Bigots and books and drag — oh my!

“Over the Rainbow — Drag Queen Storytime” at the San José Public Library in 2018. PHOTO: San José Public Library
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In my childhood I escaped every spring to a land of fantasy during the annual airing of The Wizard of Oz. It was a time to feed my imagination, to see bullies conquered and learn the importance of supporting those around us. The Wicked Witch of the East has now returned in the form of bigots attacking drag story hours under the pretense of “protecting our children.” That’s like going to a science class where up is down and one plus one is three.

Here in Seattle, I became aware of attacks on drag story hours in 2019 when an “Activist Mommy” and her friends with the help of a conservative radio show jammed the phone lines of King County Library System. The only way a library patron could get information on a book was to go to a library in person. At one of the library’s Drag Queen Story Hours supporters of the reading formed a “wall of welcome.” There were 300 supporters and roughly 75 protesters. This was a portent of things to come, with supporters still continuing to far outnumber protesters today. What I didn’t see coming was the escalating violence and the tangential issues the haters used to enlarge their field of attack.

Cowardly attack. Locally in December of 2022 someone fired a shot at a brewpub after far-right trolls organized a protest of the business’s monthly drag queen story event. I was fortunate enough to participate with over 100 diverse supporters to defend the story hour. We had a band, and there was marching, singing and celebration. I only saw two protesters and they kept their vitriol across the street. They had made their threats online and, I assume, had hoped a bullet fired at the establishment would be enough to scare us away. For many of us the message from the right was explicit and our response was “We will not back down!” What also became clear was that bigots prefer to stay in the shadows and are intimidated when people stand up to them.

That brings us to today where there is not only an attack on drag story hours but on storytelling and books in general. Stories are used to help us understand ourselves and the path that got us here. There is an old trope, “those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.” The right is not only attacking drag story hours but drag performers themselves and any stories that might enlighten children, or for that matter might educate adults.

Using that lens to look at the world it’s not hard to see the similarities between attacks on drag story hours and DeSantis claiming “Florida is where woke goes to die.” DeSantis may want the people of Florida to sleep while their rights are being eliminated but I want to put on my ruby slippers, tap my heels three times and say, “There are no people like those who stand up against injustice.”

We fight and win. Experience has shown that we must unite and meet these attacks face to face. One of the bigots’ absurd and grotesque actions is banning books such as And Tango Makes Three. It’s a children’s book about two male penguins raising a chick together and it happens to be a true story. Another attack is a new anti-drag law in Tennessee which could subject performers to up to six years in jail. And in April of this year the Missouri House Republicans slashed the entire state aid slated for public libraries. Ultimately the funding was restored but not without a struggle.

Neo-Nazis are showing up at events across the country specifically attacking LGBTQ+ affirming events. They spout anti-queer and anti-trans jargon similar to what Hitler used. Some echo his call to eliminate the LGBTQ+ community. However, these attackers are met with large and spirited counterprotests.

Activists point out that drag story hours are designed to build and strengthen community. Storyteller Bella DuBalle vowed, “if they attempt to tell me I can no longer welcome children into our all-ages safe space I will not comply.”

The right may state loudly and clearly that they are after me “and my little dog too,” but I am here to say I — we — have only begun to fight.

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