Usually, being the mother of a toddler puts one at a disadvantage in the world of journalism. Long hours, travel and tight deadlines are all radically incompatible with being home at 5pm for the dinner and bedtime routine. The sudden interest in Drag Queen Story Hour, however, has made a child companion an unexpectedly useful accessory for journalists in the field.
Drag Queen Story Hour events invite children to enjoy a story read by a performer in drag. This summer, a touring group called Drag Queen Story Hour UK has brought the originally American franchise to this country and with it an American style of culture war – and British journalists have been eager to report on the action. But you can’t very well show up to a children’s event without a child. Enter my 15-month-old son – the Woodward to my Bernstein.
I should start by saying that we witnessed nothing outrageous at the Drag Queen Story Hour we attended. There have been several controversial incidents in the US over the past three years, however – some of which have been picked up by the mainstream press, including apparently incriminating images that have sparked outrage and debate.
[See also: Why the gender wars become so extreme]
Earlier this year, footage from an event in Dallas showed children handing out dollar bills to drag queens marching down a runway topped with a neon sign reading “It’s not gonna lick itself”. And last July Redbridge council launched an investigation after a performer at a children’s event held at Goodmayes Library in east London was photographed wearing a rainbow monkey suit with exposed fake nipples, fake buttocks and a fake penis.
Protests at these events have become heated. In the US, the right-wing group the Proud Boys stormed a reading in a library near San Francisco in June. Drag Queen Story Hour UK, meanwhile, claimed on 18 July that a “far-Right neo-Nazi group” had block-booked 2,000 tickets to try to prevent its tour from going ahead. Ten days later, police had to escort the drag performer Sab Samuels to safety after a group of about 25 protesters gathered outside a Drag Queen Story Hour event in Bristol.
When my son and I arrived at our own Drag Queen Story Hour event in a London suburb, this backlash was the subject of conversation among the cluster of parents gathered outside. The consensus was that the controversy was driven by right-wing media. “It’s all just a confected culture war,” remarked one mother, to nods from the others. Everyone seemed excited.
I had wondered if the event might attract a lot of same-sex couples, but looking around that didn’t appear to be the case – and among our audience the fashion choices seemed on the conventional side. And, despite the event being held in a very diverse area, everyone was white.
Our compère joked that the drag queen was late because vacuum cleaners were on sale in the local shop – the kind of sexist joke that would normally raise gasps in a crowd like this. We were all asked to call out the performer’s name and in she came. To my surprise, it turned out that our drag queen was a woman.
Adorned in a 1950s-style petticoated dress and high heels, with a blonde bouffant and exaggerated make-up, this performer was a “female queen”. (Female queens account for a small proportion of drag performers and are not always welcome on the drag scene.) She shimmied around the room, singing a song for the children. The experience was much like any other kind of playgroup. The only difference was that this playgroup leader had dressed up as a caricature of an airheaded woman obsessed with housework and looking pretty. Who, exactly, was this event for? What was its purpose?
In 2020 an American drag queen who opposes these events, and goes by the name of Kitty Demure, released a video addressed to “heterosexual women” considering taking their children to a Drag Queen Story Hour reading: “I understand that you might want to look like you’re with it, that you’re cool… And honestly you’re not doing the gay community any favours. In fact, you’re hurting us.”
Demure explained that these events function as a progressive provocation, a deliberate attempt to get a rise out of conservatives. It was inevitable that adding risqué nightclub entertainers to children’s events would result in occasional boundary transgressions like the ones we’ve seen (fake penises and the like), which would inevitably invite outrage. Thus the Drag Queen Story Hour phenomenon rains down fire on a form of entertainment that has traditionally been the preserve of gay men.
The point, supposedly, is to challenge gender norms, but the event we attended did nothing of the sort. We were a bunch of white, middle-class heterosexuals who had brought our children along to watch a woman put on a bizarrely exaggerated display of femininity.
Sitting in that stuffy room, I realised that this phenomenon has nothing to do with children – and everything to do with their parents. There is always enjoyment to be had in feeling deliciously transgressive while staying safely within the bounds of conventionality. Drag Queen Story Hour presents the perfect opportunity to do just that.
This article appears in the 17 Aug 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Six Months that Changed the World