Most of the kids arriving at Bookmarks in Winston Salem, North Carolina, had no idea that for days, the Drag Queen Storytime they were attending had been the subject of complaints, alarming news coverage, planned protests, hate-filled social media posts, and violent threats. How could they? They were greeted at the bookstore by a party.
Lizzo and the B-52’s blared while throngs of rainbow-clad adults blew bubbles in their direction as they bounced and wobbled and sashayed toward the bookstore to see Anna Yacht, a bearded drag queen dressed like an eccentric elementary school teacher.
At Bookmarks’ entrance, a lone police officer hovered nearby as bookstore employees personally ushered each child into the June 18 storytime, waving away reporters, news crews, and adults without children who wanted to attend the reading.
“This is no different than any other storytime; we are prioritizing getting kids into the reading because this is about the kids,” one employee said. “It’s not about the media or protests. It’s about storytime for kids.”
Inside, Bookmarks was bustling. Drag Queen Storytime was at capacity, and latecomers hovered around the perimeter, parents with their children balanced atop their shoulders.
Before Yacht launched into reading the first book, Dr. Seuss’ “Oh, The Places You’ll Go!,” she told the children in attendance it was “OK to be a little different.”
“Clap if you’re different,” Yacht said. The elementary school kids and tweens in attendance clapped excitedly. “I know I’m different,” Yacht laughed.
The children loved Yacht. They were taken by her comedic timing, and they were enthralled by her appearance. In tiny interactions all over the bookstore, it was clear that the manufactured hysteria over drag performers reading to kids is a projection of insecure and tyrannical adults, afraid of things children are unfazed by.
“Why is that boy wearing a dress?” the little girl in attendance asked her grandma. “Because people can wear whatever they want,” her grandma explained, matter-of-factly. “Maybe next time he can wear a fancier dress,” the little girl responded, throwing shade like only kindergarteners can.
In the end, only a handful of “protesters” were spotted outside of Bookmarks. They arrived before Drag Queen Storytime and stood at the entrance of the parking lot for a few moments, filming but never daring to approach the more than 100 counter-protesters called to action by Erick Brox of the group Queer Winston Salem.
“Counter-protest” is a bit of a misnomer. The group was overwhelmingly comprised of Winston Salem residents, including members of the LGBTQ+ community, young allies, and parents like Will Eley, who told Prism he was there “to support friends and strangers alike.” Eley said he was aware of the threats made against the event but decided to show up anyway—in part because he wanted to bring his baby to Drag Queen Storytime, an unaffiliated offshoot of the official Drag Queen Story Hour network.
“I think it would be naive or irresponsible of me as a parent to think that something terrible couldn’t happen here today, but I have faith in the number of folks I knew would show up to help keep us safe,” Eley said.
Brox told Prism that the entire goal of the counter-protest was to protect children and families attending Drag Queen Storytime.
“Parents and young people have the right to be here and experience joy without harassment,” Brox said.
Jamie Rogers Southern, the executive director of Bookmarks, told Prism that the Arts Council of Winston Salem alerted her the week leading up to the event that trouble was brewing. The organization had fielded a number of angry calls from local residents alleging that taxpayer dollars were being used to fund “pornography” and that the children attending Drag Queen Storytime were being “groomed by pedophiles.”
Homophobic and transphobic talking points aside, Southern was surprised by the news. Not only was Bookmarks an independent bookstore and literary arts nonprofit—two entities that decidedly do not operate using taxpayer funds—the store had hosted Drag Queen Storytime for years.
Soon, Southern began receiving her own emails and calls, which grew angrier and more threatening as the reading approached. Things took a turn for the worse when the Winston Salem newspaper ran a story about local groups’ plan to protest Yacht’s reading. The reporting included vehemently homophobic and transphobic rhetoric, and it spread news of the protest far and wide.
Southern feared for the safety of the families registered to attend the event and for LGBTQ+ community members attending Pride. Drag Queen Storytime was planned in coordination with the Pride parade, which mostly takes place on Fourth Street where Bookmarks is located.
“The amount of hate that’s been funneled toward us is hard to fathom,” Southern said. “Still, we’re not going to back down. I’ve seen how this event makes families feel seen and celebrated and embraced, and we’re not going to let a group of angry, hateful people ruin that. Bookmarks stands for inclusivity. If we lose people over this, I don’t care. They weren’t our people to start with. But am I worried about the threats? Yes. Things feel differently now, and we have to prioritize the children’s safety and security.”
