Drag Story Hours have really come to the fore in our political consciousness in the last few years, as the radical right has strategically targeted events raising the visibility of individuals who are gender-nonconforming, transgender or nonbinary.
I’m glad to say I’ve been to a Drag Story Hour (DSH). It was a joyous, but innocuous-seeming event that took place in the now-closed Shapiro Ballroom in Chicago’s West Town neighborhood in June 2019 (There are numerous events under the auspices of a national DSH organization; there are also many similar drag-storytelling events organized locally).
That particular story hour I saw, hosted by performers Muffy Fishbasket and Sutton, was sponsored by the Hulu streaming service, which was then about to unveil a new animated program, “The Bravest Knight,” which depicted a pumpkin farmer-turned-knight happily married to a prince. Muffy and Sutton read a storybook version of “The Bravest Knight” for the guests and screened the premiere episode.
Other than the fact that the hosts were drag performers, the event would have looked no different from any other time wherein families gathered with other families so the children would have something to do. The children had fun and got a kick out of Fishbucket and Sutton, and the parents seemed relieved to have their children amused for the morning.
The DSH concept was thought up in 2015 by San Franciscan Michelle Tea to inspire both reading comprehension and diversity. According to the DSH website, these events “[capture] the imagination and play of the gender fluidity of childhood and gives children glamorous, positive and unabashedly queer role models.
“In spaces like this, kids are able to see people who defy rigid gender restrictions and imagine a world where everyone can be their authentic selves!”
Chicago’s Drag Story Hours are fortunately still happening monthly (Fishbucket still is emceeing), with similar events taking place at libraries and other venues over the course of the year.
I didn’t know back in 2019 that Drag Story Hours had already become lightning rods for controversy.
In January 2019, protestors at an event in Cookeville, Tennessee, nearly shut down a story hour at the public library there. The following May, Ohio Speaker of the House Larry Householder sent a letter to the Ohio Library Council decrying Drag Story Hours. He wrote, “…I can assure you the taxpayers aren’t interested in seeing their hard-earned dollars being used to teach teenage boys how to become drag queens.”
Outrage against the story hours has only gotten more pronounced as extremists have been focusing their attention on venting against drag queens, whom they conflate with transgender individuals, a demographic unfortunately situated at the center of American right-wing rage.
Neo-fascists and so-called sovereign citizens, among other fringe elements, have disrupted story hours across the nation, loudly accusing organizers of “grooming” children. The outrage culminated last month with the passage of a Tennessee law banning drag performances that take place in close proximity to children.
As is so often the case with present-day extremism, it’s opponents to story hours that smack of the most vulgarity.
People who have never been to these events nevertheless regurgitate absurd lies about drag queens, transgender folks and other members of the LGBTQ+ community, projecting the children they profess to care so much about into imaginary and warped abuse scenarios. The only “grooming” happening here is indoctrination from right-wing extremists worried that their own children won’t grow up to accept the retrograde viewpoints they’ve invested so much in.
Kids at a DSH are learning to use their imagination, and so many of the boundaries they think they know can be questioned and stretched, without opposition from adults.
A personal aside: Two of my fondest memories, both now more than a few decades old, are of drag queens dragging me up to the stage.
At “Charo’s Cuchi Cuchi Christmas Show,” at Roscoe’s in ’94 or ’95, Charo called me up to assist in a cooking demonstration, and I was tasked with helping her pick out the best ingredients. A few years later, at the Stonewall Inn in New York, emcee Paulina called me to the stage and sang two or three romantic ballads to me. For a twenty-something guy just starting to feel his way around a gay identity, those moments were formative and fulfilling, like I’d been put in the window seat at a fancy restaurant.
My own experiences in twinkhood are certainly one thing, and what’s going on at Drag Story Hours is certainly another. But what’s obvious across the board is drag performers’ ability to engage with their audiences, showing that there are safe spaces where it’s OK to be different from the others.
These performers can do it better than just about anybody else and that’s why our community and all progressives, need to defend these story hours—and drag shows, drag brunches and anyplace else where people who are just a little bit different congregate—so that they can continue to inspire.
Matt Simonette is the executive editor of Windy City Times.