As long as there have been books for children, there have been adults trying to get children to read books.
One good way to do that is to read to them. And one good way to hold their attention is to dress with pizazz.
The rise of drag queen storytime can be traced back to the San Francisco Bay Area — long a haven for queer folk — where a Market Street bookstore hosted what it billed as “America’s first drag queen storytime” a decade ago. It looked a lot like the drag story hours held around the country today, and completely unlike the fantastical, sexualized vision pushed by the political right: just a colorful queen in a sky-high hat reading to a bunch of kids.
The idea got a big boost two years later when Michelle Tea decided to bring the event to more families. A new mother, Tea attended a children’s reading event at an area library, as might any other parent with a hope of instilling a love for reading in their child. But it got her thinking about putting on reading events that would feel more inclusive of queer parents like her.
Tea was already good at creating things: She had founded the literary arts organization RADAR Productions to uplift marginalized voices and had published several books.
And so, a queen called Per Sia was recruited to headline the first event, held at the San Francisco Public Library. At first, she was a little nervous.
“I said, don’t worry, they’re gonna love you,” Bix Warden, a children’s librarian for the SFPL system, recalled to HuffPost. “I have this picture of Per Sia kneeling down and all these little kids are just mobbing her and hugging her.”
And so Drag Story Hour — the nonprofit — was born.
The concept took off. While many hundreds of drag storytime events around the country are put on in conjunction with Drag Story Hour, others are the results of the efforts of dedicated librarians or bookstore owners who want to provide valuable services for their communities.
Adding the element of drag to an event had already taken over such institutions as brunch and bingo night. The hit reality show “RuPaul’s Drag Race” was sashaying toward prestigious awards. So, why not bring drag to storytime?
To the politicians and pundits currently working to end drag as we know it, the answer is, apparently, simple: Drag is inherently obscene and therefore inappropriate for children.
It can be. Like any art form — painting, acting, writing — there are iterations of drag that require an audience of adults and iterations that can be appreciated by all ages.
“It’s like saying that film is inappropriate for younger audiences because pornography exists,” said Dr. Nino Testa, an associate professor at Texas Christian University who teaches a course on drag.
Drag has roots stretching back at least to Shakespearean times, when men dressed as women to perform as characters like Juliet and Portia at the Globe. It was a necessity since women were not permitted onstage. Centuries later, across the Atlantic, a freed slave named William Dorsey Swann made scandalous headlines when Washington-area drag balls were busted by police. The private events were hosted by Swann, clad in elegant 19th-century dresses, known as “the Queen.” In other words, it’s not brand-new.
“Children have also done kinds of drag — we call it ‘dress-up.’ The idea that a kid might put on an outfit for someone they’re not and play around with a persona is kind of baked into the idea of childhood,” Testa told HuffPost.
Several sources who spoke to HuffPost contend that people who oppose drag storytime are simply not aware of what it really is. The opponents throw out terms like “grooming,” which is used to describe child sexual abuse, to suggest that the drag performers have dark ulterior motives.
“We do occasionally get phone calls asking us if we are planning any more ‘of them pedophile storytimes.’”
– Deb Hemmye, library director at Huntington Woods Public Library
So, for the record, what happens at drag storytime is this: A drag performer is invited to a venue, usually a library or a bookstore or a school, and arrives in some flavor of drag that is appropriate for children. (One of the benefits of working with the nonprofit Drag Story Hour is that the organization has already performed background checks on all the queens it sends to venues, although such checks can also be carried out independently.) Parents arrive with children in tow, usually young ones, although all ages are generally welcome. Everybody takes their seat, and the performer starts to read children’s books.
Three librarians with the Evanston Public Library in Illinois, just north of Chicago, told HuffPost that sometimes the events include a dance break between stories, or sometimes they have crafts — one had children making rainbow wind socks. Warden said sometimes the San Francisco Public Library events have face painting or cookies.
