SAN FRANCISCO – Protesters pray outside a library in New York City while Flame, a drag queen with a light-colored wig and red dress, entertains children inside by singing the ABC, leading a coloring activity and reading books on how to do it it’s okay to be different.
Outside Chicago, protesters are harassing parents taking their children to story time, proclaiming that the staff running the event are “from the devil.”
And in suburban San Francisco, men invade Panda Dulce’s reading at a library’s drag queen story hour yelling homophobic and transphobic slurs.
After focusing on transgender athletes and youth, Anti-LGBTQ rhetoric is now targeting drag storytimes – conceived as a way to educate and entertain children by appealing to their imaginations – with disruptions and other protests reported across the country in the past two weeks since Pride Month began.
Storytelling organizers say social media accounts are fueling the backlash and that opponents who claim to want to protect children are actually frightening and endangering them. Organizers said they would improve security but are not shutting down their programs.
Reading groups have faced setbacks from the start, but recent vitriol is new, said Jonathan Hamilt, executive director of drag queen Story Hour and co-founder of the New York chapter.
“As part of the LGBT community and as a queer person in general, we’ve always experienced hate and abuse and homophobia and transphobia. Unfortunately, that’s just part of our existence,” said Hamilt. “All of this feels different and very real, and it feels a little bit scarier.”
Drag Queen Story Hour, a non-profit organization, was started in San Francisco in 2015 by activist and author Michelle Tea. Since then, chapters have opened in the US and elsewhere. Other organizations featuring drag readers have also formed.
As part of the Drag Queen Story Hour program, drag queens read to children and their parents in libraries, bookstores, county fairs, parks and other public places to celebrate reading “through the glamorous art of drag.”
When the library in San Lorenzo, about 25 miles southeast of San Francisco, held its first drag queen story hour four years ago, people prayed across the street in protest, said Alameda County librarian Cindy Chadwick.
Last weekend, as the library hosted its second event of its kind, at least five men — one of them wearing a t-shirt with a gun and the words “Kill Your Local Pedophile” on it — walked in and began insulting Panda Dulce while they read to children and their parents, Chadwick said.
“The horrible irony was that they kept saying, ‘We’re here to protect the children.’ And it was the children that frightened her. The kids were scared of them and the kids were there with their parents who brought them to this event,” Chadwick said.
A spokesman for the County Sheriff’s Office said the men, who identified themselves as members of the Proud Boys, were all Bay Area residents. The episode is being investigated as a hate crime.
The Alameda County Library, which continues to receive threats, now plans to host a Pride event every month for the rest of the year, Chadwick said, and the sheriff’s office will provide security.
The library event was mentioned on a right-wing Twitter account, which, along with other social accounts, has labeled drag queens as abusive, depraved “groomers,” Chadwick said. The same account shared a promotion for a “kiddie korner” at a Pride event in Waukegan, Illinois that was supposed to include a drag storyteller and a dressing bucket.
It prompted dozens of angry calls and messages, said Nikki Michele, executive director of the nonprofit LGBTQ+ Center Lake County, which ran the event.
“Many, you’re a groomer, stop grooming kids, groomer, groomer, groomer, you’re a pedophile,” Michele said.
The event was interrupted by protesters trying to film children yelling at their parents, Michele said.
In Mahwah, NJ, a flyer circulated online and posted on doorsteps and condos falsely portrayed a drag performer as a “known PORNOGRAPHER” who “normalizes PEDOPHILIA AND CHILD ABUSE.”
Critics called local government agencies and the Mahwah Pride Coalition to try to shut down their Storytime event, said Susan Steinberg, the nonprofit’s director. But Angel Lauriano, who stars as Honey Marie in Drag, weathered the protesters and still showed up on Monday – in long sleeves – to talk to kids about cats, dogs and their lifelong dreams.
The protest campaign – as intended – gives some parents reason to take their children to a place where they could be molested. But Michele said it was important to be visible.
“It would be a poor act of faith if my own children weren’t even there,” Michele said. “But I mean, it scared me enough that I had this conversation with myself.”
The portrayal of LGBTQ people as child abuse builds on the same playbook used by anti-gay crusaders in the 1970s, said Don Haider-Markel, a professor of political science at the University of Kansas.
“The term at the time was recruitment,” says Haider-Markel. “Now they just switched that to groomers. It’s old wine in a new bottle.”
According to Randall Balmer, a historian of American religion at Dartmouth College, it’s a strategy used by conservative candidates to motivate white evangelical Christians to vote.
“The drag queen story lesson plays right into her fears that the kids are being misled by evil, satanic, or extraterrestrial ideas,” Balmer said.
Several politicians have discussed plans for legislation to ban children’s drag shows or penalize parents for taking their children to one. Among them is Republican Congressman Bryan Slaton from the state of Texas.
“Children don’t have to focus on sex and sexualization, and we just have to let them grow up to be children and let them do that as they get closer to adulthood,” he said in an interview.
While many drag queens are known for their risqué and mundane nightclub performances, Lauriano and others who read to children make these performances kid-friendly.
“People automatically assume that because we’re drawing, we want to become feminine or sexualized,” he said. “It’s a way of making people happy. It’s meant to be entertaining. It’s supposed to make people smile.”
Swenson reported from New York City.
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