiple choice,” she said. “But I’m not going to criticize Taylor for having this event because she does a great job including all people. And that is what I think she should be noted for.”
Living in community with people you disagree with can be hard, Jordan said. She knows that. But imagine existing in a monoculture of thought where everybody agreed? She’d hate that too. “Not fun,” she said. “Sucks.”
“We have to listen to each other,” she said.