On a cold, rainy Sunday afternoon in February, dozens of families and children stood in line amid a sea of rainbow flags and conflicting signs that read, "Choose Books Not Bigotry" and "Stop Brainwashing Our Generation." They were waiting to attend Drag Queen Story Hour at Five Forks Branch Library in Simpsonville, S.C., organized by a local group called Mom's Liberal Happy Hour SC.
Several drag queens who were slated to read during story hour arrived in the roped-off parking lot to cheers and clapping, which temporarily drowned out the protesters yelling homophobic statements. "There's no future for homosexuality!" one protester shouted at one point, as shown in a Facebook Live video recorded by one of the event's supporters, Kim Williams. "If you're not gonna repent, you will go to hell," another cried.
Drag Queen Story Hour, a program where drag queens read picture books and other kid lit to children, has become increasingly popular over the past few years. The global nonprofit with the same name was founded in the fall of 2015, co-founder Jonathan Hamilt tells Bustle. The organizers started out by hosting events in progressive, metropolitan areas like San Francisco and New York City before expanding to other states and countries around the world. Other groups, such as Mom's Liberal Happy Hour SC, have also set up similar events at local libraries, schools and community spaces independent of the official organization.
For states in the Deep South, Drag Queen Story Hour events has been part of a larger sociocultural push to normalize LGBTQ+ identities and provide safe spaces, particularly for youth within deeply conservative states like Georgia, Louisiana, and Alabama, where bans on LGBTQ+ sex education and a lack of protections from employment discrimination make them some of the worst states in the country in terms of LGBTQ+ rights.
Nearly 500 people attended the Drag Queen Story Hour at Five Forks Library, Natalie Shaik, creator of Mom's Liberal Happy Hour SC, tells Bustle. The event made local headlines that entire week amid concerns about growing protests and crowd safety. Then, in late March, the longtime manager of Five Forks Library — a branch of the Greenville County Library System — announced that he was no longer employed there, though his specific role in the event is ambiguous. While it's also unclear whether he resigned or got fired as a result of the event, the ex-employee, Jonathan Newton, wrote in a statement that he'd been "forced out" of his job. "All I ever wanted was to have a positive impact on my community and do my job to the best of my ability," he wrote. "That's what I tried to do every day, including the day of the Drag Queen Story Hour." (Bustle has reached out to Five Forks Branch Library for comment.)
"The heavily politicized event... has become a springboard for a larger conversation around LGBTQ+ youth, gender fluidity, religion, and literary activism."
The controversy at Five Forks isn't an isolated incident. In January, the Tennessee Pastors Network caused an uproar over a Drag Queen Story Hour event at Putnam County Library in Cookeville, TN, which drew upwards of 250 supporters and about 200 protesters, according to Melissa Bean, lead organizer of the event and the local Middle, TN, chapter of the national Drag Queen Story Hour organization.
That same month, a Texas district judge struck down a lawsuit in which a group called Christ Followers accused Houston libraries of allowing what they described as "immoral, obscene" Drag Queen Storytime to take place, according to the lawsuit. But after news broke that one of the drag queens was a sex offender and Freed-Montrose Neighborhood Library staffers received death threats, the organizers decided to shut down Drag Queen Storytime.
The heavily politicized event — which many drag queens, parents, and LGBTQ+ advocates say ought be treated like any other children's literary event — has become a springboard for a larger conversation around LGBTQ+ youth, gender fluidity, religion, and literary activism.
Princess Mocha, one of the drag queens who performed at Five Forks' story hour, says the event shows children that it's OK to dress up for fun however they wish — that boys can wear dresses, for example — and encourages them to use their imagination.
"Being in the Bible Belt is all the more challenging, and if anything, we have to be here for our next generation so we can be the change that we hope to see."
"It embraces positive queer role models, and I would hope that it also tells them to look past negative stereotypes," Mocha, who goes by Christopher Cooper when not in drag, tells Bustle.
Hosting Drag Queen Story Hour in the Bible Belt, a southern U.S. region that's dominated by conservative Christian values, makes it a particularly important avenue for educating residents of all ages on LGBTQ+ identity, Mocha says, even if it creates controversy.
"Being in the Bible Belt is all the more challenging, and if anything, we have to be here for our next generation so we can be the change that we hope to see," says Mocha, who is based in Spartanburg, SC. "I had several children that never knew what a drag queen was and that's why the parents had brought them."
"We just don't want our children exposed to something when they are so young and so impressionable," one protester said at the Five Forks event, according to Williams' Facebook Live video.
But with all of the controversy that Drag Queen Story Hour draws, it hasn't gotten any less popular. There were several children that Mocha didn't get to interact with at Five Forks, simply because they had to rotate seating in the room to make sure the hundreds of people waiting got to attend at least part of the reading.
Drag queens and organizers both say that the event is having a significant cultural impact at the local level, particularly when it comes to teaching youth people about LGBTQ+ pride.
"Drag is a perfect fit for an event like story time because to read a book is the ability to try on a new character, and I think drag is very much the same," Miss Terra Cotta Sugarbaker, an Atlanta-based drag queen, tells Bustle. "I think kids connect with the concept of being able to express yourself in different ways, to explore different things and to try on something new."
Sugarbaker, whose offstage name is Steven Igarashi-Ball, grew up an avid reader and got her first job at the age of 14 at a public library. Some of her favorite books to read at Drag Queen Story Time include "Thelma the Unicorn," the "Pete the Cat" series, and Todd Parr classics. After one story hour at Ponce De Leon Library in Atlanta, GA, a senior citizen walked up to Sugarbaker afterward and said she wondered how different her life would have been if Drag Queen Story Hour had existed when she was a kid. And a mother told Sugarbaker that she was a role model for the younger generation.
