Drag queen story hours: pulling back the sequined curtain

Songs, stories, extra security, and culture wars

ON A TOASTY JUNE DAY, the tinkle of a ukulele and cheerful outbursts from children bounced around an unassuming Brookline library building.

Just a short stroll from the Chabad Center of Chestnut Hill, visitors entering the library walked past a Star of David composed of interlinked rainbow arms declaring “Together Against Antisemitism;” a bold blue sign bearing “Stop Asian Hate;” a Progress Pride flag; and a prominent “Black Lives Matter” flag. 

In a gathering room at the back, a handful of children stared, rapt, waving colorful scarves, as a peppy performer plucked a jaunty tune and sang a greeting song that asked for their favorite colors, animals, and ice cream flavors.

The opinions, coming from about a dozen kids all under 8 years old, were not terribly spicy. Chocolate ice cream had a strong contingent of support. Purple, green, and salmon pink alike had their defenders.

The spice came from the person singing: Patty Bourrée, the drag persona of Boston-based cabaret artist and educator Patrick Burr, who goes by “she” while in drag. Bourrée walked across a colorful alphabet play-mat in glittering red platform boots, her ruffled red satin dress swooshing as Bourrée swayed to the melody. A towering crimson ponytail topped an elaborately made-up face.

“Nice to meet you,” Bourrée sang beneath the fluorescent lights, a small pile of children’s books at her feet.

The children, and their parents and grandparents, were gathered in the Putterham library branch for a “drag queen story hour.” These story hours feature a drag performer singing and reading an assortment of children’s books, usually about themes of inclusivity and friendship, for young audiences typically between zero and 10 years old. 

Drag story hours first surfaced about a decade ago, but it’s only fairly recently that they have become a flashpoint in the country’s culture wars. Supporters see the story hours as an entertaining way to expose children to gender and sexual diversity; opponents see them as an inappropriate effort to promote nontraditional gender identities. For many, the story hours simply raise a lot of questions. Why, some ask, is it a good idea for men dressed in elaborate women’s clothing to read to young children? Why are children’s activities getting added to the list of political battlegrounds? 

Well, the appeal for kids, particularly small ones, is pretty much the same if it’s a drag queen, a princess, a clown, or someone dressed up as a pop cultural figure, their families said. But there is certainly an inherent political bent to the story hours. And that’s the appeal for attendees.

“I love the idea,” said Danielle Garcia, who came to the library with her young children to pick up a few books and attended the story hour on a whim. “And I think it’s important because they don’t have an opportunity to see this routinely. And I wanted this to be normal since the beginning.”

The drag story hours usually involve LGBTQ-oriented literature, Bourrée said, mixed in with typical children story hour fare like greeting songs and stories about friendship and kindness.

“I focus on it being an engaging, entertaining thing, and I think kids being around a crazy fun drag queen for 30 minutes is kind of it. That’s the political aspect,” Bourrée said. “I don’t have to push any agenda.”

Bourrée read three stories in between greeting and farewell songs – Oona and the Shark, about becoming friends with unexpected people; If You’re a Drag Queen and You Know It, a singalong to the tune of “If You’re Happy and You Know It;” and ’Twas the Night Before Pride, which tells the story of the Stonewall protests and the first Pride in 1969.

“If you’re a drag queen and you know it, say ‘yas queen!’” Bourrée trilled. 

“YAS QUEEN!” cheered the assembled children, with their parents matching and even outpacing their enthusiasm. Colorful silks flew through the air.

Bourrée’s selection of stories featured LGBTQ-positive messages and more general themes of friendship and acceptance. (Photo by Jennifer Smith)

QUICK, QUEER RISE

These musical story hours debuted in the San Francisco area in 2015 through the work of author Michelle Tea, a queer activist who really wanted some LGBTQ-inclusive programming for when she brought her family to the library, said Jonathan Hamilt, executive director of the national non-profit Drag Story Hour and co-founder of its New York City chapter.

“There were already these great story hours,” Hamilt said, and Tea wondered “How can we make that more queer? Well, just have drag queens read the books!” 

