The history of Drag Story Hour and how it persists amid far-right intimidation

We dive into the history of Drag Story Hour which originated in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Image: Shutterstock

Over the course of the last year, Ireland has seen a prominent uptick in anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment from the far-right directed at the presence of LGBTQ+ children’s literature in libraries around the country, as well as at the existence of Drag Story Hour – an event where local drag talent appear at libraries to read stories to children. 

The existence of Drag Story Hour, or drag queen storytime as it is called in some locales, is a relatively new phenomenon that can trace its roots back to the San Francisco Bay Area. Known for its prominent LGBTQ+ population, it is unsurprising that San Francisco was one of the first cities to implement this kind of program for children. It was here that the Market Street bookstore became home to “America’s first drag queen storytime” a decade ago. 

While drag queen story hour became a hit at libraries around the US, and across the globe, in the years following Market Street bookstores ground-breaking event, the phenomenon really took off when, two years ago, new mother and founder of the literary arts organisation RADAR Productions, Michelle Tea, began thinking about a way to make local reading events more inclusive for queer parents like herself. 

Tea set out trying to recruit a drag performer to star in a library event. So it was that Per Sia, a San Francisco queen, was recruited for a drag queen story hour event at the Harvey Milk Memorial branch of the  San Francisco Public Library.

“I said, don’t worry, they’re gonna love you,” said Bix Warden, a children’s librarian for the SFPL system, in an interview with the Huffington Post. “I have this picture of Per Sia kneeling down and all these little kids are just mobbing her and hugging her.”

After this event, Tea set to work establishing the non-profit organisation Drag Queen Story Hour. Since its inception in 2015, Drag Queen Story Hour has spread to more than 50 cities around the globe, inviting drag artists to spread literacy and inclusive education to children worldwide at libraries, schools, bookstores, and museums. 

In 2020, the non-profit officially changed its name to “Drag Story Hour” in an effort to be more inclusive and “reflect the diverse cast of storytellers”.  

Of course, not every appearance of a drag performer at a public library is the work of Drag Story Hour, as many of these events are organised independently by dedicated librarians and bookstore owners. That being said, the impact has been invaluable to queer parents around the globe. 

This is, in part, due to the fact that drag culture was taking over the mainstream at the same time that Tea and her team were establishing their non-profit. By 2015, drag brunch, drag bingo, and RuPaul’s Drag Race were already ingrained into American queer culture and were starting to appeal to more and more heterosexual individuals as well. 

While Drag Story Hour has seen much success over the last decade, in recent years, these kinds of events have seen backlash from far-right politicians and pundits who believe that drag is obscene and inappropriate for children. 

In the last year alone, Ireland has seen a number of far-right protests condemning drag storytime events throughout the country, namely at libraries in Co Kerry and Co Cork. 

In July 2023, a drag storytime event in Tralee in County Kerry was the subject of far-right protests. A statement from Kerry County Council said: “A family story-time event was taking place as part of Kingdom Pride Week.

“The event was disrupted by a number of protestors who were invited to leave the library.” 

In an article she wrote for The Journal in the aftermath of the protest, Aoife Gallagher suggests that “Drag story time events have become a common part of Pride celebrations throughout the world. They are very different from the burlesque-style drag shoes popular in LGBTQ+ clubs. At story time events drag performers read stories to children in an entertaining, pantomime-like style.

“The stories promote inclusivity and acceptance of LGBTQ+ lives and the events have become a popular attraction, especially for LGBTQ+ families.

“But in recent years, these events have increasingly come under attack from a range of actors: anti-LGBTQ+ campaigners, far-right groups, religious movements and conspiracy theorists. These groups are bound by a belief that drag story time events are a sinister attempt to ‘groom’ children into LGBTQ+ identities. In many instances, they explicitly claim that drag artists are paedophiles, reigniting age-old anti-gay tropes that frame the LGBTQ+ community as being a threat to children. They also tend to view queer relationships as being inherently sexual or in some cases, simply degenerate.”

The attack on LGBTQ+ inclusivity continued in Co Cork this summer, when library staff were intimidated by protestors who wanted the library to remove a series of children’s reading materials with LGBTQ+ content. 

Libraries across the county were forced to close their doors as the protests escalated, a decision that one Cork City librarian said “​​goes against the grain of what we do”.

In October, members of Cork City Libraries were awarded the LGBTQ+ Ally award at the 2023 GALAS awards for their courage and commitment to Ireland’s LGBTQ+ community in the face of far-right intimidation. 

In a statement following their win, Cork City Libraries wrote: “We strive to place libraries at the heart of communities, welcoming and supporting everyone in their enjoyment of reading, and in their pursuit of learning, knowledge and culture.”

Similar anti-drag sentiment has resulted in anti-drag bills being drafted in a number of US states, including Idaho, South Carolina, Oklahoma, Kansas, Florida, Montana, Arizona, Missouri, and West Virginia. 

In response to the ongoing attack on drag queen story hour events in the US, Drag Story Hour spokesperson Jonathan Hamilt said that, to the children attending these events “it’s like seeing a Disney character or a superhero or a larger-than-life cartoon come into reality, and I think they really respond well to the crazy makeup and crazy hair, and the sequins and the sparkles, the camp.”

“If it didn’t have ties to queer roots,” Hamilt noted, “I don’t think people would be upset about it. But since it does, that’s why there’s an uproar.”

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