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I visited Laguna Beach this past Saturday on a gorgeous morning, the type of sunny day the seaside gem hadn’t experienced in months. Tourists headed toward the beach. Locals jogged. Paramotor enthusiasts crisscrossed the blue sky on their way toward the Pacific.

Beauty wasn’t what brought me to the coast, though. It was hate.

For weeks, social media posts had trashed the Laguna Art Museum for planning to host story time with a drag queen. Typical was one from the Greater Laguna Beach GOP, which alleged with no evidence whatsoever that the mere act of a drag queen reading a book to kids was part of a “larger, recent trend of sexualizing children.”

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These attacks were the latest volley in an ugly battle against queer anything in Southern California this year.

The president of the Temecula Valley Unified School District deemed Harvey Milk a “pedophile” during a board meeting. Vandals have destroyed Pride flags. Protesters clashed outside an elementary school in North Hollywood that held a Pride-themed assembly and a Glendale Unifed School District board meeting where June would be recognized as Pride Month. Thousands held a rally at a Dodger Stadium parking lot before the team’s Pride Night on Friday to lambaste the Blue Crew’s decision to honor a group of drag nuns with a Community Hero Award.

Now, the hate threatened to crash onto Laguna Beach, one of the oldest LGBTQ+ communities in Southern California.

Laguna Art Museum staff were calmly readying for the reading when I showed up. Executive Director Julie Perlin Lee told me they always try to sync up the space’s monthly story time with a topical theme, such as a winter Ukrainian folk tale in December. For this Pride Month, the museum contacted the literacy nonprofit Drag Story Hour, and then Perlin Lee‘s deputy director talked to other museums that had hosted similar events and heard “nothing but a positive experience.”

“But I’m sure everyone has experienced some degree of what we heard too,” Perlin Lee continued, alluding to the social media criticism. “I shouldn’t be surprised because that’s how things seem to be nowadays,”

“But,” she concluded, gesturing toward a group of rainbow-clad adults outside the museum’s glass doors, “there’s tons of support too.”

Kat Schroeder and Melissa Desjardin handed out small Pride flags to anyone who wanted them, and wore T-shirts that read “Free Mom Hugs.” With them was James Flores of Laguna Beach Pride! 365. He wasn’t happy about the planned protests against the museum, the first anti-LGBTQ+ action in Laguna Beach that he had heard of since moving to the small city 17 years ago.

“Laguna has been a part of our [LGBTQ+] culture forever,” he said. “People might feel a little put down by this, but that’s why we need to show up.”

“It’s a shame that it has got to this,” added Schroeder, an Orange resident.

“That’s why we gotta show visibility and educate the community,” replied Desjardin of Huntington Beach — “the good part,” she emphasized with a laugh.

Laura Puente protests against a drag story time at the Laguna Art Museum in Laguna Beach.

Laura Puente protests against a drag story time at the Laguna Art Museum on Saturday. “It’s inappropriate for little kids to see these adult situations,” Puente said. “I have a lot of gay and lesbian friends, and there’s a huge consensus to keep drag away from kids.”

(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Just as Desjardin finished, Laura Puente walked past her, then stood steps away. She held a giant purple sign bedecked with hearts that read, “Love Drag Queens at Adult Venues!”

“I have two children and am a gay person,” the Laguna Beach resident declared. “It’s inappropriate for little kids to see these adult situations. I have a lot of gay and lesbian friends, and there’s a huge consensus to keep drag away from kids.

“We love drag queens. But there are definite sexual overtones. I’ve seen enough story times — otherwise, I wouldn’t spend my beautiful Saturday morning here.”

When Puente got no reaction from Flores, Schroeder and Desjardin, she moved to the corner of Coast Highway. A smattering of car honks and supportive hoots greeted her. A man and woman who gave their names only as Eric from San Francisco and Carolina from Laguna Beach joined Puente. Eric held a sign suggesting drag queens should read to senior citizens instead of children.

“Seniors are lonely,” he reasoned. “They would like a show.”

“I have drag friends,” Eric continued. “But why are these story times targeting kids? Because they’re impressionable. Children are confused enough.”

“What’s going to be next?” Carolina replied. “Burlesque for children?”

