Free Expression Friday: Tara Lipsyncki, Mosaics Community Bookstore and Venue

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Tara Lipsyncki (they/them) is a drag performer, owner of Mosaics Community Bookstore and Venue in Provo, Utah, and director of the United Drag Alliance nonprofit. In April 2024, they received a bomb threat to their store in response to their Drag Story Hour programming, the most recent of many threats they’ve received and part of a major uptick in threatening content. If you have received or think you may receive a threat, consult our Drag Story Time security tipsheet and get in touch with [email protected]

Tara Lipsyncki, thank you so much for talking to me at what is a pretty challenging time. Can you introduce yourself?

My name is Tara Lipsyncki. I am the owner of Mosaics Community Bookstore and Venue in Provo. It is the only queer bookstore in Utah County. It's about five minutes from BYU. I am also the director of the United Drag Alliance, which is a 501(c)(3) that I formed after a lot of various events this last year against book banning and body autonomy rights being taken away from trans and queer youth.

And what led you to start mosaics?

I have wanted to own a queer space for probably 15 years. It's gone through many iterations in my mind. It was originally a bar, and then it became a cafe, and then I wanted a cabaret space like Cher’s in “Burlesque.” And then in 2023 I was the target of multiple Proud Boy attacks and bomb threats and everything because of Drag Story Hour, and I decided that especially trans and queer kids’ voices needed to be amplified and protected. So knowing that book bans were becoming a bigger thing in this country, I said, you can't silence a business — because America loves corporations more than it loves people. And so I said, great, I will start a business that can give gay books to gay kids.

And can you explain what happened in the leadup to a recently planned drag storytime event at Mosaics?

Like I said, I've had multiple attacks. I've had seven various attacks from Proud Boys to being doxxed — a lot of people actually don't know what doxxing is, [but it’s] the sharing of private information like addresses and dead names and anything else with malicious intent to cause harm. So I was doxxed by a right-wing group and had to sell my home and move into hiding with my family. Then we had a bomb threat at The King's English in Salt Lake. And then on April 13th, I received a bomb threat at Mosaics over a drag story time. Because that's what we should be focusing on right now in this country is drag story times instead of the myriad of other issues.

To explain, the bomb threat that happened at King's English, you were performing or set to perform at that event, right?

Calvin Crosby at The King's English and I were doing a summer reading series where I was doing story times every week or once a week every month during the summer on their patio at The King’s English. We got all through the summer and there was not a single issue. No one cared. I was like, we're finally making progress. We're getting over this fear of trans people reading to kids. And then there was a bomb threat in September. It was ironically right about as  I was opening Mosaics. That made headlines because The King’s English is an institution. It is a legacy business. It is a huge deal. Calvin has done an amazing job and the co-owner they're doing so much for the community. So It got attention and everyone rallied behind it. I was kind of put aside in that [the media] focused so much on the business and not the person that it was actually directed to.  And then, yeah, I got my own one at my bookstore eight months later. And the same thing [happened].

To whatever extent you're comfortable talking about it, what was it like to receive that threat? How did you respond to it? Is there any advice that you have for those who are worried about this or maybe have experienced it themselves?

First and foremost, [my advice is to work with] Drag Story Hour, the national organization that I am an official chapter of. We have amazing resources that we have developed, best practices, how to do a safety plan, how to do an exit strategy. What's the best protocol if you do get a bomb threat? Who do you contact? What do you do? So if your store or business is very interested in doing a story time, or anything that is maybe controversial, you can contact us. We don't keep that information. I will email you our PDF pamphlet. It's a hundred and something pages long. It has all of it. So first, that's my advice: follow what we've done because we've unfortunately been the victims of so much that we've learned a lot. We know the best practices.

How I feel… numb? You get used to it, unfortunately. It affects you differently each time. This most recent bomb threat has definitely been harder because it happened after being doxxed and losing our house and everything else, and so it's like, how else can I get kicked while I’m down? What else are we going to do? Because we all in this industry own bookstores, or are booksellers, and our business isn't always great. It's a physical bookstore and we're competing against an online giant. So great, is this going to take my business? Does the negativity mean I'm going to close doors? That means I have to take away these resources from this community that I built. So this one's hard because it's me on the line and it's me supporting a business through it. Whereas my other attacks were on other businesses, so I could just give my support and say, “Thank you so much, if you don't want to continue, I understand, support your employees.” But now I'm the boss and the victim, and I don't know what to do. I don't know where I'm going anymore. 

