It had been a long time since Bookmarks, a nonprofit literary arts organization, was able to hold its normal programming in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. But as the staff began to feel more comfortable holding events during the coronavirus pandemic, they planned a Drag Queen Story Hour for last weekend. It was nothing particularly new, and they had hosted one before the pandemic, too.
But what was supposed to be a way for children to learn and have some fun turned into an opportunity for conservative protesters to lob false, hurtful and dangerous accusations.
A handful of protesters came out to Bookmarks, and while they were met with a much larger counter-protest, the nonprofit organization also received phone calls and emails from angry conservatives.
“It’s just shocking to us the level of hatred we received,” Jamie Rogers Southern, the executive director of Bookmarks, told HuffPost. “It was an emotional week for us.”
Southern said most of the callers were badly confused about drag shows. “A lot of it is unfortunately misguided and ill-informed statements about how drag queens were pornography or a strip show,” she said. The protesters were fully convinced that this was a publicly funded event, she said, and believed that kids would “become” transgender just from looking at a drag queen. (No tax dollars were used.)
Bookmarks is not alone. Earlier this month, a drag queen story time in California was interrupted by the Proud Boys, an extremist hate group. Members of the group stormed the event and yelled homophobic and transphobic slurs. And Last weekend, members of the Proud Boys protested a drag queen story time at a library in Nevada. Parents and children ran into the building after a man allegedly pulled out a gun.
The sudden backlash to previously uncontroversial events didn’t come out of nowhere. In the last few months, the conservative movement has doubled down on its attacks on queer people. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) revoked Disney World’s special tax status after the corporation released a statement in opposition to the state’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which is now law and restricts Florida teachers from talking about sexual orientation and gender in the classroom.
In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott (R) ordered the state’s child protective services to investigate the parents of transgender children, claiming that getting their children’s gender-affirming care is tantamount to abuse.
Republican leaders and activists are cloaking their homophobia and transphobia in concern for children. But behind every “Won’t somebody think of the kids?” wail is the real motivation: the desire to control and enforce strict gender roles.
And family drag shows are the new catnip for this ultra-regressive movement.
“Republican leaders and activists are cloaking their homophobia and transphobia in concern for children. But behind every “Won’t somebody think of the kids?” wail is the real motivation: the desire to control and enforce strict gender roles.”
The protest in Winston-Salem came just weeks after a video of a similar confrontation in Dallas went viral.
In the video, drag queens could be seen leading a group of kids down a makeshift runway, doing age-appropriate dances and poses while parents looked on and cheered.
“Take your children to CHURCH, not drag bars,” Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) tweeted without a hint of acknowledgment of the child sexual abuse scandals at various churches.
After the video went viral, DeSantis, who is well-versed in attacking the LGBTQ community, said that he would be open to having child protective services in his state investigate parents who take their children to drag shows.
“It used to be kids would be off-limits. Used to be everybody agreed with that,” DeSantis said. “Now it just seems like there’s a concerted effort to be exposing kids more and more to things that are not age-appropriate.”
Florida state Rep. Anthony Sabatini (R) tweeted that he would “be proposing Legislation to charge w/ a Felony & terminate the parental rights of any adult who brings a child to these perverted sex shows aimed at FL kids.”
Elsewhere in Texas, state Rep. Bryan Slaton (R) tweeted that he would soon introduce a bill that would ban drag shows in the presence of children.
“The events of this past weekend were horrifying and show a disturbing trend in which perverted adults are obsessed with sexualizing children,” he wrote in a press release. “As a father of two young children, I know I would never take my children to a drag show.”
It’s unclear how a bill like this would work, or what it would entail. Would children be banned from watching “Mrs. Doubtfire”? The 1993 classic stars Robin Williams as a divorced dad who dresses in drag and poses as a housekeeper to remain close to his children. Or what about the Madea films, which famously star Tyler Perry as the matriarch of a large Black family?
Because drag queens are a large part of the LGBTQ community, they’re automatically a part of the conservative culture war on anyone who isn’t straight, white and cisgender. And, as Republicans in power have made clear, those are the only type of people who are acceptable in their vision for America.
In the same way attacks on critical race theory were posited as efforts to keep kids safe from discrimination, bloviating about storytime with drag queens as perverted is simply a cover for the real end goal.
Conservatives conflate drag queens reading books to children with the sexualization of children because hypocrisy has no bounds. Elected officials have failed to act on school shootings, child hunger and countless other issues facing children today.
Instead, they’re hyper-focused on the faux moral panic of drag queen storytime.
“Conservatives conflate drag queens reading books to children with the sexualization of children because hypocrisy has no bounds. Elected officials have failed to act on school shootings, child hunger and countless other issues facing children today.”
But librarians and other organizations aren’t sitting back and watching. Alison Macrina, the director of the Library Freedom Project, held an informal session about attacks on libraries at the American Library Association’s annual conference over the weekend.
There, attendees discussed preventative measures, actions to be taken the moment a library is targeted, and what the community can do in the aftermath.
“There is a line between frightening people and readiness,” Macrina told HuffPost. “We discussed how to get parents organized around this, de-escalation training, and crisis intervention.” The hope is that library staff will be prepared to handle such situations — without involving the police, who aren’t always helpful when it comes to incidents like these.
As the Proud Boys and other similar groups continue their attacks with the implicit support of elected officials, Macrina is urging people to get involved with their libraries and the broader community. “Get organized with your neighbors who believe in gay rights, trans rights and drag queen story time,” she said. “We really, really need your support.”