Right wing protests of Drag Queen Story Hour are not a new phenomenon. But in light of current events—Pride month, mass shootings, transphobic and homophobic legislation, upcoming midterm elections, and a recent hate crime at a Drag Queen Story Hour in California—the threats are increasing and the risk of harm feels intensified, according to performers who spoke to Prism.
At the end of her reading on Saturday, a visibly relieved Yacht stuck around to talk to kids, admirers, and reporters.
“We didn’t know how all of this would go,” Yacht explained to Prism. “I was a little unsure leading up to it. We had a lot of threats—a lot of things we didn’t publicly disclose. But we don’t take kindly to threats, and we’re not going to be bullied because people don’t like the way we are.”
Yacht had good reason to be on edge. Exactly one week prior, on June 11, members of the Proud Boys stormed a Drag Queen Story Hour in California hosted by longtime volunteer and performer, Panda Dulce. Members of the hate group arrived at the Bay Area’s San Lorenzo Library and immediately began using transphobic slurs and harassing Dulce, who told the Los Angeles Times she felt “utterly defenseless”—especially because she didn’t know if the men were armed. Dulce, who is now the target of racist, homophobic, and transphobic online harassment, wants the local district attorney to charge the Proud Boys with a hate crime. Meanwhile, the same day Dulce was attacked by Proud Boys, 31 members of the violent white supremacist hate group Patriot Front were arrested for “conspiracy to riot” at a Pride event in Idaho.
The white Christian nationalists recently incensed by Drag Queen Story Hour—an event that’s been around since 2015—likely don’t understand they’re essentially props, Heron Greenesmith explained. Greenesmith is a policy attorney and senior research analyst at Political Research Associates, where they monitor anti-LGBTQ+ advocacy, movements, and leaders.
“These seemingly homegrown or parent-sprung protests are part of much larger movements led by anti-LGBTQ+ groups like MassResistance and the Family Policy Alliance,” Greenesmith said. “These aren’t organic protests that are rising from feelings that parents are having spontaneously. These are top-down attacks. The language used is a microcosm of anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric that’s existed for decades, and it remains very dangerous.”
Last year as a wave of anti-trans bills flooded the legislature, journalist Melissa Gira Grant reported that the war on trans youth had been “hiding in plain sight.” Gira pointed to protests against Drag Queen Story Hour beginning in 2019, led by members of MassResistance. The-right wing media machine ate these actions up, stoking a moral panic about “gender ideology” that paved the way for bans on gender-affirming care for trans youth.
Greenesmith said they understand why Drag Queen Story Hour has become such an easy target for conservatives and right-wing groups.
“Authoritarianism needs to control autonomy and expression in order to control people, and drag is such an overt expression of autonomy and freedom,” they explained. “In that way, it makes perfect sense that people aligned with an authoritarian agenda would be afraid of people like drag queens who so brazenly and blatantly showcase their autonomy—and it’s especially threatening to them that this is being presented to kids.”
Pride month has also presented an opportunity for conservatives to increase their rhetoric and rile up their base just in time for the midterm elections when LGBTQ+ people are sure to become targets for Republicans looking to climb the political ladder. Joshua Jernigan said he’s watched this cycle play out before.
Jernigan is the director of the Charlotte, North Carolina, chapter of Drag Queen Story Hour. He and a friend started the chapter in March 2019. Their first reading sold out—and two religious anti-LGBTQ+ groups protested it.
“These protests have always been a thing, and it ramps up every time we’re close to election time,” Jernigan said. “It’s absolutely ramping up now, but I feel fearful in a way I didn’t before.”
In part, Jernigan’s newfound fear stems from the alarming amount of pushback he and other LGBTQ+ community members have received organizing nearby Union County’s inaugural Pride festival. Threats and anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric have been “rolling in,” Jernigan said.
“Things definitely feel more threatening, and there’s really no untying that from the political landscape,” Jernigan said. “There’s all of these anti-trans laws, Florida’s ‘Don’t Say Gay’ law, Texas’ push to ban [minors from drag shows]. Hate groups are stepping into libraries full of children to threaten performers. It’s scary, and it’s also shameful. Drag Queen Story Hour is about promoting literacy and a love for literature; it’s about putting on a fun show for little kids to learn about diverse books, diverse characters, and diverse topics in an inclusive way. I hate that it’s been turned into something that feels risky or scary.”
