Once upon a time, in the mystical land of San Francisco, wordsmith Michelle Tea had a dragulous idea.
As the Lambda Literary Award winner for Best Lesbian Fiction and the creator of RADAR Productions, the nonprofit that develops groundbreaking literary work by supporting LGBTQ artists, she understood both the power of community and the written word—and so Drag Queen Story Hour (DQSH) was born.
DQSH features drag entertainers reading stories to children of all ages. Its creator has shared that by capturing the imagination of childhood’s gender fluidity, the readings aim to give children glamorous and unabashedly LGBTQ role models. For at least an hour, young readers are able to see a world where dress up is real and life’s possibilities are endless.
Since its creation in 2015, DQSH has become a cultural phenomenon. Official and inspired events have sashayed through bookstores, libraries, schools and safe spaces across the globe, been met with celebration but at times mired by controversy. During Pride Month 2019 alone, extremists in opposition of the readings forced events to be cancelled in Pennsylvania and Texas, while a man was charged with assault after protesting a reading in Maryland.
Yet from Stonewall to racing on VH1, the drag community has proven that rewards are greater than risks when it comes to fighting for the LGBTQ community’s equality and visibility. That’s why story hours have continued to thrive, including throughout Central Florida and Tampa Bay, and why Watermark spoke with some of the Sunshine State’s most enchanting storytellers.
The LGBT+ Center in Orlando has operated since 1978, making it one of the oldest LGBTQ safe spaces in the nation. Throughout its history, the organization has fought discrimination and strengthened Central Florida by providing services that educate and entertain the LGBTQ community and its allies. That’s why Executive Director George Wallace knew DQSH was a perfect addition to their programming.
“Our mission is to promote and empower our community through information, education, advocacy and support,” Wallace says. “We’re a community center and our doors are open to everyone. All of the books we read focus on diversity and inclusion. They’re messages of love.”
The Center’s DQSH began in partnership with the Orlando Fringe Festival’s family-friendly Kids Fringe in 2018. The gathering was led by Central Florida drag performer and 12-year Parliament House entertainer Gidget Galore to community and critical acclaim.
In researching ways to bring readings to The Center, Wallace discovered a $3,000 grant from the City of Orlando that was focused on children. “We knew we wanted to do Story Hour with or without the grant, but we applied for it and got it. We use the money to buy books for every child that attends,” he explains. “When I was thinking of who would be perfect to read, the first person I thought of was Gidget who was such a hit at Fringe. I called her and she was ecstatic.”
The Center hosted its first reading March 21. “The Center is a safe space, it’s a home,” Galore says. “George wrote the grant so that every child that comes to ours receives both books that I read and it’s amazing. They can share them with their friends and families—just to see a city that will do that for us is absolutely incredible.”
Galore believes the gatherings will only grow, especially with Orlando’s inclusive nature and commitment to the arts. “I’m so grateful to live in a city and to have a mayor that is so accepting of an idea like this,” she says. “There aren’t a lot of people here who have a problem with this, but there are some that do. We’ve had protesters.”
The picketers outside did little to affect the mood inside. “We’re here for a very short time on this earth,” Galore says. “I choose to use my time in a positive and productive way to spread love and acceptance, finding joy and happiness. I’ve always found the silver lining in everything.
“The reception from the kids is always overwhelming joy,” she continues. “I feel like a birthday clown sometimes, because I am so over the top. I wear a lot of costumes that have big, bold prints. I think they see that and it just makes them happy. There’s not a frown in the room.”
“I don’t understand where their hate comes from,” Wallace says of DQSH’s detractors. “What are they protesting? We’re reading stories about acceptance to children, and isn’t acceptance one of the first things you learn in church? We’re relaying messages of diversity and inclusion.”
They’re messages that attendees return in kind. “At the end of our first reading, for the first time I asked the children if they had any questions for me,” Galore recalls. “The hands went up around the room and I thought, ‘okay, buckle up, here we go.’”
The children had no questions about her appearance or why a drag queen was reading to them, she explains. They just wanted to know if she had ever owned a pet fish, if she had cats and if so, what their names were.
“They wanted to know about my personal pet life because I had puppies on my dress,” she laughs. “It was so great, we had so much fun. I just had everyone give themselves a big round of applause and then asked them to do it again for their guardians or parents. It made my heart so full to see that room full of happy smiles.”
The performer is excited for the future, with story hours strategically scheduled throughout the school year during breaks. “I can’t wait for the next one,” Galore adds. “And the next one. And the next one.”
DQSH Tampa Bay began with pride and prejudice—literally, not the book. The gathering was proudly held Sept. 29, 2018 at Community Café in St. Petersburg’s Grand Central District, affectionately referred to as “The Gayborhood,” but dwarfed by protesters from the religious right.
