For more than five years, I’ve been reading to children in libraries, bookstores, and beyond as part of Drag Queen Story Hour (DQSH), a unique organization that promotes reading through the magic of drag.
I love that this program taps into the creativity and imagination that is already present in the lives of children and drag performers. When I enter the room with my big hair, big shoes, and lots and lots of sequins, children quickly prove to be a generous and curious audience.
They often have lots and lots of questions — are you really a queen? how do you get the glitter to stick to your face? have you ever met a dragon? — but they immediately understand the playful possibilities without being weighed down by social norms and cultural baggage.
Still, as one of DQSH’s organizers, it’s hard to ignore the drama that some members of society stir up. While we have faced backlash from the beginning, in recent months, we’ve seen an uptick in organized opposition. Personally, as the author of two children’s books, my work has faced book bans and challenges, including from Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) who parroted false far-right rhetoric accusing me of creating “sexually charged content.” I also regularly receive hate mail calling me horrific names and threatening my safety.
Moreover, this Pride month, multiple drag performances were disrupted by alleged members of the domestic terrorist group the Proud Boys, including library events in San Lorenzo, California, and Sparks, Nevada.
And this is not just an American phenomenon: Events in Canada and Ireland have also been targeted. To top it all off, several Republican politicians have proposed legislation banning drag performances for children.
While such legislation may sound absurd, it is particularly alarming in the context of very real legislation targeting transgender youth’s access to education and health care, Florida’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill, and indications that the Supreme Court’s Dobbs ruling may be used to weaken LGBTQ rights.
While it can be hard to stand strong against such blatant hatred and political distractions, drag performers are a particularly resilient force: We’ve been training our entire careers to ensure the show must go on and to spread joy during challenging times.
In fact, that legacy is part of what makes us such powerful role models for children: Ultimately, drag can teach us all to be caring citizens by embracing complexity, doubling down on our imaginations, and standing up for what we believe in.
Though cross-dressed performance has existed for centuries, drag as a decidedly queer practice emerged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as queer identities began to take shape publicly. Drag is fundamentally rooted in creating spaces to perform our truest selves by amplifying and exaggerating them, often using humor and glamour to process moments of pain and oppression.
It is not surprising that the first use of the term “queen of drag” was by William Dorsey Swann, a formerly enslaved and incarcerated person who hosted drag balls in Washington, D.C., in the 1880s, asserting the right to queer and Black joy in public.
Throughout the 20th century and beyond, drag queen activists have channeled a similar spirit of playful resistance to lead calls for justice. Take, for example, San Francisco’s José Sarria, credited as the first out gay American to run for public office in 1961 (16 years before Harvey Milk was elected). Or we might also think of queer and trans people of color activists like Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera and Stormé DeLarverie, who helped catalyze the infamous Stonewall rebellion in New York City. Or today’s up-and-coming drag activists-turned-politicians like Honey Mahogany, Maebe A. Girl and Marti Gould Cummings.
What’s more, drag queens and kings have also contributed to social movements through fundraising and mutual aid. Drag performers have raised money (and organized demonstrations) to support HIV/AIDS activism, to support chosen families in Black and Latinx ballroom communities, to pay for gender affirmation surgeries, and to fund the work of numerous LGBTQ campaigns.
Finally, in addition to the recent wave of fame that contestants on RuPaul’s Drag Race have garnered in this “golden age of drag,” many performers hail from underground traditions exemplified by icons like Divine or Vaginal Davis that intentionally push social boundaries. As they make clear, drag is not about upholding beauty standards, but defying them.
After all, drag is forged in reinventing, in turning what is cast off as trash into gorgeous treasure. It is not rooted in being better than anyone, but becoming your best self by transforming your own dreams into reality. Or put differently, what makes drag performers special is that we are not actual royalty or celebrities — we’re part of our communities and, at the end of the show, we all dance and laugh together.
While a standard story hour cannot fully convey the complexities of such rich herstories, I carry these legacies in my work with children, knowing that many of the lessons below the surface will ultimately shine through.
For example, I often start readings with an explanation foregrounding drag performers’ talents and contributions to society: Drag queens love to sing, dance, tell jokes and put on shows. We like to wear our most sparkly clothes that make us feel fancy and fabulous. We stand up for what we believe in, we volunteer in our communities, and we sometimes lead parades and protests. We even like reading stories to kids!
But even better are the moments when we show and not tell. For example, in my picture books ”The Hips on the Drag Queen Go Swish, Swish, Swish” and ”If You’re A Drag Queen and You Know It,” I invite kids and their caregivers to try on some of the things queens are known for: swishing their hips, snapping their fingers and shouting, “Yesss, queen!”
While these are fun activities that, like many kids songs, help kids develop music and motor skills, they also encourage kids to express their inner fierceness and take gentle risks in doing so.
It is no accident that many of the actions are ones that I was once teased over — feeling shame for appearing too femme or queer — and that I have since learned to love and reclaim. In this way, drag can teach kids (and adults) to utilize humor and playfulness to overcome stigma and fear.
Much of the power of “drag pedagogy” (a term I coined with education scholar Harper Keenan) lies less in learning about the specifics of LGBTQ identities or cultures, and more in understanding drag as a tool that helps us see the world as it is, but more important, as it could be.
In a society that too often wants things to be this or that, drag reminds us to appreciate the complexities and nuances of being both and.
At its core, drag is always an art of reading and interpretation: It engages critical thinking to scrutinize elements of dominant culture and expose their injustices.
And that is why Drag Queen Story Hour is so powerful: not because it “indoctrinates” children (as if!), but rather drag offers a sense of freedom and possibility in a world that restricts who we can be.
That said, as much as drag offers a platform for children to learn to be their boldest, brightest and most beautiful selves, Drag Queen Story Hour also offers me an opportunity to learn from the children.
Their genuine capacity for kindness, their incessant questioning of “why,” and their propensity to find play in the most mundane settings also remind me that as much as I think I know, honey, I still have plenty to learn, too.
If there is anything that drag performers and kids can learn from each other, it is to get in touch with one’s inner curiosity, conscience and creativity. And to look fabulous doing it.
Queens become larger than life by transforming our outward appearance to better reflect our inner vision — not just for ourselves, but for the world we want to inhabit. And we’re never going to stop, because we know that it’s always possible to brighten things up with just a touch more glitter.
Lil Miss Hot Mess is the author of the children’s books If You’re a Drag Queen and You Know It and The Hips on the Drag Queen Go Swish, Swish, Swish, and serves on the board of Drag Queen Story Hour. You can follow her on Twitter @LilMissHotMess.