WATERVILLE  — Love not hate.

That was the chant on Main Street Saturday morning from more than 100 people waving LGBTQ flags and carrying signs in a counterprotest to the backlash over an event featuring a drag queen reading to children at a local bookstore.

About 50 people packed the inside of the Children’s Book Cellar, where is was shoulder to shoulder, like a rainbow mosh pit. Ophelia, a drag queen from Topsham, read from two books about inclusion. The scheduled drag queen, Valerie Honeywell, couldn’t make Saturday’s event.

Across the street, another much smaller group, called An End to Child Indoctrination at the Cellar Bookstore, said their message was not about hating anyone — it was about sparing young children from the confusion of adult gender identity. It’s not OK for a boy to be a girl, they said, displaying signs that included “Don’t drag children’s innocence into the mud.”

Jessica Gorton, of Readfield, said she brought her 8-year-old son to the event to show the boy that each individual is unique and to recognize everyone’s individual differences.

“I think it’s important to support diversity — diversity of thought, diversity of how people present themselves,” she said following the reading. “I think it’s a wonderful idea to expose children to different ways of being and different expressions. It’s good to normalize it. There’s nothing that was not normal about what we just experienced.”

On Monday of last week, Ellen Richmond, owner of the children’s bookstore, said outrage over the event blew up on social media, including a post and comments by Waterville Mayor Nick Isgro against the event and a thread of comments on the Facebook page Maine Conservative Grassroots.

People who protested the drag queen event said their message wasn’t anti-gay, but LGBTQ activists turned their protest around, saying it was homophobic.

Josh Laury, one of the people protesting the drag queen book reading, said the concept of the event was wrong from the beginning.

“I find it wrong and immoral to bring little kids and to bring them into such a situation where little kids are exposed to what is considered sexuality,” he said. “They’re too  young to be knowing that is going on. The whole LGBTQ thing are pushing their narrative way too much, and somebody’s got to push back once in a while.”

Waterville police officers watched the scene unfold as the sidewalk in front of the book store filled with supporters of the reading. There was no trouble. Cars and trucks tooted their horns going by, with the crowd not knowing if the toots were for “for us or them.”

One woman, Nyssa Damon, held up a colorful sign that read “God save the queens,” which seemed to sum up the event for the counterprotesters. Others wore shirts and carried signs saying they were queer and proud.

One of the drag queen protesters dressed up as a clown waved a flag representing what he said was Kekistan, a fictional place where people believe we live in a clown world, run by clowns. The flag is associated with alt-right internet culture.

Elizabeth Leonard, of Waterville, who helped organize the counterprotest, said the event was called in support of the store and store owner.

“I feel that there is no reasoning with that way of thinking,” she said of the protesters. “All I want to do is stand here and show how much love there is for inclusion and diversity and the store.”

Mark Wilson, pastor of the Waterville United Church of Christ, First Congregational Church, said he supports the book store and was out on the street Saturday with all the other like-minded people.

“I’m here to stand on the side of love, and I’m supporting Ellen and what she’s doing,” he said. “That’s what I’m doing.”

The reading was organized as part of the 2019 Central Maine Pride Festival and was intended as a way of promoting diversity and educating people on the LGBTQ community, Richmond said.

The event was planned for Saturday and has been in the works since before the Waterville City Council voted last month to pass a resolution declaring June 2 Central Maine Pride Day.

Tom Kawczynski, the former town manager of Jackman, who was fired in January 2018 in a unanimous vote of the town’s selectmen following an uproar about his racist views calling for people of different races to “voluntarily separate,” also was on hand Saturday to protest the drag queen event with a sign that read “What a drag to exploit children.” Kawcynzski now lives in Greenville.

“I am here because I do not believe that children should be sexualized,” he said. “I believe the drag queen story hour is bringing inappropriate sexual behavior to children who are too young to understand what they are hearing. This isn’t about gays today. Gays have the right to do whatever they want.”

Parent Justin Lamport, of Waterville, said he had a different view of the drag queen book reading, and took his two children, 10 and 6, to the event.

“I’m here to get my kids inspired to read books,” he said. “I want to get them out, show them a little diversity — everybody is created equal.”

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