Drag Story Hour, a long-standing and popular public program where performers in drag read aloud children’s stories, has recently faced numerous attacks, including two recent hateful protests here in New York City. On Dec. 29, at an event hosted by a library in Queens, the anti-drag protestors were far outnumbered by a high-energy and multiracial group who chanted, danced, and sang to support the program.
The verbal abuse, threats, and malicious political discourse surrounding Drag Story Hour is a symptom of a rising tide of reactionary homophobia and transphobia. With mainstream media sources spreading misinformation, it is important to educate ourselves about the history and popularity of the program, and defend it from further interference.
The program began as an event at a San Francisco library: Drag Queen Story Hour, where children and their families could gather to hear a local drag queen read aloud from a favorite book. The founder, LGBTQ+ author and activist Michelle Tea, explained, “Children love larger than life, magical characters, and drag queens have the biggest hearts and most creative minds.” The first event was well-attended and led to the spread of the program to bookstores, libraries, and schools across the country. Eventually the event became international, with Drag Story Hours being hosted in England and Japan.
There are several benefits of this program: it provides educational entertainment for children and their families, as well as positive representation of members of the LGBTQ+ community. Both the readers and the chosen texts promote diversity and inclusivity, and encourage literacy skills in an engaging manner. But some politicians and protestors, often right-wing, have been actively trying to disrupt and end the program.
While anyone is free to attend or not attend these events, or even speak their mind on their reasoning, it is important to understand the specific and dangerous homophobic and transphobic rhetoric that is being used, both by individuals and media outlets. For example, a recent New York Post article called the program “a nonprofit whose outrageously cross-dressed performers interact with kids as young as 3” and criticized it for its “increasingly aggressive efforts to expose kids to gender-bending performers.” This language implies that drag queens, and in a larger sense members of the LGBTQ+ community, are a threat to the children they interact with. It contains dog whistles to dangerous and innacurate stereotypes that equate being gay or trans with pedophilia — ideas that have been spread by protestors holding signs that accuse performers of being “groomers.”
These accusations are based on bigotry, not fact. There is no documentation of drag queens committing sexual assault on minors. When the media supports hysteria around Drag Story Hour, they are actually obscuring the devastating fact that the majority of sex abuse is often from family members and aquaintences to the child. The very same Republican politicans who have shared these baseless talking points actually voted against the Respect for Child Survivors Act, which would push the Federal Bureau of Investigation to use a higher standard of care in child sex abuse cases. These politicians don’t care about children, they care about furthering their homophobic agenda.
The most dangerous threats to the children and families attending Drag Story Hour are the reactionary protestors. At a Houston Drag Story Hour event in 2019, police had to remove armed protestor James Greene, who attempted to disrupt the event after being banned from the library for illegally filming children. And during a recent Drag Story Hour at a library in the Manhattan neighborhood of Chelsea, billed specifically for children with autism and other neurodiversities, protestors shouted curses and carried signs reading “stop grooming kids for sex.”
At the Queens Drag Story Hour on Thursday, photos were taken of protestors making the Nazi salute and carrying a “Proud Boys” flag, a group notorious for racist and misogynistic actions. In addition, the NYPD received two arson complaints, and there was vandalism at the houses and offices of several city council members who have publicly supported the program.
These events should be warning signs alerting us to the rising wave of anti-LGBTQ+ bigotry, not only in individual people but in the larger political atmosphere. According to data from the ACLU, a record number of states introduced anti-LGBTQ+ bills in 2022, including bills restricting trans-affirming healthcare, banning LGBTQ+ inclusive curriculum, and stopping trans and gender non-conforming youth from using the bathroom that matches their identity. Just by July 1 of 2022, there were 162 of these bills introduced, and 22 of these bills passed.
Proponents of a just and inclusive world cannot be complacent in the face of these targeted attacks. At both New York City events, multi-ethnic groups of organized community members were able to outnumber and stop protestors from disrupting the Drag Story Hour. We must continue to bring this energy to protect and uplift valuable and positive programming for young people, and stop hateful attacks on members of the LGBTQ+ community.