A “Revolutionary” Idea
In a June 20 phone call with Prism, Michelle Tea sounded audibly pained to hear that queens—“who are some of the most magical people on the planet”—are being threatened with harm for reading books to children. Tea is an award-winning writer and a queer icon. She founded the Bay Area queer literary arts organization RADAR Productions, the traveling queer feminist literary road show Sister Spit, and Drag Queen Story Hour.
The intentions behind Drag Queen Story Hour were multifaceted, Tea told Prism. Right before she left her post as executive director of RADAR in 2015, she learned about a local grant offering funding for arts programming in different Bay Area neighborhoods. Tea thought it would be fun to play with the idea of “queering the Castro,” a historic gayborhood ravaged by gentrification and an influx of straight people.
This was a time of great upheaval in the Bay Area, and in Tea’s personal life. After leading RADAR for 13 years, she was moving to Los Angeles to raise her first child as a “late life mom.”
“After a solid 20 years only doing queer things every single day, I was suddenly in these very straight places with my baby. Even the storytime at the Harvey Milk branch library felt very straight in a way that was noticeable to me. While I was thinking of queering the Castro, it occurred to me that surely there had to be other queer parents that would want a queer storytime. I knew I couldn’t be the only parent who would love to have a drag queen read a book to their kid. We were also having such a renaissance with progressive children’s literature, and it just felt like a no-brainer,” said Tea, who submitted the grant and then left town.
RADAR received the grant, and as the organization’s next executive director, award-winning author Julián Delgado Lopera took on the job of carrying out the programming. San Francisco’s Eureka Valley Library, also known as the Harvey Milk Memorial Branch Library, became the site of the first Drag Queen Story Hour featuring beloved Bay Area drag royalty Per Sia.
“We started off really small, and then it just kind of exploded and it was all queens of color that were leading the events,” Delgado Lopera said. “I don’t think the kids even clocked the performers as drag queens. To the kids, this isn’t a queer thing or a political thing or an identity thing. They just see a person who’s really dressed up in a lot of color and a lot of glitter doing their thing. When conversations about gender did come up, it didn’t seem very complicated to the kids. They didn’t care who was under the wig and makeup.”
Tea told Prism Drag Queen Story Hour was an immediate success in part because it brought queerness into the realm of family-friendly events.
“Children love characters. Drag Queens are so benevolent and so larger than life; they’re just like giant fairy godmothers or wild glamor clowns. They’re incredible and they’re performers, so obviously they’re wonderful at reading stories to kids. It’s just such a perfect match,” Tea said.
When Delgado Lopera was executive director of RADAR, their goals for queering the Castro were twofold: to bring more LGBTQ+ people of color and women into the Castro, and to create a fun environment that utilized books and drag queens to help kids embrace who they are. Some adults did not see the beauty in these efforts.
Early on, Delgado Lopera said protests did occur at Drag Queen Story Hour, but they were mostly uneventful—until 2017. That’s when RADAR hosted a series of workshops that paired “gender expressive” kids with drag queen mentors, culminating in performances at We Are All Queens, a drag ball for children held at San Francisco’s Verdi Club. The event was held with the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, queer and trans dragtivists who dress in nuns habits when doing street performances, hosting events, or otherwise spreading joy through their extensive charity work.
Delgado Lopera was helping to set up the kids’ drag ball when someone alerted them to what was happening outside the venue.
“I go out, and there’s this group of people with Bibles filming and screaming at the kids,” recalled Delgado Lopera. “I was also in drag, and I felt triggered because I came from a Christian family, but I had to snap out of it and start pulling kids inside because they were obviously scared and felt threatened.”
The protesters made the author and historian “really fucking mad,” and in their anger, they had a brilliant idea.
“I went to the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, and I said, ‘I need your help, there are some Christian protesters outside, and they’re freaking out the kids.’ The sisters were like, ‘We’ll handle it, honey.’ These Sisters were big, burly dudes in full nun drag. All they had to do was just kind of stand outside, and their presence and sass caused the protestors to leave,” Delgado Lopera laughed.
