Drag queens have been around for a while on our stages and screens. Now they’ve moved to public libraries, performing to smaller audiences (in size and age). With their extravagant makeup and affinity for performance, drag queens are understandably a good choice for imaginative, curious children.
The first event occurred in San Francisco in 2015. Aimed at children between 3 and 11, these events aim to introduce children to the LGBTQ+ community while encouraging creativity and enthusiasm for reading. Several of these events have occurred since in different locations. However, protests (and counter-protests) for these events also increase in frequency alongside the drag events.
A Brief History of Drag
“Drag” refers to the performance of exaggerated gender expression, often (but not always) involving cross-dressing.
Cross-dressing was common in Early-Modern Theatre when women were not permitted to perform. Instead, younger men would don wigs and dresses to play female parts. Shakespeare even used this convention in As You Like It and Twelfth Night to visually emphasize the gender confusion integral to their plots.
Drag was popular in 1920s New York, where it started to resemble modern drag more closely. Ballroom culture (an African-American and Latino LGBTQ+ subculture) played a crucial role in its popularity. The subculture involves ‘walks’, where participants perform in competitions known as ‘balls’. Costuming was, therefore, incredibly important in standing out from the competition, with some categories calling for exaggerated or satirized gender performances.
As with most deviations from the cultural norm, everyone does not see drag favorably. Negative stereotypes of drag often stem from transphobia and homophobia. Some view drags as a mockery of femininity or an attempt at impersonating or mocking others instead of a performance. Of course, some drag performers are trans or gender-nonconforming; however, gender performance and identity do not always align, and drag is, at its core, a performance. The demonization of drag is linked with conservatives’ fears about straying from roles determined by biological sex.
As with many queer identities, the drag performer is seen as inherently sexual and inappropriate. Even when simply existing in drag makeup and clothing, they are demonized and condemned. This forms the basis of many current objections to drag.
Drag Queen Story Hour
Drag Queen Story Hour was established by Michelle Tea in 2015. The events are precisely what they say on the tin: drag queens reading stories to children. Tea sought an age-appropriate way to introduce her child to the existence of gender-diverse people, so she set up these events. On the emotional and intellectual benefits of these events, Tea says:
‘Children love larger-than-life, magical characters, and drag queens have the biggest hearts and most creative minds.’Michelle Tea to the Thomas Reuters Foundation.
Since the first events in San Francisco, Drag Queen Story Hour events have spread to Britain, Japan, Sweden, and more. Many children and parents who have attended such events see it as great fun and an excellent way to encourage enthusiasm for literature.
However, with this support also comes severe backlash. Critics mostly tend to be right-leaning. Many subscribe to negative prejudices against drag performers, seeing it as inappropriate for children. Some even use the blatantly homophobic stereotype that equates queerness with pedophilia to object to the events.
Critics and Queerphobia
Many of the protests in the USA have been linked to far-right groups like the Proud Boys. They oppose the events because they supposedly sexualize children. The situation is similar in the UK, where the Independent Nationalist Network (another far-right group) dominates picket lines. They argue that protecting the innocence of children is crucial, suggesting that they see these events as inappropriate intrusions on a child’s purity. If the issue was children’s safety, simply not attending the events is the best course of action. This issue goes beyond personal belief and suggests a deep societal hatred of the queer community.
The prominence of this debate on a societal level is staggering. Amongst issues like climate change, government incompetence, and the cost of living crisis, surely drag queens reading books should be low on the list of priorities. In reality, this is far from the case. Debating niche cultural issues like this only distracts from serious problems. Whilst everyday people bicker over drag queens, those in power can pass legislation detrimental to the average person with little notice or backlash.
Right-wingers have found a convenient target in drag queens. They encapsulate everything that the right opposes: non-conformity, progress, and new ideas. In addition, some even go as far as making ungrounded accusations of grooming to really soil public perceptions of drag. Protests and counter-protests are not likely to stop any time soon, which is incredibly disheartening for performers. The queer community continues to face unfair, inaccurate stereotypes; hatred of them is far from a thing of the past.