High Plains Library District quiet on cancellation of Greeley Pride event

Editor’s note: This is Part 1 of a two-part series about the High Plains Library District’s cancellation of its LGBTQIA+ Pride celebration, how community members are reacting and the wider context of the event’s cancellation. Part 2 is available here. 

A local drag performer is accusing higher-up staff at the High Plains Library District of following a harmful trend of nationwide backlash against the LGBTQIA+ community.

Simone Perry is an educator at Northridge High School and the producer of Greeley Does Drag, created in 2018 to bring drag shows to local businesses. Perry identifies as nonbinary, a term to describe someone who is neither male nor female, and uses they/them pronouns.

Perry is part of the LGBTQIA+ community, which includes those who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning, intersex, asexual and more. Drag is the practice of performing exaggerated feminity, masculinity or other forms of gender expression. Performers often emulate a gender other than their own and may incorporate comedy, singing, lip-synching or dancing.

For several years, Perry has participated in drag story hours — where drag performers put on storytimes for children — at several locations in northern Colorado. They also helped plan Greeley’s High Plains Library District’s Pride Popup Celebration.

However, the High Plains Library District in late April canceled its annual Greeley Popup Pride Celebration after months of planning the event, which was scheduled to occur in June.

Perry is among the drag performers, parents of LGBTQIA+ people and other community members outraged by the district’s decision to rip away an event that celebrates the LGBTQIA+ community as they face discrimination, threats, hate and even legislation against them in states across the U.S. 

Some see the Pride cancellation as strike three for Executive Director Matthew Hortt, administration members and the board members as the district is currently involved in a discrimination lawsuit for firing a teen librarian who challenged the district’s cancellation of her programming for LGBTQIA+ youth, as well as programming for youth of color.

The district board also allegedly instituted a drag ban a few years ago, according to people familiar with the planning of the Pride event and library programming. The district did not respond to multiple inquiries from the Tribune asking whether such a ban was in place.

Prior to the event’s cancellation, James Melena, HPLD’s community relations and marketing manager, shared the details of the Pride Popup event, originally scheduled to take place June 10 at the University of Northern Colorado, which said:

“All are welcome to celebrate Greeley Popup Pride with inclusive community partners and HPLD’s Popup Library. This celebration involves all-ages LGBTQIA+ performances, All-Abilities Zumba and Yoga, Pride crafts, community speakers, community vendors, and lots of fun for everyone! Show your love and help support diverse communities.”

Last year’s Pride event brought in 164 people, according to an HPLD Friends & Foundation Quarterly Report Form — pulled from a records request filed by the Tribune.

The HPLD Friends & Foundation is a nonprofit established to support the High Plains Library District. In the nonprofit’s quarterly report, written by Amy Ortiz, districtwide events and experiences supervisor at High Plains Library District, she said the 2023 Pride event anticipated 300 attendees because the committee hoped the event’s location at the University of Northern Colorado would attract more students.

The district never cited a reason behind the decision to cancel Greeley Popup Pride, but Melena said a determination was reached following an internal review of the planning and a recommendation from a “key and valued” partner.

“We have determined that we are unable to put on a successful event that would celebrate our LGBTQIA+ Community at this time,” Melena wrote in an email. “This does not mean that we are stopping our support of Pride events.”

Melena said the district plans to participate as a vendor in the Erie and Johnstown 2023 events, as well as future Pride events across the district.

High Plains would not identify the partner whose feedback led to the cancellation, but emails obtained by the Tribune via a records request indicated the High Plains Foundation staff understood the partner to be a “well-respected person in this field of work.”

Perry said the partner was Stephen Loveless, the director of the Gender and Sexuality Resource Center, who allegedly said if High Plains hosted a Pride event with the university’s partnership, it should be education-based rather than a “carnival” because the latter cause more harm than good for the queer community. Loveless did not respond to multiple inquiries from the Tribune asking about their involvement.

University employees then met with the High Plains Library District to discuss the next steps. After the meeting, High Plains decided to cancel the Pride event.

Perry and others place some blame on UNC staff for influencing High Plains’ cancellation, but a university spokeswoman indicated the decision to cancel the event was solely made by the library district.

