'They can choose not to come': Downers Grove library responds to criticism of drag-themed bingo event

The Downers Grove Public Library's plan to hold a drag-themed bingo event for teens is being assailed by a suburban congressional candidate and a conservative group with ties to his campaign.

Sixth District Republican hopeful Keith Pekau called the upcoming appearance by a drag queen who uses the stage name Aurora Divine "inappropriate" and "an unacceptable use of taxpayer funds." The Oct. 11 event is open to seventh- through 12th-graders, and that doesn't sit well with Pekau.

"I join parents across the district in denouncing this event, just as I would denounce a library introducing kids to straight sex by holding a burlesque show," Pekau said on his campaign website and on Facebook.

Library spokeswoman Cindy Khatri said the staff understands Pekau and other parents may consider the event "a poor fit" for their families.

"That is totally OK - they can choose not to come," she said. "Other taxpaying parents in the community do want programming like this."

Pekau's opposition followed public condemnation of the event from Awake Illinois, a group that has made queerphobic social media posts, called the state's new sex education standards "perverse" and encouraged people to protest a drag show at the UpRising Bakery and Cafe in Lake in the Hills.

Awake Illinois this week issued what it termed a "public service announcement and call of action" about the event on its website, including information about Divine's performances and about a different performer using the same name. The group suggested supporters email library trustees and staffers and attend the Sept. 28 library board meeting.

Library officials defended the program in a lengthy letter posted to its website and social media accounts.

"We understand that not all topics will appeal to everyone, and may even be controversial to some," the letter reads. "However, we want all members of our community to see themselves respected and reflected in the library's collection, in our programs and by our staff."

Pekau and Awake Illinois are linked beyond opposition to this event.

In March, the group gave Pekau - the mayor of Orland Park - an award for what it called "his leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic." Pekau and the village board refused to enforce mask or vaccination mandates from Gov. J.B. Pritzker.

The group subsequently named Kathleen Murphy, a former Republican candidate for lieutenant governor who handles communications for Pekau's congressional committee, as its government affairs director.

In his statement, Pekau called on his congressional campaign rival, incumbent Democratic Sean Casten of Downers Grove, to denounce the library event. Casten instead criticized Pekau's stance and his relationship with Awake Illinois.

"My opponent refused to condemn Awake Illinois in the aftermath of the attack they provoked on UpRising bakery, and now he's embracing and perpetrating the group's homophobic, bigoted attacks on the Downers Grove Public Library," said Casten, whose district includes Downers Grove and other parts of DuPage and Cook counties. "Hate has no home in the 6th District. It's shameful that Keith Pekau disagrees."

Neither Pekau nor Awake Illinois leaders responded to repeated interview requests.

The event deliberately was scheduled to fall on National Coming Out Day, Khatri said. It was added to the library's online calendar earlier this month and mentioned in a newsletter distributed last week.

The official event description reads: "Join Aurora Divine for some classic bingo! Multiple games will be played for prizes with a short drag performance included."

Officials anticipated positive and negative reactions, Khatri said. The library has received more than 200 emails or phone calls about the event, she estimated, with supporters just edging out opponents.

Khatri took issue with Pekau's comparison to a burlesque show, saying it reflects "a lack of understanding" about drag performances.

"Drag shows are simply performers who enjoy dressing up doing some kind of variety act," she said. "Many drag shows, including our Drag Queen Bingo, are not sexual in any way."

Divine will be paid $125 for hosting the program, which is limited to 40 participants.

"We have spent significantly more taxpayer money in staff time responding to feedback about the event than we will be spending on the event itself," Khatri said.

Library officials are speaking with Downers Grove police about extra security.

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Democratic U.S. Rep. Sean Casten of Downers Grove, left, and Orland Park Republican Keith Pekau are candidates for the 6th Congressional District seat in November 2022.
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