A public family event that promotes creativity, individuality, self-esteem, and a love for reading, in a glamorous and colorful package. What could go wrong?
In recent years, Drag Queen Story Hour events have gained popularity across the United States and many other countries throughout the world as a way to promote diversity and inclusivity as well as a love of reading in libraries and schools. These events have created spaces where representation matters, and to some children who may not feel accepted in more mainstream spaces, it matters a lot.
I discovered the book “Spork” by Kyo Maclear with beautiful illustrations by Isabelle Arsenault a few years ago. It’s fascinating to me that sometimes a children’s book can resonate so much more clearly than books written for adults. Maclear weaves a subtle but effective tale of acceptance and diversity with the character of Spork, who fits into no cutlery drawer and feels ostracized by the other utensils for being different. In the end, Spork is found to be accepted and useful by a child learning to feed themselves and thus develops a sense of pride in himself.
“What are you, anyway?” and the zillionth time he was passed over when the table was being set… Spork sighed and thought, “It must be easier to be a single thing.” And he decided he’d try to pick just ONE thing to be.”
If we’re being honest with ourselves, most of us have felt that way at one time or another, whether within our own families, or in schools, workplaces, or social settings. We often feel the need to assimilate, code-switch, or hide part of our identities to fit with societal expectations.
Backlash against Drag Queen Story Hours
Drag Queen Story Hours have created a space where all children are accepted, and can perhaps remember for a moment that they have a place in the world and are valued no matter what “drawer” they do or don’t fit into.
Drag Queen Story Hour events typically involve drag queens reading children’s books to a young audience, often in a public library setting or a bookstore. The events aim to promote literacy, encourage imagination, and celebrate gender diversity. The events provide an opportunity for children to learn about different types of families and promote acceptance of LGBTQ+ individuals.
Despite these positive intentions, Drag Queen Story Hour events have faced backlash in communities across the United States. Some mainly conservative groups have organized protests and called for the events to be canceled, arguing that they are inappropriate for young children and promote an agenda that goes against “traditional values”. The negative attention has taken various forms, from protests and disruption of events outside libraries to lawsuits against libraries and schools that host them.
Stuart Sanks (who uses the drag queen stage name Shirley Delta Blow) has become a popular performer in the Boulder area. As a third grade teacher, Sanks knows how to inspire children to read and imagine. He acknowledges that the opposition he’s felt has never been related to the material he’s reading to children, whose messages have been simple: “Be who you are, be confident, be brave, dress the way you want to dress, love the people in your life and always love yourself. These messages say that Drag Queen Story Hour is doing these horrible things, and I ask them, ‘what’s in the book that’s the problem?.’ No one’s ever able to say there’s anything wrong with the books I’m reading. So the problem really isn’t what’s in the book, it’s what’s in the dress.”
Drag Queen Story Hours have also faced backlash from conservative groups who argue they promote a nefarious agenda and are not appropriate for children. Sanks explains that the opposition is often veiled in moralistic language, “They’re couching it in this idea that they’re ‘protecting the children.’ My response to that is, if Drag Queen Story Hour is really that confusing to kids, how do you explain Halloween? My next door neighbor dresses up as a doctor — is that confusing for me? This is something we do: We dress up in character, we dress up in costumes, we have fun. We’re really encouraging kids to read, be creative, and love the library and bookstores, and telling stories.”
Anyone following the controversy surrounding these events has heard accusations of confusing children, sexualizing them, or “grooming” them. Sanks strongly disagrees, and told YS, “They use the word ‘grooming’ in a way that isn’t how I understand that word. Someone is building a relationship with kids so they can mistreat them, so that they can be emotionally, physically or sexually abused. The kids won’t report it because they’ve developed a relationship with this person. Most of the people critical of Drag Queen Story Time have never been to one. They think it’s a strip show with books. That’s not what happens at all.”
Sanks explained to YS that the ramifications of the protests against Drag Queen Story Hour events are far reaching: “The problem with that angry rhetoric is that it’s leading to legislation in the United States. 450 bills have been introduced since January targeting the LGBTQ+ community including about 200 bills targeting LGBTQ youth. People are freaking out. People are going to do damage to trans people because they get so worked up about things that aren’t actually happening. It’s really sending a dangerous message to our LGBTQ+ kids. The laws are saying ‘you have to detransition, we’ll no longer call you by your pronouns.’ ” Sanks referenced Michael Knowles, a Daily Wire contributor who spoke at CPAC in March of this year, stating that, “For the good of society… Transgenderism [sic] must be eradicated from public life entirely”. Sanks described the laws themselves as discriminatory, “It becomes a problem, when the law is poorly written and nebulous. What exactly is drag? You didn’t have a problem when Robin Williams dressed as Mrs. Doubtfire. Tons of people went to see that movie. You didn’t have a problem with The Birdcage.”
Why drag queens? And why now?
YS asked Sanks why drag queens have been a focus of these groups of late. He believes the reasons are “because drag queens are these larger than life confident characters, it makes them/us an easy target. Those lies are intentional. They want to get people riled up. They want to get you angry so that you’ll vote for the person who’s saying that.”
Sanks acknowledges that the opposing groups have the right to protest, but as he says, “I’m going to let these kids know that they’re loved and valued and supported and cared for, and I will support them and protect them in any way that I can. I will be using my voice as long as there are people out there who say transgender people don’t exist, or don’t matter, or queer kids aren’t important. I’ll be doing DQST as long as I can. There’s so many messages from churches and schools, and now laws, that say ‘if you’re a transgender person, we don’t care about you as much as the others.’ It becomes dangerous.”
