A drag queen performer, whose appearances at a children’s program in the downtown library sparked some controversy in 2019, has been voted Kelowna’s Newsmaker of the Year.
People who voted in the poll at The Daily Courier’s website picked Freida Whales as 2019’s top newsmaker.
Whales, whose real name is Tyson Cook, drew 41.8% of the 629 votes that were cast.
In second place was Audra Boudreau, a community activist who organized a 13,000-plus-name petition against an addict housing complex in Rutland. She received 34.6% of the votes.
Further down the list were the homeless, at 17.4%, newly elected Conservative MP Tracy Gray, at 4.6%, and Kelowna Mayor Colin Basran, at 1.6%.
Freida Whales was part of Drag Queen Story Time, in which drag performers read and entertain children.
The program generated some controversy, with critics saying it was inappropriate for young children.
Don Nettleton, the Okanagan Regional Library’s chief executive, wrote in a memo: “The announced program, while claiming to be promoting diversity and acceptance, will be offensive to a significant segment of our society.”
At an ORL board meeting in November, politicians from Valley communities where the library operates effectively rebuked Nettleton, ordering him and other senior staff to “take sensitivity and diversity training.”
The board also reaffirmed the ability of branch librarians to present programs they believe are suitable and of interest to the communities they serve.
Following is an interview with Freida Whales:
Q: What’s your reaction to being named Kelowna’s Newsmaker of the Year?
A: I was very surprised. I didn’t know I was in the running until a few days ago when my drag grandma told me.
Q: Why do you think so many people voted for you?
A: I am part of an amazing and supportive community.
Q: Why were you interested in participating in the children’s storytime program at the downtown library as your drag persona, Freida Whales?
A: I was interested in helping run this event because I think it’s important to encourage kids to be engaged with their community and enjoy a funny story with a fun character.
Q: What message were you hoping the kids attending the program might take away from the experience?
A: I started to realize I was different at a young age and when I only saw negative representation of queer people around me, I was worried that’s how I would be treated. I want to show kids you can be a successful person in this world and it’s OK to be whoever you are.
Q: Were you surprised your appearance caused some controversy?
A: A little bit, as there have been a few drag storytimes put on at Indigo for past Pride events by Daisy Confused, another queen in town, that I was also part of. There were no issues with those events.
Q: Don Nettleton, the ORL’s executive director, said the show would be “offensive to a significant segment of our society.” What did you think when you heard that?
A: Again, surprised, as I had heard of no local upset until then.
Q: At a subsequent meeting, the ORL board affirmed the ability of branch librarians to present programming they believe served their communities, and also ordered Nettleton and other senior staff to take sensitivity and diversity training. What was your reaction?
A: I was happy it ended on a positive note for the community. Education is the only way we can move forward as a society, so it was a good decision.
Q: Has Nettleton offered to meet with you?
A: No, he has not, but I would love to meet with him. The only way to change minds is to show first-hand, and I encourage him to attend the next Drag Queen Storytime in the new year.
Q: How many times have you presented Drag Queen Storytime? What’s the kids’ reaction?
A: I prefer it be called Drag Story Time, as we have kings involved as well. I have been a part of four shows, and the community has come together stronger and harder each time. Going from numbers of about 30 to 300 in the span of a few years is an amazing accomplishment for our small city.
Q: What do you like best about presenting the program?
A: Seeing the excitement and joy in the kids’ eyes and giving them a break from the “screen.” It’s an amazing event filled with love and learning for people of all ages.
Q: Any other comment or observation you’d like to make?
A: I want to thank my community for having my back through this. I am still astounded at how much love was brought out by this event. As well, thanks to the library staff that handled the few complaints with an amazing amount of professionalism.