Drag Queen Story Hour

From  Only You Can Be You!  by Nathan and Sally Clarkson (Tommy Nelson 2019) Illustration © 2019 by Tim Warnes

From Only You Can Be You! by Nathan and Sally Clarkson (Tommy Nelson 2019) Illustration © 2019 by Tim Warnes

When discussing manliness, the elephant in the room [is] not homophobia but perhaps a fear of appearing gay. This fear runs like an electric fence around the territory that is acceptably masculine. This is somewhat ironic, as the Department of Masculinity’s long-running propaganda campaign for Traditional Manhood may look a lot like a Village People-themed costume party.
— Grayson Perry, 'The Descent of Man'
 

I suppose one of the first, and most natural, ways kids explore gender is through dressing up and play.


Aged four or five, sat next to my mother at her dressing table, I’d watch, fascinated, as she applied her make-up. I liked trying out her lipstick, imitating the way she pursed her lips together to coat them evenly. It even smelt good. Once, my mother left me alone in the back of the car while she called in on a friend to collect something (well, it was the 1970’s!). I grabbed the opportunity to clamber through to the driver’s seat, peered intently into the rearview mirror, and smeared that lippy on!

Maybe my lipstick fascination was partly because I wanted to be a clown - the make-up being merely an extension of that. I certainly don’t remember Mum making a big deal of it. (She would also help me try on her jewellery.)

This is partly why the press coverage surrounding a recent phenomenon in the US - Drag Queen Story Hour - has been bothering me. But not necessarily for the reasons you might first suspect.



I personally don’t have a problem with the concept of Drag Queen Story Hour (held in both independent bookshops and publicly-funded libraries). Always one for some theatrical flair and showmanship, I suspect Iwould have loved Drag Queen Story Hour as a kid!

Aside from a penchant for Mum’s lippy, I grew up being entertained by pantomime dames, Dame Edna Everage (“Hello, Possums!”), and Cissie and Ada. As a young teen, I was a fan of Boy George and Culture Club. In recent years I have been educated and enlightened by the erudite Grayson Perry (transvestite artist /Reith Lecturer/ writer/presenter - and a married heterosexual).

But there are those who object vociferously.

Why? Are the queens being unsuitably coarse or using inappropriate language? If so, call them out on it. (This is storytime for kids, after all.) 

Is the objection that the storytellers wear clothes and styles that our culture deems unsuitable for a man (too feminine; too flamboyant; too glittery; too pink)? 

Hmmm…

Over the years, I have also enjoyed watching male actors play female characters - in films such as Some Like it Hot, Tootsie, Mrs Doubtfire, and Hairspray. In 2015 I was fortunate enough to see David Suchet tread the boards as Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest. I have survived the pernicious effects of all - including the pantomime dames. How far removed are they from Drag Queen Story Hour? Is there some cultural snobbery at play? Is it not all just theatre?


Admittedly, I would be uncomfortable if Drag Queen Story Hour was used to directly promote or discuss LBGTQ+ issues when posing as storytime.

(I’m not saying those discussions shouldn’t be had with children - but carers shouldn’t be ambushed).

My guess is that many parents would welcome any questions that naturally arise as a good starting point for age-appropriate discussion. As the owner of the Paperback Exchange bookshop in Florida explains, ‘the purpose of [Drag Queen Story Hour] is to promote literacy, tolerance and self-expression.’


“The queens dress appropriately and modestly and, of course, we don’t talk about LGBTQ sex. Why would we?”

Bookstore Drag Queen Readings Win Fans, Draw Protests


Another such Story Hour - held at Virginia Beach Public Library - advertised itself as an event that ‘captures the imagination and play of childhood and gives kids glamorous, positive, and diverse role models.’

So if Drag Queen Story Hour does what it says on the tin - some stories, some singing of children’s songs (maybe a little craft thrown in) then great! We need to encourage kids to engage with books and literacy while opening their minds to the fact that not everyone on this planet looks (or feels) the same as them. I’ve performed in front of hundreds and hundreds of kids, and man - they can be a tough crowd! That’s why I think a dynamic, crowd-pleasing, attention-grabbing storyteller (used to performing and being heckled), would be eminently qualified! (The drag queens, incidentally, are often trained by children’s librarians.) 




So is Drag Queen Story Hour ‘a plot to corrupt children’? Does the programme really deserve such a hostile press?


Instead of performing in seedy bars, drag queens are using their love of music, theatricality and elaborate costumes to help caregivers entertain little kids. “It’s a way,” said Jonathan Hamilt, a co-founder of the program, for the performers “to get out of the nightlife and into their communities, their neighbourhoods, their towns where they live and give back.”

Leave Drag Queen Story Hour Alone! By Michelle Goldberg



And you know what? - that makes me smile.


Whereas alarmist accounts of Drag Queen Story Hour like these just make me feel uneasy and sad: 


  • “[W]e witnessed parents taking their children as young as two inside, to take part.”

- CBN reporter, Charlene Aaron, suggesting the library was unsafe and had become some kind of den of iniquity.

 

- Trump supporter who showed up to a library with a gun because a drag queen was reading stories to children.


- One of many hateful comments left on the Facebook event page of ‘Drag Story Hour’ at the Children’s Book Cellar shop in Waterville, Maine.




The CBN report is particularly alarmist: ‘[O]utraged residents argue the programme will harm kids,’ reports Aaron. One (looking more fearful and confused than outraged) feels that her city isn’t keeping its citizens safe - especially the children:



…[T]hey’re going to get exposed to something that they’re really not sure about and be confused. 



Ah. There’s the nub of the problem. Fear arising out of misunderstanding and confusion. It’s not just the kids who have their minds opened when we start being more inclusive and challenging misconceptions.



I shall leave you with this observation, from the owner of Cellar Door Books in California.


She was inspired to continue with her events (despite the inevitable protests) ‘after hearing an exchange between one of the readers and a young child in attendance’:


It was a little girl who said to one of the drag queens after a reading, ‘My brother likes to wear my mommy’s dresses,’ to which the queen responded, ‘and that is perfectly okay.’ It was then that I knew we were doing something good for the community.



Coming soon…

My review of Julian is a Mermaid by Jennifer Love (Candlewick Press 2018) - a story ‘about acceptance, and the power of those closest to children either to shame them into harmful conformity or to welcome and celebrate their self-expression...'

- (Imogen Russell-Williams, The TLS)


 


Sources

Only You Can Be You! What makes you different makes you great! by Nathan and Sally Clarkson, ill. by Tim Warnes (Tommy Nelson 2019)

The Descent of Man by Grayson Perry (Allen Lane 2016)

Bookstore Drag Queen Readings Win Fans, Draw Protests By Ed Nawotka (publishersweekly.com)

Leave Drag Queen Story Hour Alone! By Michelle Goldberg (New York Times, June 7, 2019)

Drag Queen Story Hours' Expose Pre-Schoolers to What Some Parents Call 'Gender Insanity (CBN News, Aug. 14 2018)

Trump supporter 'shows up to library with gun' because drag queen was reading stories to children by Chris Baynes (the Independent, 1 Feb. 2019)

Children’s bookstore in Maine receives backlash over ‘Drag Story Hour’ event By Arianna MacNeill (Boston.com May 14, 2019)

Play dress-up until you find the right outfit by Imogen Russell Williams

Tim WarnesComment