Councillor labelled bigot after questioning ‘sexual politics’

Dunedin drag performer Ann Arkii, or Ms Annie, recites from Mr Pusskins by Sam Lloyd at Rainbow...
Dunedin drag performer Ann Arkii, or Ms Annie, recites from Mr Pusskins by Sam Lloyd at Rainbow Story Time at the Dunedin City Library on March 10. Photo: Gerard O'Brien
A Dunedin city councillor has been labelled a bigot after raising concerns about the city’s library being a stage for "sexual politics" over the hosting of a drag story time event.

The remarks were made by Cr Lee Vandervis during an email exchange released to the Otago Daily Times under the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act.

The comments ignited a heated back and forth between fellow councillors and have drawn criticism from Dunedin’s queer community.

Rainbow Story Time was a book reading for children at the Dunedin City Library by local drag queen Ann Arkii, whose drag name is a play on the word anarchy, and was held on March 10.

The event was met with threats of violence after it was announced by the library on social media, which culminated in a 12-person protest outside the library.

A day after the ODT inquired about the online backlash to the event, Cr Lee Vandervis notified council chief executive Sandy Graham he had received a parental complaint about the event and "the DCC support of sexualised politics".

Cr Vandervis asked Ms Graham four questions about the event, including if "anarchy" fit with her view of diversity and inclusivity, and asked for her response to parents "concerned about grooming".

In response, Ms Graham said the event was scheduled outside regular library hours and not in the children’s space so parents would need to make a deliberate choice to attend.

She also advised Cr Vandervis that anarchy was "not a concept that would be explored at this event", which was intended as a fun and family-friendly event to celebrate diversity, inclusivity and kindness.

The council was not paying Ann Arkii, who also goes by the name Ms Annie, for her performance.

"This is a reading event for families, not a nightclub show."

Ms Annie told the ODT she was disappointed by Cr Vandervis’ comments and was "absolutely not comfortable" with someone who makes such comments representing the city of Dunedin.

"It’s incredibly saddening that people like this are allowed to retain their seats on council after making such uneducated, bigoted comments, that not only come at the expense of my existence, but the existence of the entire queer community," she said.

Cr Lee Vandervis
Cr Lee Vandervis
"If Vandervis somehow sees the entire LGBTQ+ existence as inherently ‘sexual politics’, I worry about where his exposure to LGBTQ+ topics has been from," Ms Annie said.

The concerns presented by Cr Vandervis and parents had "zero merit", and being read to by a drag performer would not turn their children gay or transgender, Ms Annie said.

"This rhetoric is the same rehashed argument the queer community has heard since the ’60s."

Dunedin Pride chairperson Mason Potiki-Grayling said there was nothing sexual about the event and Cr Vandervis’ reaction seemed "a bit extreme".

"I am disappointed that someone representing the DCC is making such comments," they said.

While parents had a right to express concerns, "none of the concerns have any grounding in fact," they said.

Several councillors replied to Cr Vandervis’ comments in the email thread.

Cr David Benson-Pope said Cr Vandervis’ "outbursts" seemed to be once again his problem and not anyone else’s.

Cr Vandervis replied he was asking questions on behalf of concerned parents, and in doing so had not "forwarded any of my views".

Cr Christine Garey said the parents she had heard from wanted their children to be inclusive and kind, which was in contrast to the "bigotry and hatred" suggested by Cr Vandervis’ questions.

Cr Vandervis replied saying the fears some parents had were valid.

"The themes of ‘different family units’ and ‘drag queens’ for children do not suggest hatred or bigotry but valid fears that some parents have about targeting and glamorising changed sexual orientation of their children," he said.

Cr Carmen Houlahan said she felt very comfortable "as a mother" with Ms Graham’s answers.

"At the end of the day people have a choice," she said.

Cr Vandervis replied this was fair enough, but her comfort was not universally shared by the parents who had contacted him.

"Sandy’s [Ms Graham] answers to my questions are also fair enough, but hardly justify the DCC providing a stage for sexual politics and normalising ‘diverse family units’," he said.

Cr Houlahan said that if Cr Vandervis or the members of the public who contacted him were concerned their children ‘‘may become gay, trans, or drag queens after seeing a drag queen storyteller’’ then they had ‘‘bigger issues to deal with,’’ she said.

Cr Steve Walker said if a parent did not support diversity or interaction with the real world, he suggested they not attend an event held specifically outside regular library hours.

He then emailed Cr Vandervis the dictionary definition of the word anarchy, since he would ‘‘often defer’’ to using them.

Cr Mandy Mayhem wished Cr Vandervis a happy international Women’s Day.

‘‘I want to point out Ann Arkii is a clever name like Mandy Mayhem it’s just a name.

‘‘I do not intend to bring Mayhem to the city.’’

Cr Vandervis did not respond to a request for comment.