As fun as it was, children’s programming wasn’t RADAR’s focus, and the organization stopped organizing Drag Queen Story Hours after a few years. By that time, the wildly popular event had taken on a life of its own. Different chapters sprouted up, and eventually, Drag Queen Story Hour spun off into its own organization with chapters in almost 30 states, D.C., and Puerto Rico, and additional chapters across Mexico and in Europe, Australia, Tokyo, and Canada.
Until Dulce was targeted by Proud Boys, Delgado Lopera said many in the Bay Area’s cis, white, gay community lulled themselves into thinking they were living in a “post-gay world” that allowed them to exist without threat of harm. The attack has rattled the LGBTQ+ community in the area, but Delgado Lopera said it’s important to be very clear that what’s really behind the attacks on Drag Queen Story Hour is transphobia.
“This is going to become really dangerous work because what these performers do is play with gender, and they are creating a bridge with children,” Delgado Lopera said. “But that’s also what has always made Drag Queen Story Hour so revolutionary. Hateful people can’t think of our communities as wholesome; they can’t think of us as family. It never occurred to them that you could take a drag queen out of a bar and turn them into someone [who’s] part of the nuclear fucking family, someone their kid loves and goes to the library to read with. They feel like drag queens are infiltrating their space.”
Tea said she wonders if the “fascists” protesting Drag Queen Story Hour are threatened by the performers and the overwhelming number of straight families who attend the events.
“Maybe they think of them as traitors or something,” said Tea, explaining that the readings provide a way for cishet parents to talk to their kids about queerness at an early age. She said Drag Queen Story Hour also provides a foundation that teaches kids early on that queerness is “a normal and beautiful and great thing” and not something that is inherently rife with sadness and stress.
In other words, the right-wing response to Drag Queen Story Hour was inevitable—and Tea’s not surprised the events continue to be targeted.
“I’m queer, so I have no illusions about our country and how many bigoted, phobic people there are,” Tea said. “It’s precisely because Drag Queen Story Hour brings queer joy into kids’ lives—and that joy is coming from people who challenge gender norms—that [Drag Queen Story Hour is] remains the focus of attacks. People who mess with the gender binary in any way get the most venom.”
Celebrating the Inner Child
If Drag Queen Story Hour makes young people feel seen and embraced, what does it do for the queens? Delgado Lopera told Prism that they have seen how children’s love and support makes a difference in the lives of performers.
For example, the day after 49 mostly Latinx LGBTQ+ community members were murdered in the Orlando, Florida, Pulse Nightclub shooting, RADAR was pre-scheduled for a Drag Queen Story Hour event at an elementary school in Berkeley, California. It was a heavy time, but Per Sia and Dulce decided to go on with the show. Delgado Lopera said the children welcomed RADAR’s crew with Pride signs, and they told performers how much they loved them.
“It was such a beautiful, healing thing,” Delgado Lopera recalled. “I just remember that as queer people, it felt like we were under attack. Things felt scary, but the kids made us feel loved.”
Per Sia, who’s been doing drag for 15 years, is actually at the center of a few of the right-wing’s current “culture wars.” Not only was she the first queen to read as part of Drag Queen Story Hour seven years ago (and she remains a beloved fixture at readings in the Bay Area), but she’s also a youth educator. During the regular school year, she’s the head teacher for first graders in an afterschool arts program, and during the summer, she works with middle schoolers.
Per Sia kept her school life and drag life separate for many years, until an online magazine approached her for a profile detailing how she navigated the educational space as a queer person and drag performer. The reporting went viral, which is how Per Sia connected with Delgado Lopera for Drag Queen Story Hour.
Per Sia credits Drag Queen Story Hour with pushing her to examine the “internalized queerphobia” she developed from years spent working in education.
“This was before RuPaul’s Drag Race, before drag queens were household names,” Per Sia explained. “I felt so unbelievably nervous for the first Drag Queen Story Hour because it was the first time I invited the school community where I work to see me in drag. My boss and her daughter came, and so did some of my students and their families. It was their first time seeing the other side of me. It changed things for me.”
One of the most significant changes is that it helped Per Sia heal old wounds.
For safety reasons, queer people often feel forced to mold themselves into someone they are not. Growing up, Per Sia said she could never really hide her queerness, but she tried to walk differently, toughen up, and generally be “more manly” to appease men in her family.