Kids who want their picture taken with the drag performer can have their parents snap one.
Then, everybody leaves. That’s it.
“It’s the most wholesome program I’ve ever seen,” Warden said.
The New Anti-LGBTQ Front
Earlier this month, Tennessee became the first state in the country to enact a drag ban when Gov. Bill Lee (R) signed a bill limiting “male and female impersonators” to performing only in age-restricted venues — not public spaces where children might see.
The governor had endured a wave of hypocrisy allegations shortly beforehand, when a photo from his high school yearbook revealed that Lee had once dressed in drag as a teenager himself. He reacted angrily when confronted with the image at a press conference, saying what he did was not the same as what he was about to ban, despite having been a boy who wore a girl’s short skirt in an open field beside apparent minors.
The same thing happened in Texas. After state Rep. Nate Schatzline (R) introduced a measure that would expand the definition of sexually oriented businesses to include those that put on drag shows — one of several anti-drag bills percolating in the Texas legislature — a video emerged on social media showing what appears to be a younger Schatzline skipping merrily in a little black dress. He also said the hypocrisy accusations were unwarranted.
Typically, these bills are vaguely worded, with new restrictions on “sexual” or “adult cabaret” performances or performances that feature gender “impersonators.” Proponents say they are trying to protect children. But critics say the lawmakers are willfully misrepresenting drag, employing definitions that are far too subjective and leaving the door open for bad-faith interpretations. Some fear the bills could potentially even function as a cudgel against transgender people who are out living their regular lives.
In Idaho, a bill that passed the state House would make it possible to sue a children’s drag performer for $10,000 in certain circumstances. While much of the bill’s language centers on “sexually explicit” conduct, one section says that civil action could be taken if the performance is deemed “patently offensive to an average person … with respect to what is suitable for minors.”
Sasha Buchert, an attorney with Lambda Legal, an LGBTQ civil rights group, told HuffPost that pending anti-drag legislation was “legally suspect” and could face challenges on First Amendment grounds, among others.
“The language is super vague and overbroad,” Buchert said.
But some people are not waiting for drag storytime to be outlawed.
Members of the Proud Boys, the gang of neo-fascist streetfighters, have been showing up at children’s storytime events nationwide, sometimes toting guns.
In late December, Proud Boys descended on a drag storytime in New York City, home of the Stonewall uprising that sparked the modern gay rights movement. They were then given special treatment by NYPD officers, who were filmed ushering Proud Boys through the subway turnstiles without payment.
Right-wing extremists are known to send threats against libraries and other venues that host drag storytime — sometimes for years afterward, and often in discord with the surrounding community.
Drag storytime was a popular event when the Huntington Woods Public Library in Michigan first held it in 2018 and 2019; local news reported the library was the first to hold such events in the state. But they attracted noisy protesters, and the library has yet to hold one post-pandemic.
“That said, we do occasionally get phone calls asking us if we are planning any more ‘of them pedophile storytimes,’” library director Deb Hemmye told HuffPost in an email.
The Fall River Public Library, located in a Massachusetts town of the same name, also tried holding drag storytime, but it became too much.
“Our library patrons were not against having this; in fact, those that opposed it weren’t even our patrons,” library administrator Lianne Verville told HuffPost by email. “Outsiders organized like-minded people to vocalize that Drag Storytime was for ‘grooming kids’ and that we were allowing ‘pedophiles’ to read to kids.”
But there was “an outpouring of support” from community members, she said.
The idea that drag queens are “grooming” kids is fueled relentlessly by alarmist right-wing news coverage of the events. In October, Fox News host Jesse Watters told his prime-time audience that drag storytime was being used to “change the mainstream opinion of fringe sexual activity including, but not limited to, sex with children.” In December, a Fox News contributor said the events were “normalizing pedophilia among a very, very far-left crowd.” The idea gets pushed further by right-wing podcasters and pundits with large social media followings.
