A Montana public library canceled a planned speaking appearance by an indigenous transgender author over concerns that the content of her speech would violate the state’s “anti-drag” law.
Adria Jawort, a Billings-based writer and member of the Northern Cheyenne tribe — who also serves as political director for the organization Indigenous Vote — had signed a contract agreeing to speak about “Montana History of Two-Spirit and LGBTQ+ Peoples” on June 2.
The presentation was scheduled as part of the library’s monthly “First Friday” series, which features talks from Montana-based authors or documentaries about Butte, Montana, or the wider world.
“It’s how trans, two-spirit people have existed in indigenous culture since time immemorial,” Jawort told the The Montana Standard, explaining the content of her planned presentation. “And how they fit into our cultures and how colonization tried to eradicate their voices and their presence.”
But legal counsel for the Butte-Silver Bow Public Library said the event was canceled due to a recently passed bill barring minors from attending events with “sexually-oriented” or “obscene” content — including as “Drag Story Time” events or lectures or discussions touching on LGBTQ identity or sexuality — on public property or in libraries or schools receiving taxpayer funding.
Under the new law, signed into effect by Gov. Greg Gianforte last month, a library, or any library employee who arranges to host an event deemed to violate the law could be fined $5,000, be suspended for up to a year (or permanently for subsequent violations), and can potentially be sued for additional damages by the parent of any child who objects to the content of a show, lecture, or presentation.
City-County of Butte-Silver Bow Chief Executive J.P. Gallagher said the content of Jawort’s lecture and recent Twitter comments about what she planned to do, such as “dressing flamboyantly” or speaking about sexuality, ran the risk of violating the law.
Gallagher appeared to be referring to a series of tweets by Jawort, in which she promoted the event, writing: “I’m really entertaining at this one, too. #MostHumblest BUT this literally might be illegal in Mont. as a flamboyantly dressed trans woman. I don’t get paid, but in fascist red state you pay state 4 ‘crimes’ instead.”
She followed up that tweet with one reading: “And I will def have a book & sexuality will be discussed & minors may be present, & the State of Montana doesn’t legally recognize people being trans, so…”
"PROHIBITING DRAG STORY HOUR IN SCHOOLS AND LIBRARIES…"
And I will def have a book & sexuality will be discussed & minors may be present, & the State of Montana doesn't legally recognize people being trans, so… ¯_(ツ)_/¯ pic.twitter.com/F0GVdjNyUn
— Indigenous Transilience (@IndigiTrans) May 26, 2023
Prior to the event’s cancellation, Jawort was told a police presence would be at the library for the safety of the attendees and herself, similar to a speaking event she held in Bozeman, Montana, earlier this spring. But instead of protection, the event was canceled with less than 24 hours notice — on the same day that Gallagher issued a proclamation recognizing June as Pride Month.
Jawort said she was shocked to learn of the cancellation.
“I just didn’t think Butte, of all towns, would do it. Maybe other towns would cave to that or whatever. But Butte of all places, was just really surprising and shocking, to me anyway,” she said.
Gallagher noted that while he is not personally against the lecture, he believed it would violate the anti-drag law.
In an email to The Montana Standard, Butte-Silver Bow Public Library Director Stef Johnson echoed Gallagher’s comments, saying: “Our commitment to promoting inclusivity and intellectual exploration remains, but not in violation of the law.”
Jawort also argued that her presentation would not have been explicit or “obscene,” and that her tweets about dressing “flamboyantly” were tongue-in-cheek.
“Kind of just mocking the law. That’s something I literally argued against. Look at me now how I’m dressed. It’s very flamboyant for Montana. Where people wear Carhartts and stuff. And here I am, me wearing purple lipstick, that’s flamboyantly dressed,” said Jawort.
Jawort later tweeted that a person who she identified as a Nazi celebrated the event’s cancellation, crediting a “campaign of complaints” sent to city-county officials for the victory. She also noted that officials have repeatedly conflated transgender or two-spirit identity with drag.
Jawort also included a screenshot of a story noting that state and local officials have claimed the drag ban is applicable to trans people who dress in gender-affirming clothing — something that State Rep. Zooey Zephyr — who was kicked out of the House chamber for speaking against anti-transgender legislation — had previously warned about when the bill initially passed the legislature.
“CONFIRMED: NAZIS COWERED BUTTE-SILVER BOW COUNTY INTO BANNING LIBRARY HISTORY LECTURE,” Jawort tweeted. “Adria Jawort (me) was banned from doing history lecture as Nazi’s (sic) brag of ‘campaign of complaints.’ Officials also cite drag ban law as applicable to trans ppl.”
Jawort noted that she had received an email from Gallagher and County Attorney Eileen Joyce, saying that they had “decided that it is too much of a legal risk to have a transgendered (sic) person in the library.”
Jawort told NBC Montana that she may seek civil action against Silver Bow County, and is seeking to help overturn HB 359.
She later said in a follow-up email that the county offered to reschedule the event at a different venue, although no confirmed place or time has been set. She also noted, in her original interview, that several other non-taxpayer-funded venues around Butte have offered to host her in the future.
“That’s the whole irony of this,” Jawort noted. “Every time they try to ban or cancel something, free speech or book or whatever, people are more curious about what’s so dangerous about what I’m saying. Or what’s so dangerous about this knowledge that they’re trying to silence.”
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