And that’s how they started: a rainbow-clad drag queen with a fuzzy top hat and angel wings reading books picked out by the local librarians. It’s a far cry from many people’s first association with drag – men in costume dancing and lip-synching to 90’s divas at a nightclub. 

“Drag looks different for everybody,” Hamilt said. “Drag is an art form that caters toward different audiences. For story hours, it takes a certain type of person who wants to wake up early and get into full drag at 11 a.m under harsh library lighting,” he said with a laugh.

Drag queen story hours jumped across the country relatively quickly.

The Boston Public Library held its first drag queen story hour in 2016 with Jujubee from Ru Paul’s Drag Race at the Central Library in Copley Square. 

“We were the first library on the East Coast to hold a Drag Queen Story Hour, and it was a very successful event,” Michael Colford, director of library services, said in a statement. The New York chapter opened later that year.

The intention was openly to provide a space for children to consider alternative ways they or others might express gender and sexuality, Colford said. 

“Children attending these events may be exploring their own gender identity, be curious about the topic, or simply want to enjoy a fun event,” he said. “The library is a safe place to do all of these things. We’ve found that some children may feel discouraged from asking about gender presentation in other areas of their life. Story time presenters are prepared to get questions on these topics, and address them in a child-friendly way.”

Brookline started offering drag queen story hours in 2019, library director Amanda Hirst said, after community members started suggesting adding them to the children’s activity schedule.

“Given Brookline’s progressive demographics, we always felt like the programming is a match for the community,” Hirst said. “And people a lot of times speak with their feet. You know, attendance is one of the things that drives our offerings.”

Paul Lauro-Priestly, a Brookline Public Schools employee whose husband works for the Brookline Public Library, visited the Putterham library with one of his granddaughters while the other suffered through a dental appointment. He looked on as she methodically colored in somewhat out-of-order but neat rainbows after the story hour. 

“I think it fits in very, very well because it exposes her to something she probably wouldn’t have on a daily basis in school,” he said of the story hour’s place among other children’s activities. “It’s an extracurricular activity that is informative and wonderful, and obviously she’s enjoying it. There’s all this [emotion] about being exposed to drag. Well, I’m sorry. That’s a hell of a lot more safe than a gun in school.”

“We need to give children a foundation of empathy, understanding, compassion, and above all else, love,” he added. “That is transformative, and it is a way of life.”

The first story hour year in Brookline was a hit with families. There was “great turnout, great community response,” Hirst said, before the global COVID-19 pandemic turned all in-person programming on its head.

Across the country, drag queen story hours “went fully virtual with Covid,” Hamilt said. Over the past year, story hours have been “slowly emerging” back into in-person events.

“We used to take them to story hours, pre-Covid,” said Amy Ng as she and her two children returned to the book browsing that initially drew them to Putterham that day. “But we did follow along a lot when Brookline did a lot of virtual programs.”

Like Garcia, Ng came across the drag queen story hour by happenstance and happily committed the family to half an hour of music and reading. “At this age,” she said, the point of a drag story hour is “exposure and you know, a sense of normalcy.”

Her kids, quiet at first, leaned into the musical prompts, considering what made them feel proud – “when you feel good about who you are and what you do,” Bourrée explained. Ng’s son, for the record, said he felt the most pride when he fully cleaned his room.

Pride month – an annual June celebration of LGBTQ people and recognition of their struggle for civil liberties – features a smorgasbord of activities through public libraries across the state, well beyond drag story hours, though they tend to be patron favorites. The Cambridge Public Library kicked off the month this year with “songs and stories about what makes each of us fabulous” in the Curious George room of their main library branch.

The Boston Public Library, which hosts drag queen story hours and other LGBTQ-positive programming all year, promoted the Brighton story hour as part of its 2023 Pride schedule.

Boston’s branches host drag story hours occasionally throughout the year, most recently in Brighton for a 0- to 5-year-old program. 

