They are known as “drag story hours” and have been a staple at Massachusetts libraries for years, a way for kids and families to learn about inclusion and representation.
But in recent months, the events — which feature drag performers in elaborate costumes and makeup reading books and singing songs — have become yet another flashpoint in the nation’s culture wars, with performers saying they’ve seen an increase in threats, particularly during Pride Month.
Their heightened concerns come as anti-LGBTQ rhetoric ratchets up and a growing number of conservatives champion restrictions on what schools can teach students about sexual orientation and gender identity.
On June 11, members of the far-right group the Proud Boys allegedly shouted homophobic slurs at a California library story hour, prompting a hate crime probe. At a drag story hour in Sparks, Nev., on June 26, protesters, including one carrying a gun, sent a library into lockdown.
In the Boston area, some drag performers say they’ve been harassed, leaving them fearful for their safety.
“Anytime there’s promotion [for events], especially with kids, I worry that we’re creating a dangerous situation,” said Quyen Tran, who has performed as drag king Jayden Jamison in Boston and beyond for 17 years. “Now, because we have to worry about these hateful groups out there, are we making ourselves sitting ducks?”
Drag performer Alli T., who asked to exclude their last name to protect their children, has organized Massachusetts story hours since 2016. The events, which are open to everyone, provide spaces for parents and kids alike to hear from and learn about LGBTQ+ people. Alli said many attendees who are queer have also told them after story hours that they feel supported in these settings.
However, those efforts have come at a price. Pictures of Alli’s young children were posted to social media and on a far-right blog disparaging drag performers as “sexually deviant” earlier this year. Alli also deleted their TikTok account because their contact information was distributed online, and left a neighborhood Facebook group after facing harassment.
Local threats prompted several Boston-area groups to cancel story times throughout June, Alli said, and some drag colleagues began avoiding public transportation to prevent being followed.
“It’s crazy to me that there are adults who say that there’s a danger in drag performers reading to children, and they themselves do not see the danger they pose when they show up to scream slurs at children and their families or take photos of children without their consent,” Alli said. “None of these people care about keeping children safe. They care about eradicating queer people.”
On June 25, at a story time sponsored by the Holbrook Public Library, organizers had to relocate the children in attendance and the drag performer after a Republican candidate for secretary of state, Rayla Campbell, disrupted the event. In a video posted to her official Facebook page, Campbell confronted and shouted at attendees while parents and organizers shielded kids with Pride flags and umbrellas.
“I was like, ‘We’re going to go on a little parade,’ just to get the kids away from that negativity, the disruption,” said Kimberly Usselman, the library’s director. “I hoped that nothing would happen, but I was also prepared for it.”
It’s a trend that Harvard professor Michael Bronski, who has studied LGBTQ+ politics since the 1960s, says is the “newest manifestation of anti-LGBTQ visibility” after years of growing acceptance and legal rights. The increase in anti-drag sentiment comes as more states are passing legislation that restricts discussions about sexuality in schools and transgender students’ participation in sports.
“The reality is that [conservative] fighting is now so bitter because they’re clearly losing the cultural battle, even as they may be winning certain political battles,” Bronski said. “In people’s minds, cross-dressing, drag, and transgender people — all of which are completely different categories — are, in many ways, the least visibly acceptable groups of LGBT people … and the most vulnerable in terms of public support.”
Neil Eaton, a Plymouth pastor and grandfather, said some in his community oppose drag performers in libraries because they believe drag of any kind is “inappropriate” for children.
“Everybody has dignity, value, and worth, but we don’t have to agree with behaviors, especially as our children are going to be exposed to things that their minds are not prepared for,” Eaton said.
Story hour hosts assert that drag is not inherently sexual or racy, and that these children’s performances are age-appropriate. Many events feature sing-alongs of popular childhood anthems like Verna Hills’ “Wheels on the Bus” and stories about crayons and animals, activities that performers say differ dramatically from nightlife drag events.
“We all do things that we wouldn’t do in front of children in our lives, and that doesn’t mean that we’re a danger to children,” said Patrick Burr, who runs the Boston chapter of the national Drag Queen Story Hour organization and canceled an appearance as Patty Bourrée at a local library after backlash last month. “I don’t think it’s honestly about the content; it’s about being morally against drag performers.”
Just JP, a Latinx performer who was Mx. Gay Boston 2022 and requested to go by their drag name in this story for safety reasons, began doing story hours five years ago. Raised in El Salvador, JP said they grew up without queer role models and turned to drag as a mode of expression.
“I want to give the opportunity to families and kids to have those examples that I didn’t have growing up,” JP said. “I want to give kids the possibility to see somebody who is glittery and fun and happy, and that person just happens to be queer, happens to be an immigrant, somebody with a beard who still wears makeup.”
Like JP, many are concerned that threats and disruptions will negatively affect attendees. Farouqua Abuzeit, Boston Public Library’s manager of youth services, said the library has routinely heightened security at drag story hours since it began hosting them in 2016. Negative messages have traditionally come from people outside the state, Abuzeit added, but they’ve seen more from within Massachusetts this year.
Grace Stowell, executive director for the Boston Alliance of LGBTQ+ Youth, worries that what she called a “specific and coordinated attack from the right” will exacerbate pandemic-related feelings of isolation for queer young people. The Trevor Project, a suicide prevention group for LGBTQ+ kids, found that 73 percent of LGBTQ+ students reported feelings of anxiety in 2022.
“We have seen a sharp rise and increase in the number of young people seeking behavioral health and mental health supportive services, so much so that the need is outstripping the availability,” Stowell said.
JP added that performers who are from marginalized backgrounds, such as trans or BIPOC performers, often face additional hostility and have “more reasons why they can become targets.”
Opposition has extended beyond story hours. An “Over the Rainbow” dance for teenagers in Newburyport was rescheduled after some community members protested against A.J. Parker, a drag performer, DJing the event.
Several performers said they see recent attacks as distractions from issues like gun violence and climate change and they fear that public antagonism will only worsen. Though Massachusetts skews liberal and has strong anti-discrimination laws, Bronski said local LGBTQ+ communities aren’t immune from growing hostility from the right.
“It is very easy to live in a blue bubble,” he said, “and in Boston, we’re so used to the privilege of feeling safe that we simply often don’t see these crimes being committed or don’t acknowledge them as a reality.”
Anjali Huynh was a Globe intern in 2022.Follow her on Twitter @anjalihuynh.