“We’re in the gay district in a gay-friendly city, so it caught us by surprise,” cafe owner Mandy Keyes recalls. “It just completely blindsided us; we had no idea anything like that was even possible. We just thought Story Hour was a cute idea.”
The area’s longstanding LGBTQ support was what ledevent founders Adira Elham and Sonny Stewart to initially approach Keyes to host. They’ve since left the reins to drag performer Samaya Sinsation, who attended the inaugural reading beside storyteller Dixie Lynn Michaels.
Their second event was held in a nearby library, a public space that allowed the protesters who followed to enter. It prompted Sinsation to return to the café, which she sees as a better fit. “I love it there,” she says. “It’s more like a home; the kids can spread out and have fun.”
“We don’t have a lot of room but we don’t need much,” Keyes says. “We’re helping kids see other types of people and it’s heartwarming that they’re so engaged. It’s so important that the next generation of kids is able to love and accept themselves and others who are different than they are.”
As an Assigned Female at Birth (AFAB) queen who identifies as nonbinary, Sinsation has a firm grasp of the diverse drag scene found in Tampa Bay. That’s why she rotates storytellers monthly. “There are so many different styles and queens,” she explains. “I like to switch it up. But even when I’m not reading I’m still there, crafting and talking with the kids. I’m passionate about literature and drag so it’s basically my dream come true.”
Another unexpected hurdle of hosting DQSH came from the district itself, Keyes adds. The Grand Central District Association (GCDA), the nonprofit which promotes the area’s economic revitalization, noted in a letter ahead of DQSH Tampa Bay’s March 23 reading that while they support the gathering, more “efforts should be taken to minimize the impact of potential protesters on the surrounding businesses.”
The district advised that the café’s “neighbors to the east and west and across Central Avenue on the north have all expressed a profound level of concern” about the safety of visitors and the potential loss of revenue that day. They suggested DQSH be moved to an earlier time to minimize the impact, “as early as 8:30 in the morning,” or moving readings from Saturdays to Sundays.
Keyes says to accommodate the district the readings were moved from 1 p.m. to 11 a.m., which she notes is the earliest area performers can partake. They remain on Saturdays as she believes protesters will attend in larger groups following Sunday services, noting also that participants may attend LGBTQ-inclusive Sunday services of their own.
The GCDA says it has worked diligently with Keyes and local officials to ensure visitors, children and surrounding businesses are safe, adding that their foundation is based on the inclusion and acceptance of all. “We want Drag Queen Story Hour to flourish in our community and suggested options that would help provide a safe haven for all,” they explain. “Our board members represent all district members and are always working toward supporting a positive experience for visitors and revenues for our businesses to assure their ongoing success.”
While the protesters have impacted business owners, they’ve done little to impact DQSH participants. “The love, warmth and connection found inside during the events is so meaningful,” Keyes says. “So many people come out to support and block out the hatred. It means so much.”
Sinsation agrees, thanking the parents who see past negativity to share diversity, love and acceptance with their children. “That’s really what Story Hour is about,” she says. “Allowing kids to participate is making such a big difference—for them and for the queens, many of whom weren’t accepted as children themselves. It’s healing in a way. Story Hour is just beautiful.”
PASCO PRIDE PRESENTS DRAG QUEEN STORY HOUR
Storytellers: Stephanie Stuart, VynSuazion
Photo by: Dylan Todd
Next Reading: Aug. 4
Location: The Paperback Exchange Bookstore
More Information: Pasco Pride
Miss Pasco Pride Stephanie Stuart begins her monthly story hours with words of encouragement. “I let the children know that if I can stand in front of them as a 53-year-old, transgender drag queen and read them a story, there’s nothing in the world they can’t do that they put their mind to,” she laughs. “Dream big and be who you are.”
The readings are presented by Pasco Pride, now in its second year, which exists to strengthen the LGBTQ community in and around Pasco County. The organization launched DQSH last December at The Paperback Exchange Bookstore to do exactly that. Stuart reads in her capacity as Pride’s reigning pageant queen and is joined by Mister Pasco Pride VynSuazion.
“We’re here for the community,” Pasco Pride President Nina Borders says. “We’re so excited about Story Hour. People didn’t think we could pull it off in the heart of Pasco but we are; we have such a great community support system.”
Organizers have turned to the area’s businesses for sponsorships, allowing them to provide attendees with activities, refreshments and leave with books. “We give away whichever book is being read, pump the kids full of sugar and send them home,” Borders muses.