“What better way to celebrate LGBTQIA+ Pride than with a certified-fabulous drag queen?” the program announcement asked. “This family-friendly program will see kids singing and dancing as their hearts open and their learning grows.”

A somewhat grim note follows: “Extra security will be present for this event. We reserve the right to remove participants from the program should the need arise.”

Because it has not been all sequins and singing.

FORCEFUL PUSHBACK

“First few years, it was fun, scrappy and community-based, especially in San Francisco and New York City,” Hamilt said. “We were well-received, all of our story hours were packed, we had to do multiple readings.”

There was an expected assortment of queries and objections on moralistic grounds. More conservative or religious groups objected to children being exposed to non-heteronormative gender presentations.

“People did ask questions,” Hamilt said. “We’d explain our mission and they’d say ‘that’s cool.’ We weren’t met with hostility or opposition when we started. There were some peaceful protests – people praying across the street.”

The Massachusetts Family Institute, a non-partisan public policy organization that emphasizes Judeo-Christian values, is touting pastor-led story hours as a response to the drag story hours. 

The story hours feature “adult sexual performers reading books to children and indoctrinating them into harmful sexual and gender ideologies,” Mary Ellen Siegler wrote on the MFI site in mid-July. “Sadly, these events have been taking place all over the Commonwealth. And when concerned citizens call their local libraries to oppose these inappropriate events for children, they are told the drag queens are simply promoting diversity and inclusion. MFI speaks to parents and pastors across the state who often feel powerless to stop this insanity.”

Heather Hensman Kettrey, assistant professor of sociology at Clemson University, and Alyssa J. Davis, a PhD student in sociology at Vanderbilt University, analyzed social media reactions to drag story hours in 2021. The story hours, they concluded, fit into broader culture war narratives that can be particularly heated during moments of social upheaval.

“In our analysis, we found that many grievances centered on institutions and values crucial to the culture wars,” they wrote in an article for The Conversation this spring. “We found that conservatives reminisced about a time when their values were dominant in American society and rehashed old culture war narratives about ‘threatened children.’”

Drag bans and protests targeting drag story hours have spiked since the later Trump presidency and especially after the January 6 riots, Hamilt noted, which was when the drag story hour group “really saw the turn.”

Theories that drag performers have a prurient interest in the children that attend have been pushed across right-leaning news platforms. A Fox news contributor last year claimed that the story hours are “grooming the American public towards normalizing pedophilia among a very, very far left crowd.”

Hamilt believes that there is a dangerous conflation happening between queerness and predatory behavior because drag foregrounds unconventional gender presentation. 

“Just because there’s a space for queerness doesn’t mean it’s inherently sexual,” he said. “It’s just foreign. When people feel comfortable and safe in stereotypes, which can be scary and fear-based, it gets misdirected toward us.”

Protests at drag story hours across the country in the past four years have sometimes featured hostile and even armed standouts by protesters. 

A man who had been barred from a Houston library for his behavior at earlier events carried a concealed weapon into the library while trying to observe the story hour in 2019. After a story hour protest in Nevada last summer, a man wearing Proud Boys garb moved toward the library with a gun and prompted adults and children to flee into the building. Protestors and counter-protestors, some armed, lobbed projectiles at each other outside an Oregon drag story hour event late last year.

NSC-131, which is designated as a neo-Nazi hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, protested several drag story hours in Massachusetts and across New England over the past few years. The group protested outside the historic Loring Greenough House last June during a drag story hour featuring Bourrée.

“I was really nervous going into this year, because I had kind of some big incidents last summer that were pretty scary,” Bourrée said in an interview after the story hour. “I want to knock on wood before I leave, but I’ve had no encounters with any of the groups that protested during our story hours this year. Which is great.”

That probably comes down to luck more than anything else, Bourrée guessed.

“Well, other people have had incidents with the same group,” Bourrée said, referencing the neo-Nazi collective disrupting a New Hampshire story hour in June. “So I think it’s just a scheduling issue.”

The Putterham library entrance featured inclusive signage and not a single protestor on the story hour June afternoon. (Photo by Jennifer Smith)

Library staff in Boston and Brookline said they’ve had to take more care with the story hours, though 2023 Pride was largely without incident in Massachusetts. 