Let's zoom out a little bit. There are a lot of lies being told about what a drag story time is and why it happens. But I'm not interested in those. I'm interested in what it means to you. Why do you do Drag Story Hour?

I do what I do — and my husband, who is the co-owner in the store we do what we do —because I grew up in Salt Lake County, he grew up i, Utah County, and they're very heavily. dominated by a religion and that religion brought us a lot of trauma, especially when it's very vocal against the queer identity. I heard it best when I sat on a panel recently and it was about the importance of diversity and elementary education and it was said — and we've all heard this analogy — that there are books that are windows, there are books there are doors, and there's books that are mirrors. A mirror shows someone themselves in a book. So that's where you get your representation of the Little Mermaid to little Black girls and [show them,] look, [you] can be a pretty princess! I do drag story hours because for everyone else that is cisgender and straight, every story hour they go to is a mirror. Every single one. I'm doing this for those kids that deserve a mirror too, and they deserve to be seen. I'm not doing it for the masses. 

If they're coming to my story time, either they are with parents that want them to know that it's okay to be different, and they're teaching them diversity and tolerance and love and empathy, which should be celebrated. Or they have told their parents, I'm queer [or in] part of that realm. But nine out of ten people that come to my story hours are over the age of 18 but under the age of 25, are newly out, trying to discover themselves, and trying to be told that they're loved and OK. Great. That's all that's happening. There's very rarely singing and lip syncing at my drag story hours. My all-ages drag shows, yes they are different, and there are numbers and stuff, but it's all G-rated. Mostly Disney songs. The story times are about showing those mirrors to kids and parents. 

I actually wrote a children's book leading up to the opening of Mosaics last year called Letter from the Queen, and it's a letter from a queen to a boy named Ben, and through the letter it says, it's gonna be okay. Life is gonna be okay. I wrote that to be a mirror to these kids, but also to the parent: life's kind of crappy sometimes, but you will survive. Hopefully. If you choose to still be with us, then it will be okay.

In the wake of this, what has the community response been like?

I will honestly say the local queer support has been as it has through all of them. It's been very silent. I would rather fight on the front lines, and that's not very popular here in Utah. But the literary world has actually been great. I've had multiple organizations, like ABA and other [regional organizations] that I'm part of, have reached out and offered healthcare services to myself and my employees to have counseling to get through this. We've gotten some books on how to deal with PTSD and trauma. I have received so much support and outreach from this world that I was not expecting. And the world that I thought would step up and do their due diligence as a community has not. I'm very privileged that I come from a business background, that I have the legal team and everyone on my side, and so we are pursuing all legal action against all parties involved from all of the attacks. And I have amazing relationships with the ACLU and the Southern Poverty Law Center [who say] hey, great, let's make some meaningful change. That doesn't just help the queer community, it helps everyone because it protects freedom of expression and the First Amendment that we are able to say and be who we are and say what we believe. That's what we're here to protect, because it's going away every day. Every time a book is banned, our freedom of expression is compromised.

Tara is there anything else folks can do to support you, to show up for you right now?

If you have queer books or resources, or people that are willing to come to Utah and talk to these kids and say that it's OK — because they hear a lot that it's not — that's what we need: assurance and support that it will be okay. Those of us in the red states, we need you. We need the blue states. We need the resources. We need the help from our allies on the coast.

Tara Lipsyncki, thank you so much for joining me today and talking about your experience. And thank you for everything that Mosaics Community Bookstore and Venue is doing in Provo, Utah and elsewhere to try to make this world a better place and to tell people that they are seen and will be OK.

That's the thing that I just want everyone to know, is that you are loved, you matter, and the world is a better place because you’re in it. That's all I'm here to share. That's all I'm here to indoctrinate into children, as [I’m often told I’m doing,] is just love and empathy. That's it. And to read a book. Go outside, run around, play tag, and read a book. And then play your video game. It's fine. [A cat meows] And there's my cat in the background.