Early support came from Joan Hepsworth and her wife, owners of the bookstore that hosts each gathering. “Everything that Pride and Stephanie Stuart are doing here in Pasco County, I just can’t even tell you how thankful and proud I am to be a part of it,” Hepsworth shares. “They’re helping get us to a place in Pasco where people feel safe, accepted and a part of a community.”
“It’s turned into this huge, cultural event,” Stuart adds. “We sing, we paint, it’s not just about reading the stories. And the protesters are outside, God love them, but we have counter protesters too. The leather community comes out to keep us safe and make sure we’re able to do what we do. It brings so many people together.”
That’s to the detriment of the protesters, Hepsworth says, noting that DQSH supporters stand in front of the bookstore to limit their interaction with children. “We’ve been able to trespass them from the parking lot but they stand on the sidewalk with bullhorns,” she explains.
“I’ve stood out there for a few hours and even though the protesters are wrong, it can still hurt,” she continues. “It’s hard to do. When you see them out front with their bullhorns, screaming awful things, it can be overwhelming. There’s such a contrast between how much love is on the inside of the bookstore and how much hate is on the outside—you have to shake it off afterwards, it’s a lot of negative energy.”
One protester recently entered the bookstore, offering to hold a “Christian Story Hour” in lieu of DQSH. “I told him he would have to go through a background check, which is what we do with all of our readers whether they’re a drag queen or not,” Hepsworth recalls. “If a person is going to be around kids, I need to make sure they’re safe. He didn’t like that at all.”
Stuart says that thankfully, participants pay little attention to protesters. “They’re not even aware they’re out there when we’re reading,” she notes. “Whatever’s going on outside, I know that when I’m sitting there with a book and I turn to see a child sitting next to me, wide-eyed and hanging on every single word I’m saying, that lets me know that I’m doing exactly what I’m supposed to be doing.”
The entertainer hopes that the love DQSH offers goes home with each participant. That’s why every free book includes a Story Hour sticker, her signature and an inscription asking them to keep reading.
“I didn’t get that encouragement as a child and I think that’s why it’s so important to me now,” Stuart says. “We have to keep encouraging our children because they are the future. They’re creative and they can do anything; there’s nothing that can stop them from doing whatever they want to do.”
The Lakeland-based Rose Dynasty Foundation has worked for years to bring DQSH to Polk County. The nonprofit—which utilizes drag to fundraise and cultivate family-friendly LGBTQ safe spaces to show youth they are loved—finally did so July 14.
“Everything we do is family friendly,” President and performer Momma Ashley Rose explains. “All of my brothers and sisters in the drag community, we’re artists, and entertainers have no problem working with youth. But overall they go back to traditional drag venues, back to clubs and bars. There’s nothing wrong with that but there’s no safe space for children.”
Rose created the foundation to change that, noting that youth are more interested in drag culture than ever, whether they’re LGBTQ or not. “It’s become so popular because of ‘Drag Race’ and other things,” she says. “I knew what we needed to do was to give them a safe space so that they can experience this type of art. Momma Ashley Rose and the Rose Dynasty Foundation allows children to be present for it.”
The foundation’s activities include a mentorship program, youth dances, Pride gatherings, dinner shows, a drag pageant and more, so Rose knew DQSH aligned perfectly with the organization’s vision. “More than anything we want to spread a message of hope, love and acceptance to everyone,” she says. “I know as a child I didn’t always feel that, and as a gay teenager, it wasn’t always easy. Now that we have resources and the atmosphere to be able to provide kids with these services, we want to do that.”
To bring DQSH to young readers she partnered with Venue Salon, where she’s also a stylist, and joined forces with performer and puppeteer Dave Ryan for some added flair. “I spent a lot of time researching other Story Hours and wanted to bring something different,” Rose says. “He’s created a puppet just for us named Bubblegum who is gender fluid and we’re going to share Story Time together. Dave and I started talking and we knew this is what we needed to do—we needed to have this special guest.”
Rose also drew inspiration from her icon Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, the musician’s program that gifts over one million books to children across the world on a monthly basis. Her goal is to read all of the performer’s books to children, beginning with “Coat of Many Colors” and “I Am a Rainbow.”
She also hopes to continue DQSH in Polk County beyond the initial reading, especially if it gains momentum and a larger venue presents itself to accommodate growth. “If we can do these monthly, I would be all for it,” Rose says, “whether it’s me reading or we rotate our entertainers that we work with.”
That’s because she believes Polk County needs DQSH. “Our Pride and our LGBTQ community here have really grown and come out more predominantly,” Rose says. “We just want people to know that they are loved, accepted and wanted no matter what—because whether we’re gay, straight or wherever we fall on the spectrum, we all know what it feels like when we’re not. We’re going to ride this wave out and see where we go.”