Culture Wars reach sleepy Virginia community center

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The problems at the McLean Community Center began last summer, after the Northern Virginia cultural facility co-sponsored “Drag StoryBook Hour” for children during Pride Month.

Some residents of DC’s affluent suburb of nearly 50,000 were outraged, accusing center leaders of forcing their liberal ideology on preschoolers who listened to drag queens in make-up and brightly patterned outfits read aloud books on gender fluidity.

Now, in an example of how nothing is safe from the culture wars raging across the country, there is an ongoing power struggle at the 47-year-old Fairfax County Community Center, whose the council is usually occupied with questions such as whether or not to buy a table tennis table. table for the building or how plans are unfolding for the annual McLean Day family festival, where council elections take place.

Although the voluntary board of directors without fiscal authority is hardly a stepping stone to higher functions, this May election for three open seats – a contest that usually brings together around 300 voters – drew nine candidates. Among them: Katharine Gorka, a former Trump administration official who — along with her husband, Sebastian Gorka, a former aide to President Donald Trump — has railed against social equity and inclusion policies such as the one the community center used as a guide to select the drag an event.

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The local committee of the Democratic Party supports three other candidates who support this equity policy, called A Fairfax.

Three others pose as a slate looking to find common ground, 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 calls the whole organization dysfunctional. Then there is the former 1980s actress who says she works for the CIA.

Several race participants lamented that the brick and glass building that usually hosts concerts or plays amidst towering oak trees has become its own spectacle.

The establishment that boasts of being at the “center of it all” has found itself at the center of something else: the national outcry over culture war issues such as bathroom use by transgender people, the initiatives of equity, the “critical race theory” and mask mandates that in Virginia carried Republicans to power during the fall.

“I don’t need another screaming school board game,” Lauren Kahn, the retired attorney, said of the community center. “Normally, these elections are not controversial. Why do they want to politicize it?

The backlash spreads through the conference room

Only a few children were at the Dolley Madison Library in June with their parents when a group hired by the community center showed up in robes to read books like Airlie Anderson’s ‘Ni’, the story of a half-rabbit, half-bird creature in search of acceptance, according to local reports.

But the event for interested families, sponsored by the library and community center, also drew naysayers, with about a dozen showing up for pray with rosary beads. The scene became tense, with name-calling and harassment from both sides, media said.

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

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Critics of the event argued that the lineup strayed too far from the classical music concerts or small theatrical productions that have long defined the community center, though many of these residents couldn’t cite another example above. beyond the drag event the way it is so.

“Other people can come in and use the center, but I’m paying for it,” said Alice Middleton, 71, who estimates $400 of her annual residential taxes goes to the center. “I should have some feedback on the kinds of performances they offer, the kinds of performances that this community supports.”

Barbara Zamora-Appel, chair 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 accordance with the county’s One Fairfax policy. .

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While “a few members of the community” disapproved of the drag event, the statement said that “we also receive many messages of thanks from attendees and those who support what we do.”

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 meeting minutes and recordings posted on the center’s website. , until, at its December 8 meeting, frustrations peaked.

There, several members of the public cheered when a speaker accused board members of being indifferent to their concerns. Zamora-Appel asked them to refrain from disrupting the meeting with their applause, prompting a man in the audience to repeatedly shout, “The Nazis didn’t stop you from clapping!”

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

No charges have been filed, the spokeswoman said. But the police involvement angered critics even more, and more complaints came the following month – this time in response to a quote from Singh in an article about a Martin Luther King Jr. holiday event, in which he described the center as a stabilizing force for McLean amid “strong crosswinds” over the coronavirus pandemic, “racial tension and whistles white supremacy dog.

“What is an example? Jeffrey Shapiro, a resident since 2008, asked Singh, arguing that the white supremacist remark made McLean — which is approximately 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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On the board, Shapiro said, “The vibe I get is that you feel morally superior and you know the way and it’s your job to teach us how to live.”

South Asian board member Shivani Saboo shared moments from her upbringing at McLean that supported Singh’s remarks and the rationale for the One Fairfax policy.

“I was told to go back to my own country,” she said in a firm voice via video link, as the rest of the room fell silent. “’You guys are disgusting; You are dirty. I was told all these things while living in McLean all my life.

After dusting, Gorka, 61, an adviser under Trump who is now a member of the conservative Heritage Foundation, was among the first to enter the race, promising in a campaign leaflet to “To 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 requests for comment from The Post.

Then the candidates worried about a conservative push to retake the center jumped in, including those who said they would support the center hosting another drag-related event involving children if 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 three candidates backed by local Democratic Party committee members.

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

“It is important, in order to remain an open and free democracy – I mean, look at what is happening in the world – that we keep the community center as a center for free expression,” said Groennings, 45, a lawyer specializing in in entertainment.

Meanwhile, Kahn – who entered the race to end the use of local taxpayers’ money for electric vehicle charging stations – claims she was pressured to drop out by the local Democratic Party chairman.

“We don’t want more than 3 of these candidates running against the right, so we’re not splitting the sensible vote,” read the first of several emails to Kahn from Julie Waters, the committee chair.

Kahn, who provided the emails and who is a Democrat, replied: “Find another person to ask him to step down.”

In an interview, Waters confirmed the emails were from her, but denied pressuring Kahn, saying Kahn initially suggested she was ready to give up. But, Waters said, his committee members help the “more progressive” candidates they prefer get the word out.

For Maire Shine, Debra Butler and James Lawless, who cast themselves as their own slates, 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 seem like something that fit” with the community, said Lawless, 79, who worked as an attorney with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration before retiring.

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

The board’s defensive posture in the face of the backlash has allowed the controversy to fester and the parties to take control of what is supposed to be a facility that brings everyone together, the group said.

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

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

“We were like: what did we get ourselves into?” she says.

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