Deanna Herbert, UNC’s director of news and public relations, said the university supported the district’s decision to cancel based on information the library administration shared about planning efforts.

“At no time did we lessen our support or pull our partnership agreement for this event,” she said. “Our role was in supporting a decision that was made by the High Plains Library District.”

UNC encourages events that showcase diversity and inclusion, Herbert added. She said diverse and inclusive efforts align with UNC’s institutional values to “nurture and celebrate” people with diverse backgrounds and intersecting identities.

Hortt on April 28 sent an email to High Plains staff saying he “made the determination to cancel the event.” Hortt did not respond to the Tribune’s inquiries about the email.

Prior to the email, everything was set to move forward after the planning committee and library staff spent months organizing the Pride event.

Planning for the Greeley Popup Pride is documented dating back to January, according to the HPLD Friends & Foundation Quarterly Report Form, which said Ortiz, who led the planning committee, began planning the event.

“Members of the queer community have thanked the library for providing a safe inclusive event,” Ortiz’s quarterly report from a February Board of Directors meeting said.

In the weeks leading up to the announcement, Ortiz and the Pride committee were still working on planning the event, according to High Plains Library District records. Nearly a week before Hortt’s decision was publicized, the HPLD Friends & Foundation Quarterly Report Form said the committee wanted to gain community feedback to understand how the library can better serve queer people.

Following the cancellation news, the HPLD Board of Trustees received a comment from a mother “deeply saddened and disappointed” by the loss of a Pride event, asking those in authority to reconsider their conclusion. Her statement was obtained in the records request, and her name was redacted by High Plains Library District.

As the mother of an adult gay child, the woman reflected back on her son’s fear of coming out in the Greeley community where he grew up and lived his whole life. She said when he finally came out as a young adult, he said, “Mom, please don’t tell anyone. They killed Matthew Shepherd an hour from here.”

Shepherd, who identified as gay, was a student at the University of Wyoming who was beaten, tortured and left to die on Oct. 6, 1998, near Laramie.

“I had no idea of the depth of his fear of coming out in this community,” the mother said. “I can’t begin to tell you how much this Pride event is needed in Greeley and what a difference it would make to the LGBTQ community and those who love them. The HPLD should be fully embracing this long overdue event to acknowledge and celebrate those LGBTQ members of our community who are often marginalized and feel unsafe and unwelcome in Greeley.”

Perry believes electing not to host Pride is actively going against what a library is supposed to be about — creating an inclusive safe space for all. But, according to Perry, High Plains Library District higher-up staff members showed their true colors and beliefs far before the Pride cancellation.

The district allegedly had plans to enforce a drag ban at the Greeley Popup Pride Celebration, according to Perry.

Melena told the Tribune the event was a “placeholder” on the calendar as the program that was tentatively planned became finalized. The finalizations that needed to occur included venue and security details, as well as marketing materials, according to Melena.

“The library isn’t opposed to a private organization or another entity having a drag performance, but that’s not what this event is intended to be,” Melena wrote in an April 20 email.

The Pride event, coordinated by High Plains’ outreach team and community partners, planned for Perry to perform a drag show and do a drag story hour at the family-friendly Pride celebration. Perry was even listed as a potential “all-ages performer” in the Jan. 11 HPLD Friends & Foundation Quarterly Report Form.

As plans moved forward, High Plains denied Perry from participating in any drag-related activities at the event, they said. Perry said Hortt cited the grounds for not allowing in drag as a “board directive.”

High Plains Library District didn’t respond to the Tribune’s inquiries about whether the board directive exists.

The High Plains’ outreach team worked hard to fight for the Pride event, Perry said, which was in stark contrast to the district’s higher-ups.

“I have lived in Greeley since 2007,” Perry said. “I love our public libraries, and I have met the most wonderful, kind, accepting and affirming librarians.”

High Plains library staff and additional community partners are working on making a separate Pride event that is not associated with the library district.

More information will come once a date, venues and sponsors are confirmed.

Editor’s note: This story was updated with corrected information about where Perry has performed drag story hours. 

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