As a children’s book author and member of Drag Queen Story Hour, an international program in which drag performers read books to children in libraries and beyond, my work has been routinely challenged.
From protests outside events to hate mail in my inbox, I have to be especially careful about my privacy and safety (which is why I use my drag name publicly rather than my legal name). While I have grown used to backlash from conservative groups, I am disturbed by the recent mainstreaming of overtly anti-LGBTQ and racist discourse, especially legislative attacks on trans kids, attempts to falsely discredit queer people as “groomers” and efforts to ban books with diverse themes.
In a horrific turn of events, last weekend a group allegedly linked to the Proud Boys showed up at a story hour to harass and threaten organizers and performers in San Lorenzo, California. While performer Panda Dulce ultimately finished the reading, disruptions like this are both terrifying and terrorizing — traumatizing the very children that vigilantes claim to protect.
But drag performance is an especially powerful and joyful antidote to such attacks. Drag activates creativity and play, expanding traditional ways of thinking. Drag offers a textbook example of imagination: transforming society by making a new image of ourselves and the world around us. Drag queens and kings turn trash into treasure, taking our inner spark and allowing it to shine on the outside. And we invite respect through the audacity of being our most fabulous selves, holding our heads high even against the toughest critics.
Still, it requires resolve to stay strong when these attacks are not only relentless but personal. Recently, Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida issued an inflammatory statement about a canceled drag story time event in which he attacked me, parroting dangerous rhetoric suggesting that drag queens sexualize children. This month, despite the urgent dangers posed by gun violence, Republican Texas state Rep. Bryan Slaton absurdly vowed to introduce legislation banning drag shows for children. Shortly thereafter, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, the Republican Arizona state senators and Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia suggested they might follow suit.
While there are many sources of grief and anger in our current moment, book bans and attempts to shut down story hours are a unique nightmare: They are an attack not only on freedom of expression but on imagination. Imagination is powerful because it enables us to identify the status quo as a fiction that can be rewritten. Only by daring to see things from a new perspective can we remake the world to be more equitable, sustainable and beautiful.
Drag Queen Story Hour’s most potent teachings, like any good drag performance, are best read between the lines. Parents and educators often assume that what children can learn about most from drag performers is to challenge gender stereotypes and celebrate diverse LGBTQ leaders and histories. While these are certainly important learning objectives, drag is also a creative portal to a new world; through drag we’re able to see those elements of society that are a hot mess and find the courage and creativity to change them.
In research I have published with education scholar Harper Keenan, we argue that drag echoes many of the most effective learning practices, according to prominent schools of educational theory. Among other things, programs like ours invite a sense of wonder and curiosity through our larger-than-life and engaging presence in classrooms and libraries, replacing scripted ways of learning with improvisation and inquiry. And drag encourages children to ask why things have always been done in certain ways.
Drag queens, who have a long history of using camp to address tough topics, also model for children how they might destigmatize serious subjects through humor and find joy even in dark times. Finally, drag can help extend a sense of empathy, not by encouraging individuals to walk in someone else’s shoes or claim others’ experiences as their own but by trying on various presentations to see how that shifts their identities and ways of being in the world.
In their attempts to smear my sisters, siblings and myself, anti-LGBTQ leaders falsely claim that we’re indoctrinating children and spreading misinformation, suggesting we’re trying to convert kids to be queer or trans. Bless their clueless hearts. In a moment in which authoritarianism and white nationalism are on the rise, what they apparently fear the most is that we’re activating children’s imaginations; that we show them it’s possible to be whoever and whatever they dream; to reject restrictive boxes and scripts; and to dare to build a world in which we are free of oppression, violence and fear.
Drag performers have always been a bravely loud bunch, whether catalyzing the crowds at Stonewall or having the courage to be visible in a society that has too often demanded we hide our true colors. While I am under no illusion that drag alone can prevent the next mass shooting, end economic inequality or prevent climate change, it is one tool among many creative practices that reminds us that we can not only imagine but implement alternative futures. So when they try to ban LGBTQ and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) stories — or legislate our lives away — who better to fight back than a fearless army of sequined superheroes, standing on the shoulders of legends, brandishing the magic of books and our imaginations?