Outside Manly Library there’s a little girl wearing a pink dressing gown patterned with unicorns over a sparkly mermaid costume. There’s another in fairy wings, and a third in a floaty white dress stoned with gems. Accompanied by their parents, they approach library staff, pride badges pinned to their lapels, and are ushered into the building.

There’s a heavy police presence outside the library, too. Unaware of the bomb threat called in earlier that day, curious locals wearing sandals and walking dogs skirt the periphery of the bustling pedestrian precinct.

The crowd forming outside the premises wear eclectic makeup and clothing, pride flags draped around their shoulders and held high. They clap and cheer when children and their parents enter and disappear through the glass doors. 

A person proudly wears a Pride Flag flying in the wind around their shoulders

A young counter-protester wears a pride flag around their shoulders. Photo: Ryan Lum

It’s an otherwise quiet Saturday and the children are there to participate in a Drag Queen Storytime, where a colourfully-dressed drag queen reads from children’s books. Events such as this have been run to promote both reading and diversity since writer Michelle Tea held the first story hour in San Francisco eight years ago.

Charisma Belle, who was approached by the council to host the event, says the books she reads are varied in content.

“We don’t just talk about gender and LGBTIQ issues. We also touch on religion and family dynamics, because lots of kids just live with their grandparents or might have a stepparent,” said Charisma.

In an open letter posted on her Instagram, Charisma discussed growing up being subjected to name calling and exclusion on the playground.

“I remember how the bullying felt,” she said during an interview with Central News, “and I believe that if you speak to kids and educate them on stuff, they’re not so afraid [and] therefore they don’t bully other kids.”

Drag Queen Charisma Belle wishing her followers a happy pride month on her Instagram

Charisma Belle wishing her followers a Happy Pride Month. Photo: Instagram

Kristyn Glanville is a councillor for Curl Curl Ward who said Charisma’s drag story time follows on from the Fusion Pride Picnic held in mid-February at Dee Why Beach. Both events are sponsored in part by the Northern Beaches Council, aimed at harnessing the publicity of Sydney WorldPride and bringing the Northern Beaches’ LGBTQIA+ community together

Glanville was in attendance with her son, one, whose Godmother is a transgender woman.

“I want him to grow up in an environment where being LGBT is a non-issue, something we love and respect about other people,” she said.

Glanville was proud of the council’s efforts in organising for WorldPride but noted how such events could make residents uncomfortable.

“We’ve never done pride in such a big way and for some people it will be pushing a boundary,” Glanville said.

Indeed, a number of people gathered in the Saturday sun were there to express their dissatisfaction in the event.

The event page hosted by the Northern Beaches Council website was reposted to a community Facebook page. Commenting was shortly turned off for the post after it received over a hundred comments where a large majority of users criticised the idea of a drag queen interacting with children. 

Peggy, a senior citizen who was outside the library, came along to “see what happened.”

“You have to have a line you draw, and adult entertainment should be that. I don’t think adult entertainers should be reading to children,” she said.

Two elderly protesters hold up signs. One reads "Drag Queens are NOT for kids" while the other reads "Fauci trialled genocide on gays"

Two women hold up signs protesting the event as a police officer watches on. Photo: Ryan Lum

The controversy reached a tipping point when, in a now deleted Instagram post, Married at First Sight reality TV personality Dean Wells expressed his views regarding the “inherently sexual” nature of drag queens in the caption of a screenshot of the event page.  

Wells claimed in a subsequent Instagram reel that he was contacted about the event by a “concerned mum” urging him to make the post, and was “bombarded with hateful messages, comments [and] threats” shortly thereafter. 

He added he wanted to bring attention to “advanced sexual and gender ideologies being taught to three year olds”.

“I would have the same issue if it was dominatrix story time, or stripper story time,” he wrote. “It’s not about whether or not the person is homosexual, it’s because it’s sexual.”

Wells initially agreed to an interview with Central News but did not respond to further correspondence. 

Drag king Leon Thotsky was in attendance on Saturday, having come from Canberra after seeing a callout from activist group Pride in Protest to form a welcoming committee outside the library for parents and children.

In speaking with Central News, Leon said: “Drag performances can be sexual, and a lot of the time they are, but there’s also a whole lot of them that aren’t.

“Drag performers are performers, they’re artists. They know how to adjust their act for an audience.”

Leon Thotsky, a drag king, sits on a pedestrian bollard. They have a black and red lace sun umbrella, glasses, a cap and a sharpie moustache.

Drag King Leon Thotsky awaits protesters in drag at Manly Library. Photo: Ryan Lum

Similarly, the queen at the centre of the controversy believes detractors hold a misinformed perception of drag.

“I think most people have only experienced drag in a nightclub setting,” Charisma said. “Maybe they’ve only experienced a drag queen doing their adult act and they don’t see [them] as being anything more than one dimensional.”

A dozen officers including state police oversaw the scene. A spokesman said no arrests were made, and a search of the area following a bomb threat had found nothing.

Charisma said she’s witnessed backlash for drag story times before, but never to the extent that police were required.

“This time [the backlash] seems to be a bit bigger than others,” she said. 

A group of five young male protesters arrived wearing sunglasses, caps and cloths tied around their faces to obscure their identities, brandishing a megaphone that went unused. The group declined to provide comment and later requested a police escort from the scene which was granted. 

A group of masked men hold a sign reading "DEGENS NOT WELCOME IN MANLY". A woman talks to them while two other protesters hold a pride flag in the background.

Protesters carry a sign reading ‘Degens not welcome in Manly’ . Photo: Ryan Lum

Kate, 24, was getting a coffee when she stopped to observe the atmosphere having not been aware of the controversy.

“I kind of understand why [the police presence] is necessary. I’m actually quite glad they’re here, you can get some real psychos,” Kate said.

However, Leon Thotsky expressed hesitancy towards the presence of police at the scene.

“It’s the job of queer people to keep ourselves safe. It is nice when police assist with that, but I think community safety and defence is what we should be aiming for,” they said.

A senior police officer speaks to a crowd of protesters. The image is framed with the heads of the protesters giving an intimate feeling.

Northern Beaches Police Inspector Andrew Veale speaks with the crowd. Photo: Ryan Lum

At the story time’s conclusion, attendees exited the library via a back entrance leading into a car park. The crowds outside dissolved soon after.

Councillor Glanville stressed the importance of community feedback for council-backed events.

“It’s disproportionately people who are aggrieved who feel motivated to make that known and complain,” she said. “So, for the people who are really supportive of the council getting involved in pride events, … be really positive about it and communicate to the council that it’s something you want to see.”

Additional reporting by Ryan Lum.