We asked Sanks whether he gets negative messaging online, and he told YS that he does indeed get hateful emails and comments on his social media, but he ignores them “I let that go – for every one of those I get 25 that say ‘that was a beautiful event, my child felt seen, you’re such a beautiful character, we love what you do.’ I’ve had kids come up to me and tell me ‘I’ve never seen myself in public before until I met you.’ That’s a hopeful message for the future,” Sanks shared.
Public libraries: Still the ‘great equalizer’
YS had a discussion with Melanie Borski-Howard, Youth Services Specialist at Boulder Public Library and Drag Story Hour Boulder Rep. She explained to us that the library always advertises Drag Queen Story Hour very clearly: “We’ve always been completely open and transparent. We try to give as much information and let everybody know what’s happening. So those who want to come can come, and those who don’t, don’t.” The library has had higher than expected turnout for the events, “We held it in our regular storytime area which holds 80-90 patrons comfortably, and we had 120. We had people drive from Denver. It was amazing. So we thought, let’s do this again, and we started getting the word out.”
While Drag Queen Story Hour hasn’t received the level of backlash in Colorado as it has in other parts of the country, there was disruption at an outdoor event the Boulder Public Library organized. “We did have one outdoor event and we had a protester who does tend to crash Drag Queen Story Hour. They had a speaker, an amp. They have the right to be there. So we decided to keep it inside, so we can manage it a little better,” Borski-Howard shared. Nonetheless, Borski-Howard told us the disruption was very troubling, “because you really want to do a good event. The kids are out there with their parents and this guy is just out there with a mic blaring.” The event was cut short due to the disruption. “Thank goodness Shirley had a mic and just rocked it. But she cut it short, there wasn’t much we could do.”
The community steps in
Parasol Patrol, a locally based organization has come up with their own way to peacefully counter-protest. According to their website, the group aims to “shield children and young people at LGBTQIA+ and BIPOC events. We use umbrellas to create a visual barrier so kids won’t have to see the signs and angry faces and we even have noise canceling headphones for the little ones because grown adults come with bullhorns to yell at children.” Parasol Patrol has been working with Boulder Public Library to walk between children and parents attending Drag Queen Story Hour events. Borski-Howard told us that as the events are getting more popular, they’re receiving more negative attention. “This is where Parasol Patrol comes in,” she told us. “They’ve stepped up immediately and we’re so lucky to have them rooted here in Colorado, because they’re so wonderful to the community.”
In light of the rise in anti-LGBTQ+ violence throughout the country, we asked Borski-Howard if the library or if she personally has been concerned for physical safety. “Parasol Patrol alerts the Boulder police department that this is happening,” she told YS. “We also have security. There’s heightened awareness. But we’re here for the kids, and that’s what I love about Parasol Patrol, they want the kids shielded from anything that could go wrong.”
A rise in censorship
In a previous article in YS, we explored book bans and challenges in Colorado and throughout the country. Some of the most commonly banned books in recent years have focused on inclusion issues such as anti-racism and LGBTQ+ acceptance. While the books read during Drag Queen Story Hours aren’t necessarily LGBTQ+ related, Borski-Howard praised publishers, bookstores and libraries for their increased inclusion publishing and collecting such stories. “Some of the books have a lesson on diversity, but most are just fun and joyful. These are simple concepts that kids can really relate to, and get them thinking a little bit. We’re seeing books with nonbinary characters,” she mentioned, referring to the book “The Little Library,” by Margaret McNamara and G. Brian Karas, “and we’re seeing fabulous strong Black literature with Black main characters. What if we were against stories with a mom and a dad, heteronormativity?” she asked with an incredulous tone. “We’re so quick to judge something that’s different, but is this today’s family? We need to show the diversity of families and life for children.”
However, Borski-Howard indicated that some libraries are becoming reluctant to host or promote Drag Queen Story Hour events. “They don’t want to promote it, because of these groups,” she told us. “We’re learning together how to make these events happen, and how to be visible. Because it is the trans kids who I see at the library, and love to see those books”.
An upcoming conference hosted by Boulder Public Library will be held this Fall: The LGBTQ Safety Storytelling and Sanctuary Summit 2023. The conference is funded in part by Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation, and will focus on storytelling skills for drag performances, and how to make spaces safer. According to Borski-Howard, this summit is the first of its kind. It will take place on October 7 of this year.
Much like the rise of book banning and censorship, the adverse reactions to Drag Queen Story Hour events raise important questions about the freedom to read and of expression, diversity, and inclusivity. The debate also highlights the importance of education and dialogue in promoting understanding and tolerance towards those who are different from ourselves. By exposing children to diverse perspectives, we can help them develop empathy and respect towards all members of society. It’s also important to note that the events are entirely optional, and parents can choose whether or not to bring their children to them.
A place at the table, finally
While the retaliation against Drag Queen Story Hour events is concerning on its own, it’s a symptom of a greater threat against LGBTQ+ communities. Throughout the country, members of the communities are faced with increasing threats, discriminatory legislation, and violence. For the first time ever, the Human Rights Campaign has issued a state of emergency for LGBTQ+ Americans.
As Sanks told YS, “I’m doing Drag Queen Story Hour because people like you exist. You’re telling us ‘we’ve marginalized you for a long time, and you fought to get this place at the table, and we don’t want to give it to you.’ Queer people are getting a seat at the table, and they’re demanding equal rights in all areas of life. The younger generation doesn’t care, they have Gay-Straight Alliances at their schools, people wear whatever they want to their proms. They’ve had this for their whole lives. The idea that someone is queer isn’t such a big issue for them. I think older generations are terrified of that. Queer people just want to have a normal life, just like everybody else.”
Everyone, like our “multi-cutlery” pal Spork, wants to “find their place at the table”. Having a seat doesn’t take space away from anyone else.
We’re all, as he puts it simply, “just right.”