“This is just the latest unhinged conspiracy that’s taken root,” New York City Councilman Erik Bottcher (D) told HuffPost.
Bottcher’s home was targeted by protesters in December after he showed support for a drag storytime event in the city. Two people were taken into custody after they allegedly broke into the lobby of his apartment building. Last weekend, he watched Proud Boys and other protesters clash outside of a venue where New York Attorney General Letitia James (D) was hosting a drag storytime event, resulting in bloody injuries and arrests.
Bottcher credited the internet and right-wing TV and radio for amplifying the idea that drag harms children, likening it to the “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory that gained traction back in 2016. Proponents believed a popular Washington pizza restaurant called Comet Ping Pong was secretly trafficking children for sex, prompting one man to show up at the establishment armed with an assault rifle.
The anti-drag protests can get especially ugly. Earlier this month, neo-Nazis showed up in opposition to an event outside Akron, Ohio, where they were filmed shouting racial slurs and making “Sieg Heil” salutes in unison, waving a swastika flag.
That’s why Pasha Ripley co-founded the Parasol Patrol with a friend, Eli Bazan, who happens to also be a Marine Corps veteran. The Denver-based duo considers it their mission to protect kids from hateful rhetoric they might see or hear on their way into a venue.
The Parasol Patrol hands out noise-canceling headphones for kids and supplies big, rainbow-colored umbrellas for volunteers to hold along the path to the event, blocking angry faces and signs with upsetting images, some of which Ripley characterized as “one step away from child pornography.”
The group typically helps out at multiple kids’ events per week where anti-LGBTQ protesters are sure to be present, financing operations personally or with donations. Since they started in 2019, Ripley said, they have seen adults targeting children with bullhorns, filming the attending families on their phones and spraying chemical irritants in the air close to children. Sometimes they sing familiar pop songs with anti-LGBTQ versions of the lyrics.
“We are non-confrontational. We do not engage with the protesters,” Ripley told HuffPost. “I always tell people we’re there because of the protesters, but not for the protesters — we’re there for the kids.”
The group has expanded to the point where they have chapter coordinators around the country who are subject to background checks and undergo training on deescalating tense situations and applying first aid, Ripley said.
Parasol Patrol volunteers were at the Ohio storytime event, where everybody managed to stay safe in spite of the unabashed Nazis and extremists reportedly from Patriot Front, Three Percenters, Proud Boys and a “White Lives Matter” group.
“I always tell people we’re there because of the protesters, but not for the protesters — we’re there for the kids.”
– Pasha Ripley, co-founder of Parasol Patrol
Drag Story Hour is working to set up a similar protective effort, which spokesperson Jonathan Hamilt likened to the groups who volunteer to escort women through the doors of abortion clinics.
When Hamilt got involved with the nonprofit group back in 2017, helping to set up operations in New York City, the protests were calmer. He noticed things taking a turn around the time former President Donald Trump incited supporters to mob the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
Since the Club Q shooting last November in Colorado Springs, where five people were killed and at least 25 injured during a drag event, Hamilt said, “We definitely had to beef up our security measures.” Drag Story Hour is now planning to offer training on deescalation and how to stop a major bleed.
Taken together, the aggressive legislation paired with extremist mobilization across the country have amounted to a real, violent culture war — all based on the false assumption that these events have criminal undertones.
“It’s just kind of rehashing the Satanic Panic,” Ripley said.
What’s In It For The Kids
From a child’s perspective, though, the laws and the controversy are distant concerns. To a preschooler, drag story hour is when a bright and colorful character reads them nice stories as they sit criss-cross-applesauce on the carpet.
“To them, it’s like seeing a Disney character or a superhero or a larger-than-life cartoon come into reality, and I think they really respond well to the crazy makeup and crazy hair, and the sequins and the sparkles, the camp,” Hamilt said.
“It’s like seeing a unicorn or a fairy princess. Their eyes just get huge,” Warden said of the kids.
