Culture wars hit sleepy Virginia community center

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The trouble at McLean Community Center began last summer after the northern Virginia cultural facility co-sponsored the children’s “Drag StoryBook Hour” during Pride Month.

Some in affluent DC suburbs of nearly 50,000 were outraged, accusing downtown leaders of imposing their liberal ideology on preschoolers who listened to drag queens in makeup and brightly patterned outfits read aloud to books on gender fluidity.

Now, in an example of how nothing is safe from the country’s violent culture wars, there’s a power struggle going on at the 47-year-old Fairfax County community center, whose council is often busy with issues like buying a ping-pong table. table pong for the building or how plans are going for the annual McLean Day family festival, where council elections are held.

While the council of volunteers with no tax authority is hardly a stepping stone to higher office, the May election for three open seats — a race that usually draws around 300 voters — drew nine candidates. Between them: Katharine Gorka, a former Trump administration official who – along with her husband Sebastian Gorka, a former aide to President Donald Trump – has criticized social equality and inclusion policies such as the one the community center used as a guide in selecting drag. event.

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The Democratic Party’s local committee is supporting three other candidates who support this fairness policy, called One Fairfax.

Another three are running like a slate looking for a compromise, while a retired criminal defense attorney on a crusade to stop the center from using its funds to install electric vehicle charging stations in the parking lot calls the entire organization dysfunctional. Then there’s the former 1980s actress who says she works for the CIA.

Several in the race lamented how the brick and glass building that normally hosts concerts or plays among towering oak trees has become its own spectacle.

The installation that prides itself on being at the “center of it all” found itself at the center of something else: the national outcry over culture war issues such as transgender toilet use, equity initiatives, “critical race theory” and mandates. of masks that, in Virginia, brought the Republicans to power during the fall.

“I don’t need another school board yelling game,” Lauren Kahn, the retired attorney, said of the community center. “Usually, these elections are uncontroversial. Why do you want to politicize it?”

The reaction spreads in the meeting room

Just a few kids were at the Dolley Madison Library in June with their parents when a group hired by the community center showed up dressed in dresses to read books like Airlie Anderson’s “None,” the story of a half-rabbit, half-bird creature. seeking acceptance, according to local reports.

But the event for interested families, sponsored by the library and community center, also attracted opponents, about 10 of whom attended. pray with rosary beads. The scene became tense, with some name-calling and harassment from both sides, according to reports.

The reaction soon spread to the McLean Community Center building, where the facility’s 11-member board of directors, which is largely funded by a special residential fiscal district, holds its regular meetings.

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Critics of the event have argued that the schedule has strayed too far from the classical music concerts or small theatrical productions that have long defined the community center, though many of these residents cannot cite any other example other than the drag event of how this happens.

“Other people can come in and use the center, but I’m paying for it,” said Alice Middleton, 71, who estimates that $400 of her annual residential taxes go to the center. “I should have information about the types of performances they do, the types of performances this community supports.”

Barbara Zamora-Appel, chairman of the board, said in a statement that the center strives to create “a welcoming and supportive space for all members of the community” in McLean — in line with the county’s One Fairfax policy.

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While “some community members” disapproved of the drag event, according to the statement, “we also received numerous messages of thanks from participants and those who support what we are doing.”

The board mostly ignored complaints about the drag event that were made during the public comment portion of its meetings for several months, according to minutes and recordings posted on the center’s website, until, at its Dec. frustrations peaked.

There, several audience members cheered as a speaker accused board members of being indifferent to their concerns. Zamora-Appel urged them not to interrupt the meeting with their applause, prompting one man in the audience to repeatedly shout, “The Nazis didn’t stop you from applauding!”

Daniel Singh, the center’s executive director, tried to get the man to leave, but he refused, verbally attacking him, a spokeswoman for the center said. Singh called the county police, who escorted the man out of the building.

No charges were filed, the spokeswoman said. But the police involvement further angered critics, and more complaints came in the following month — this time in response to a quote by Singh in an article about a Martin Luther King Jr. a stabilizing center. strength for McLean amid “strong crosswinds” over the coronavirus pandemic, “racial tension and whistles of white supremacy”.

“What is an example?” Jeffrey Shapiro, a resident since 2008, demanded of Singh, arguing that the white supremacist remark made McLean… which is nearly three-quarters white and has a black population of just over 2% – looks like a community of racists. Singh, who declined an interview request from The Washington Post, remained silent.

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To the board, Shapiro said, “The vibe I’m getting is that you feel like you’re morally superior and you know the way and it’s your job to teach us how to live.”

Shivani Saboo, a member of the South Asian council, shared moments from his McLean upbringing that supported Singh’s remarks and the logic of the One Fairfax policy.

“I was told to go back to my own country,” she said in a firm voice through a video link, while the rest of the room was silent. “’You are disgusting; you are dirty. All these things have been told to me while living in McLean all my life.”

After the dust, Gorka, 61, a Trump adviser who is now a member of the conservative Heritage Foundation, was one of the first to enter the race, promising in a campaign pamphlet “ensure that programming represents all members of the McLean community and that it responsibly manages the funds and other resources entrusted to it by members of our community.” Gorka did not respond to The Post’s requests for comment.

So candidates worried about conservative pressure to take over the center jumped, including those who said they would support the center by hosting another drag-related event involving children if it was done responsibly.

“We have autonomy over our choices and the types of events we attend and take our children to,” said Anna Bartosiewicz, 39, one of a trio of candidates supported by members of the Democratic Party’s local committee.

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Kristina Groennings – who with Democratic Party organizer Ari Ghasemian, 23, also has support from members of the party’s local committee – said the center should be a healing place for the community as people start going to events. live again.

“It’s important, to remain an open and free democracy — I mean, look what’s happening in the world — that we keep the community center as a free speech center,” said Groennings, 45, an entertainment attorney.

Meanwhile, Kahn – who has entered the race to end the use of local tax money for electric vehicle charging stations – says she was pressured to quit by the local Democratic Party chairman.

“We don’t want to have more than 3 of these candidates running against the Rightists, so we don’t split the vote wisely,” read the first of several emails from Julie Waters, the committee’s chair, to Kahn.

Kahn, who provided the emails and is a Democrat, responded: “Find someone else to demand that he step down.”

In an interview, Waters confirmed that the emails came from her, but denied pressing Kahn, saying that Kahn initially suggested she was willing to back out. But, Waters said, her committee members are helping the “more progressive” candidates they prefer to get their candidacy out there.

For Maire Shine, Debra Butler and James Lawless, who are running on their own, the controversy over the “Drag StoryBook Hour” event reflected a disconnect between the center’s leaders and the people they serve.

The event “didn’t feel like something that suited” the community, said Lawless, 79, who worked as a lawyer for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration before retiring.

While most McLean residents are “probably quite welcoming,” he said, “there’s a limit to what they think is appropriate for the community center because that’s where they come with their families.”

The council’s defensive stance on the backlash allowed controversy to escalate and sides to be taken from what was supposed to be an all-in-one facility, the group said.

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“We can’t draw a line through the middle of the community center,” said Butler, 59, a marketing executive.

Shine, 25, a financial analyst, said it was disheartening to learn that the place that produced fond memories of chocolate festivals growing up was shrouded in political overtones.

“We thought: what have we gotten ourselves into?” she said.

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