“From a safety perspective, we have had to alter our approach,” said Colford. “We now provide increased security at these events, both internally and externally. And we always ensure senior staff are present to deescalate if a situation were to arise. But we will continue to provide Drag Queen Story Hours, and similar LGBTQ+ programming, in the future.”

Not so in Fall River. Protestors last year descended on the Fall River Public Library after nine months of enthusiastic and well-attended drag queen story hours, which previously prompted only peaceful protest by the Massachusetts Family Institute. After two story hours drew such a commotion that police had to be on site, “we stopped having them, mainly because it was getting out of hand,” said Library Administrator Liane Verville.

Protestors told reporters at the time that drag shows and drag queens were “not appropriate for children.”

“I’m not sure what the change was, but it was intimidating for staff, intimidating for patrons coming in,” Verville said. Even with police on site and the support of the mayor, “we nipped it in the bud when we had to have a police presence.”

The local Pride committee has found an alternative location for the story hours, but Verville called the decision to end the library’s drag story hours after the January event “heartbreaking.” 

“Fall River Pride, they’re part of our community and we wanted to support them,” she said.
“I consider Fall River to be kind of inclusive, so I was surprised. It didn’t make sense. I think a lot of the protestors weren’t even from Fall River.”

Bourrée leads the group in a sing-along of “If you’re a drag queen and you know it.” (Photo by Jennifer Smith)

A SIMPLE STORY

Most drag story hours follow a similar formula. 

The children and their caregivers come in. They are greeted by a colorful queen, who sings a little, reads stories that are mostly but not all about LGBTQ acceptance and indentity, and then the children pop off, sometimes for arts and crafts. 

Parents and their kids flock to the drag queen for photos, thank them, and that’s it. Exposing children to different identities is the point, yes, but it is also an hour of musical childcare, parents said.

Meet the Author

Jennifer Smith

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Jennifer Smith

Jennifer Smith is a staff reporter at CommonWealth magazine. A California native by way of Utah, Jennifer has spent the last 12 years in Boston, covering Massachusetts news for a variety of publications. She worked breaking news in the Boston Globe’s metro section and provided courtroom coverage of the Boston Marathon trial for the international wire service Deutsche Presse-Agentur (DPA) while completing her undergraduate journalism degree at Northeastern University in Boston. For four years, Jennifer worked as a staff writer and later news editor for the Dorchester Reporter, covering her home neighborhood and the city of Boston with a particular focus on politics and development. Her work and commentary have appeared in WBUR, GBH News, Harvard Public Health Magazine, and Politico’s Massachusetts Playbook. She has co-hosted MassINC’s Massachusetts politics and policy podcast The Horse Race since 2018, interviewing newsmakers, journalists, and elected officials across the state.

About Jennifer Smith

Jennifer Smith is a staff reporter at CommonWealth magazine. A California native by way of Utah, Jennifer has spent the last 12 years in Boston, covering Massachusetts news for a variety of publications. She worked breaking news in the Boston Globe’s metro section and provided courtroom coverage of the Boston Marathon trial for the international wire service Deutsche Presse-Agentur (DPA) while completing her undergraduate journalism degree at Northeastern University in Boston. For four years, Jennifer worked as a staff writer and later news editor for the Dorchester Reporter, covering her home neighborhood and the city of Boston with a particular focus on politics and development. Her work and commentary have appeared in WBUR, GBH News, Harvard Public Health Magazine, and Politico’s Massachusetts Playbook. She has co-hosted MassINC’s Massachusetts politics and policy podcast The Horse Race since 2018, interviewing newsmakers, journalists, and elected officials across the state.

“I am proud,” Bourrée sang gently as the Brookline story hour wrapped. “Can you say that with me? I am proud. And if you have something that makes you feel good about yourself or makes you say, ‘being me is a blast,’ you can raise your hand and share what that is.”

A chorus of tiny voices joined in. A lot of them were very proud that their rooms were clean.