“Drag Queen Story Hour allowed me to heal that part of me—the kid that wanted to express themselves by playing in their mom’s makeup, but who got reprimanded when they were caught,” Per Sia said. “That’s allowed me to celebrate that inner child in me, the kid that wanted to feel free to experiment with clothes and shoes and hair and makeup. I love what I do, and I think that translates to the kids.”
She has worked with children long enough to know that when you show up as your full self, it allows kids to feel like they can be their full selves too. It makes them feel like they have at least one person in their corner who will love and accept them no matter who they are or how they want to express themselves.
“They see this big, ol’ drag queen being herself, and it makes them feel OK being who they are too,” Per Sia said.
This is part of the reason why what happened to Dulce was so devastating to the drag community. It wasn’t just that a friend was attacked. It was that the men shouting obscenities and hurling transphobic slurs and abuse violated the safe space performers create for kids.
“Glitter First, Fear Second”
Before the Proud Boys attacked Dulce, employees from the Oakland Public Library called Per Sia to let her know that Drag Queen Story Hour was getting a lot of pushback. They assured her security would be present at her scheduled readings that week, and administrators from the library planned to show up in large numbers to support her. Hours later, Per Sia was inundated with news reports about her friend. She also had back-to-back story hours scheduled for the rest of the week.
For her first Drag Queen Story Hour after Dulce’s attack, Per Sia made her way to her reading, and the first thing she saw outside of the library was a police officer. As a queer brown person, law enforcement wasn’t something that made Per Sia feel safe or secure, but she said that she pushed through the discomfort because she wanted to read to the kids.
Inside the library, Per Sia received a warm welcome from library staff, and then they walked her through where she was supposed to go “in case an ambush happens.” She was to lock herself in an office and hide under a desk after running up a flight of stairs and across a long hallway—all while wearing heels.
“I was like, ‘Well, Happy Pride, I guess.’ These events are safe spaces for kids because they’re loving and caring and inclusive. It’s now a space where I don’t feel comfortable. Thankfully, queers are resilient. I’m going to keep reading to the kids because we can’t let them win. I walk glitter first, fear second,” Per Sia said.
Ensuring performers, kids, and their families are safe at Drag Queen Story Hour is the current priority of every person who helps coordinate these events, but Per Sia is concerned that recent attacks will lead to law enforcement becoming a regular fixture at readings. This is also a violation of the safe space.
In Wilmington, North Carolina, last week, Proud Boys protested a Drag Queen Story Hour at the Pine Valley Library. Law enforcement was called, and The Advocate reported that things escalated when Proud Boys entered the library and used anti-gay slurs. According to some attendees, a sheriff with the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office actually escorted Proud Boys to the room where Drag Queen Story Hour was taking place—a claim authorities deny.
It’s no secret that Pride began with a riot against police brutality, led by trans women of color. A new children’s book, “Twas the Night Before Pride,” broaches this history in an age-appropriate way. Per Sia recently got the book to read as part of Drag Queen Story Hour. When she arrived at a recent reading with the book, there were police officers outside. Inside, there were even more.
“Imagine there are cops everywhere, and I sit down with the kids and I start reading, ‘A long, long time ago on a June night in 1969, the queers didn’t stay quiet and fought back against police brutality.’ It’s just such a weird experience to be reading this during Pride and to have cops everywhere,” said Per Sia, noting that the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence are a great alternative to law enforcement. In fact, they already take their role as protectors very seriously at Drag Queen Story Hours and queer events across the Bay Area.
Other drag performers Per Sia knows all say they remain committed to Drag Queen Story Hour—no matter the threats, the presence of law enforcement, or anything else that gets thrown their way. Right now they’re putting on a brave face for the kids, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t struggling.
“We do this because we love to do it, not because it makes us rich,” Per Sia said. Most drag performers are struggling to make ends meet and have multiple jobs. Per Sia said now is the time to throw some coin their way, to donate to Drag Queen Story Hour’s fundraiser, or to take your kids to a reading and let the performer know they are valued. Drag is labor-intensive, expensive, and hard. If you’ve got creative skills, Per Sia said now is the time to offer to help a queen create her website or sew a dress or make a headpiece.
“I know I’m not the only one who struggles to ask for help, and reaching out to us right now makes a difference,” Per Sia said. “Reaching out when people need help is how community is created, and nothing makes us feel more safe than knowing we are loved and protected by our community.”