Hamilt recalled one event his group facilitated where a parent reached out afterward to say how their child usually had a tough time sitting through storytime but was transfixed by the queen and sat through the whole thing.
“If it didn’t have ties to queer roots,” Hamilt noted, “I don’t think people would be upset about it. But since it does, that’s why there’s an uproar.”
The backlash is nothing new for the queer community. Members say decades-old attacks against LGBTQ people are simply bubbling to the surface once more, reflecting “age-old tropes of queer people as inherently sexual, inherently predatory,” Testa said.
“The mere mention of their identity is to invoke sexuality in a way that’s kind of considered antisocial or not respectable, which is the kind of argument that’s been used to criminalize queer people in the presence of children for the entire 20th century — to prevent queer people from teaching in schools,” he added.
Not everyone has had to watch angry adults with nasty signs protest in front of their library; HuffPost spoke to multiple librarians who said drag storytime was a generally peaceful affair, held chiefly in service of promoting literacy while showing queer people that their community supports and loves them.
Stuart Sanks, a Colorado third-grade teacher who performs as Shirley Delta Blow, a 1950s-type character, told HuffPost that a local bookstore first reached out to him a few years ago about doing a reading, turning him into a regular performer. The readings promote books, of course, but also positive self-esteem and individuality, he said.
It also “challenges some of our status quo around gender norms: gender identity, gender expression, how other people see us, how we want other people to see us,” Sanks began. “And when we do that, I think what we also do is we challenge those norms around, ‘What does it mean to be a man or a woman in our society? What does it mean to be strong? To be beautiful? What does it mean to be, you know, confident?’”
“It’s absolutely vital for them to be able to see themselves and be in a safe space where they feel accepted and they feel that love. That’s what drag story is about — it’s about accepting diversity and tolerance and love.”
– Bix Warden, children’s librarian for the San Francisco Public Library system
Plenty of children’s books help illustrate the warm-and-fuzzy concept of acceptance for young minds.
Sanks gave a sampling of his favorites: In “Perfectly Norman,” by Tom Percival, a little boy grows a pair of wings and has a blast soaring around the sky until he starts worrying about what his family and friends will think of him. “Not Quite Narwhal” by Jessie Sima tells a story about a little unicorn growing up in a loving family of narwhals who discovers why he doesn’t really fit in underwater. “My Shadow Is Pink” by Scott Stuart shows how a boy who prefers “girly” things learns about the shadow selves people sometimes feel compelled to hide. The protagonists, as you might guess, embark on charming journeys toward self-acceptance while finding unconditional love along the way.
The Evanston librarians pointed to one popular drag storytime book whose title makes the message rather plain: “I Like Myself!” by Karen Beaumont.
It can be hard to like yourself. Surveys find that kids today report significantly higher levels of sadness and depression than in the past, a trend that stands out particularly for girls and LGBTQ youth. Spaces where kids feel welcomed, particularly queer kids and families, are “really vital,” Warden said.
“It’s absolutely vital for them to be able to see themselves and be in a safe space where they feel accepted and they feel that love. That’s what drag story is about — it’s about accepting diversity and tolerance and love. And people really feel that,” she said.
The anger by some on the right, then, amounts to a misdirection of outrage that is frustrating to Sanks, whose school district has been hosting information sessions about child sexual abuse — actual abuse — which they are told is more likely to occur in places like churches and elite athletics programs.
“You take it really personally sometimes,” Sanks said, “because there are all kinds of political candidates and all kinds of laws that are being proposed — and some are being passed — because people are afraid, when the reality is that the thing you’re afraid of isn’t happening there.”
“What happens then is we take all of our time and energy, and we focus on these drag queen storytime events, and then the abuse is happening in other places, and the attention and the focus of the resources is not there where the kids actually need it,” he said.
“And that’s — that’s kind of my biggest beef with all that.”