OAK HARBOR — A photography show at the Oak Harbor Library has come under scrutiny by some members of the public who object to an image of a bearded man dressed as a female pirate.
The complaints echo a national trend in which bias and violence against drag queens is on the rise, even resulting in laws seeking to ban performances.
Last year, Freeland photographer Michael Holtby began a search for participants in his quest to photograph unique facial hair, which he titled the Whidbey Beard Project. So far, he’s taken 50 portraits, each accompanied by its own flair, whether it’s an instrument, a pet, an article of clothing or some other interest.
“The main theme is, you can’t judge people by what they look like,” Holtby said. “These guys aren’t necessarily what they appear to be when you first see them.”
The entirety of the project can be viewed online by visiting whidbeyphoto.com/whidbey-beards.
For the month of January, 12 of Holtby’s beard portraits are on display at the Oak Harbor Library. However, not everyone is a fan.
Library Manager Jane López-Santillana informed Holtby on Jan. 6 that one photo, in particular, has received some complaints. Some people have voiced anger and concern about a photo depicting an island resident in drag and have even asked for its removal.
The controversial photo is of lady pirate Matilda, a blue-bearded character with expertly applied makeup. The persona is performed by South Whidbey resident Matt Hoar, who has dressed up in drag over the years for certain occasions.
The first time he performed, he recalled, he walked onto the ferry for a show on the mainland and just wanted to stay inconspicuous. That proved impossible, with people wanting to take photos. Even the ticket takers on the return trip had heard about the lady pirate.
“It leaves a mark,” Hoar said about dressing in drag. “It’s a powerful image.”
These past few years, he’s put performing aside and is focused on raising children and spending time with his family. Apart from drag, he’s also been known to don a polar bear costume during the annual Polar Bear Plunge, and kids know him as the star of the Clucky Show at the Whidbey Island Fair.
Hoar said he was shocked to learn about the backlash to the portrait of Matilda “for about three seconds,” but then said he recalled the current political climate. Across the nation, drag culture has been under attack, from a bill in the Idaho State Legislature that would ban drag performances in public to protests and vandalism at a Renton brewery in response to a drag queen story hour for kids.
“This would be an opportunity for me to do my part, to resist the oppression,” Hoar said.
Oak Harbor has a lively drag scene, with Queens of the Island regularly performing at downtown bar Off the Hook. But these shows are for the 21-plus crowd, while much of the criticism around the nation has been directed at underage audience members experiencing drag culture. Drag queen Vivienne Paradisco, also known as Tyler Conklin, warned that the uproar is inciting violence in others.
“At the end of the day we are entertainers, and we adjust said entertainment to fit the audiences we perform for,” Conklin said. “We live our lives in constant fear.”
Holtby said this is the first time he’s ever received any criticism about his photo of Matilda. He made the comparison that “it’s like banning books but not reading the book.”
“I asked him to do drag because I wanted to get the variation,” Holtby said. “We’re not all the same, and that’s certainly a theme in the beard project. There’s such a large variety of people on the island.”
He added that he is striving to capture the “whole spectrum” – one of his portrait’s subjects is holding an AR-15 rifle, for example. He has yet to receive any negative commentary on that particular photo.
Katie Leone, marketing and communications manager for Sno-Isle Libraries, said in an email that the library has received mostly verbal comments to the current art installation, some overwhelmingly positive and some not.
“We encourage library customers to choose the right materials for them and their family, knowing that not every book is the right fit for every person. And so our current community-based art display may not be for everyone,” she said. “This is why we rotate our display on a regular basis to give everyone the chance for their interests to be highlighted.”
She added that all artwork accepted for display must meet existing local, state and federal laws on obscenity, copyright, libel, defamation of character or invasion of privacy.
“Artwork will not be displayed that, in the opinion of the library administration, is deemed to be offensive to the community as a whole,” she said.
This story originally appeared in the Whidbey News-Times, a sibling publication to The Herald.