BILLINGS — An event that create controversy since it was announced, the Drag Queen Story Hour held at ZooMontana Wednesday drew hundreds and possibly thousands of attendees, along with protesters outside.
The parking lot to the zoo was full around noon just before the event started.
“Obviously by the show of support today, it’s needed, it’s wanted and we could not be more proud,” said ZooMontana Director Jeff Ewelt.
Ewelt said he anticipated 1,500 to 2,000 people would attend over the four hours the event was held, but no official count was available later in the day. Organizers placed about 180 chairs to start with, and more were seen being set up just before the story hour started.
Ewelt says he has no regrets about allowing the event to be held on zoo property, and it has drawn the biggest crowd he's seen for a non-related zoo event.
Three drag queens attended, taking turns reading family-friendly books to children and taking pictures with guests during the breaks.
“We were so excited to come. It’s Pride Month, and we just wanted to come support our LGBTQ community and, of course, the zoo,” said attendee Karen Miller.
406 Pride sponsored the event in conjunction with other Drag Queen Story Hours held across the country in support of the LGBTQ+ community.
“It’s just a good day to be here with the drag queens and take pictures, and it’s a very prideful day,” attendee Kai Franklin said.
It was a historic, but divisive event that drew a big response.
“I’m just so proud of ZooMontana for putting on this event and supporting 406 Pride,” said Miller.
An hour before the Drag Queen Story Hour was set to begin, about 100 protesters lined the street across from ZooMontana.
“We find it appalling that Mayor (Bill) Cole and ZooMontana are promoting this situation,” said Bill Iverson, a protester.
Among the protesters was state Sen. Cary Smith, R-Billings. The zoo is in his legislative district.
“I’m down here to let people know that what’s going on, and the sexualization of our children is something that I do not support at all,” said Smith.
The protesters outside feared the children at the event would be exposed to sexualized content, although nothing of the sort was seen by an MTN reporter during the event. Nevertheless, protesters expressed those views with signs reading "Groom Pets not Kids," "Stop Sexualizing our Kids" and "Make the Rainbow Godly Again."
“I believe the degeneration of today's society is directly related to the attack of the traditional family unit,” said Iverson.
Also outside the zoo, two counter protesters held signs in support of LGBTQ rights. They said the event was good for Billings.
“This is okay, and it’s not sexualizing children. It’s an art form and it can be done in a way that isn’t sexual,” said demonstrator Avi Fox.