By the time two other protesters showed up, the museum’s lobby was packed with children and their parents.

One of the activists walked up to the lobby’s window wall and held up a sign that read “Stop Sex-ing our Children.” The only reaction she got was tykes waving at her.

Families wait for Laguna Art Museum's drag story time to start.

Families wait inside the lobby of the Laguna Art Museum before the start of a drag story time on Saturday.

(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

The families eventually streamed into what’s usually a gallery space but would be the reading room for the story time, the better to accommodate the crowd of 40. Kids lay down on mats in the front; adults and preteens sat behind them in chairs.

The drag queen for the day was stuck in traffic.

A staffer tried to keep children occupied by playing “Simon Says,” but they were getting restless. “It’s very electric, I feel it!” she gamely told the crowd. “So let’s keep up that energy —”

Suddenly, a 6-foot-and-change blond in a flowing neon coral pantsuit strode into the room with a “Helloooooo!”

Miss Pickle was ready to read.

She has dealt with enough Drag Story Hour backlash this year. In April, protesters disrupted one of her readings, at the Sherman Oaks Martin Pollard Branch Library, with screams of “perversion” and “abomination.” The day before her Laguna Art Museum appearance, the Glendale Library announced on Instagram with no explanation that it was canceling Miss Pickle’s scheduled story time at their Pride in the Park festival on Saturday afternoon.

If Miss Pickle was frazzled by these troubles, she didn’t show it in Laguna.

Miss Pickle reads a story to children.

Miss Pickle reads from Loryn Brantz’s “Feminist Baby Finds Her Voice” at the Laguna Art Museum on Saturday.

(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

She was funny and sassy and patient and caring. Miss Pickle asked her audience questions after every sentence and urged them to follow good manners, such as sharing toys with friends and asking parents for permission to eat macaroni in the bathtub. She made the adults laugh with on-the-spot jokes. “You’ve lost two teeth and have three wiggly ones?” the drag queen asked one little boy who had just informed her about his dental problems. “Glad you’re keeping a spreadsheet,” Miss Pickle said, before suggesting the boy file a 1099 tax form to declare any money the Tooth Fairy might bring him.

The books for the morning: Loryn Brantz’s “Feminist Baby Finds Her Voice,” another one about how it’s OK to be different, and another one about having a big heart. They were as problematic as bunnies hopping on the lawn while baby chicks chirped.

“It’s the largest crowd we’ve ever had for a story time by fourfold,” Perlin Lee whispered, with a weary but wide smile.

The grand finale was “The Hips on the Drag Queen Go Swish, Swish, Swish,” a songbook by Lil Miss Hot Mess that the Greater Laguna Beach GOP described as: “Do you want your 4-year-old to be a ‘little hot mess’ shaking his booty and working it?” Miss Pickle asked everyone to get up and dance along to the book’s lyrics — “Luckily for the museum, ‘The Wheels on the Bus’ is in the public domain.’”

Shoes stomped. Hair went up. Jewels blinged. Shoulders shimmied. The reading ended, the adults applauded, and the children swarmed toward Miss Pickle for photos and stickers.

Sasha Deming of Laguna Hills had never been to a drag story hour before but showed up to support the museum with her husband and daughter. “I had no idea what to expect, but it was great,” she said. Of critics, Deming said “that says more about their own inner mind than the actual reality.”

Laguna Beach natives Lauren and Graham Unterberger brought their daughter Elliott, who had placed a Pride flag through her hair bun. Earlier, she had asked her mom about the protesters outside.

“It really breaks my heart to see this shift” in rhetoric in her hometown, Lauren Unterberger said. “So I told her it was hateful language, and that we should be inclusive and loving. I wish those people would’ve stepped inside and given it a chance, because they’re judging a book by its cover.”

The kids moved to another room for an art project, but Miss Pickle had to go. She was still planning to show up in Glendale. I asked if the conservative war on drag had weighed on her.

“They’re a loud bunch, but they’re not with the majority,” she said. “In the digital space, it’s toxic, and I get to thinking that it’s real.”

Miss Pickle paused. “But then you get into a room like this,” she said, “and you feel it. This is real.”

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