"Because I'm a plus-size drag queen, she said I was teaching her daughter that beauty doesn't fit societal standards, and that you can define what is beautiful for you," Sugarbaker says.
Similarly, after the January reading at Putnam County Library in Cookeville, TN, a woman in her 20s who had attended the story hour messaged Melissa Bean, the event organizer, a couple of weeks later and came out to her.
In her message, a screenshot of which was obtained by Bustle, the attendee wrote:
"drag queen Story hour inspired me to "come out" as gnc [gender-nonconforming] and to my radically religious mother ... Didn't change her mind or anything fantastic, but I feel a lot better! So thanks for doing what you do ... I am all too familiar with the hate that gets thrown your way, just as a pretty average person in the face of impossible standards."
In her response, Bean said she was "incredibly brave" and that the local LGBTQ+ community supported her. Bean's hope is that LGBTQ+ children who attend Drag Queen Story Hour will feel empowered to be themselves and feel supported enough to come out however they choose — long before adulthood.
"Having it in the South is even more important to me because so many kids that may be in the closet think it’s OK to be in the shadows because 'I’m not gonna be accepted,'" Bean says. "Those are the ones that need to be reached out to more."
While hosting community events at the hometown library typically requires little more than an application form from an adult resident, even just reserving a room at the library for Drag Queen Story Hour has proven to be an uphill battle for several organizers.
Natalie Shaik, the organizer of the Five Forks event, says she met with the library staff beforehand, who initially suggested that they use Eventbrite as a way to register and grant entrance to attendees as a way to keep the event organized, since RSVPs were piling up. But the Greenville County Library System canceled the event, claiming that it violated its policy by requiring tickets, though Shaik says that rule was added after the fact. Bustle obtained both versions of the policy, which was updated on Feb. 11 — just days before the event was supposed to take place — to include the following:
"Meeting spaces are considered public areas within the Library, and as such, applicants cannot restrict or limit general public access to reserved spaces"
One of the drag queens scheduled to perform at the reading submitted a second application for the event, which was approved. In the end, even though Drag Queen Story Hour took place at Five Forks like any other reserved event, it wasn't considered to be "sponsored" by the library.
Public libraries are attractive venues for Drag Queen Story Hour because they're widely viewed as sanctuaries safeguarded by the First Amendment where anyone is welcome to read and learn. In the case of the Putnam County Library's story hour in Cookeville, TN, Melissa Bean said she booked a room, filled out the appropriate paperwork and made sure her event abided by the code of conduct — that is, no major disruptions.
"The library didn’t have a stance, and it’s their job to not have a stance," Bean says. "They just made sure my First Amendment rights were protected."
In Atlanta, GA, efforts to launch a Drag Queen Story Hour within the Atlanta-Fulton Public Library System were initially successful. Miss Terra Cotta Sugarbaker says her friends living in coastal cities like New York — where Drag Queen Story Hours were already gaining traction — had encouraged her to start one in Atlanta several years ago.
"Unfortunately, everyone that I knew who was a librarian was very hesitant to pull the trigger on an event like that," Sugarbaker says. "They just felt like Georgia wasn’t ready for that — that our area was maybe too conservative."
She was eventually introduced to Claudia Strange, the library system's public relations and marketing manager. Strange confirmed in an email to Bustle that she put out a call to local branches about hosting Drag Queen Story Hour and that Ponce De Leon was the first to express interest.
Finally, in the fall of 2017, Sugarbaker performed at Drag Queen Story Hour at Ponce De Leon Branch Library, the first event of its kind to be hosted in a public library in the state of Georgia. Over the years, other readings have also launched in the area, including Drag Queen Story Time at Posman Books in Atlanta.
The story hours at Ponce De Leon, which is part of the Atlanta-Fulton Public Library System, are now hosted regularly, about six times a year. Story hour audiences average 50-75 people every time, ranging from small children and their parents to teenagers and even elderly people, Sugarbaker says.
After seeing the success at Ponce De Leon, the manager of Alpharetta Branch Library — part of the same public library system — reached out to Sugarbaker about expansion. But after event planning was already underway, Strange informed Sugarbaker in an email obtained by Bustle that Fulton County had canceled Drag Queen Story Hour. (The Fulton County office did not immediately respond to Bustle's multiple requests for comment.)
"'I want you to know, my dad got hosed down with water hoses and attacked by dogs and rode on buses across the South so that a drag queen could read in a library.'"
The office didn't respond to Miss Terra Cotta Sugarbaker's inquiries about why the event was canceled, so she was forced to announce the news online to her followers.
For now, some groups — like the Middle, TN, chapter of Drag Queen Story Hour — are laying low by hosting events at private venues instead of the public library. Others, like Sugarbaker, are only sticking with the library branches that have been receptive to the event.
Still, Sugarbaker says the the historical legacy of Drag Queen Story Hour is not lost on her. "I recently had someone speak to me and told me that their father was a Freedom Rider in the south during the civil rights movement," she says. "He said to me, 'I want you to know, my dad got hosed down with water hoses and attacked by dogs and rode on buses across the South so that a drag queen could read in a library.'"
The drag queens who spoke with Bustle say they wouldn't hesitate to put on more story hours in the future if it means pushing a dialogue that helps children grow, have fun and learn that being part of the LGBTQ+ community is something to be proud of, not shy away from.
"If I'm pushing any agenda, it's an agenda for inclusivity, diversity, acceptance of all people and a love of reading," Sugarbaker says. "And I don't know how anyone can say they have a problem with any of those things."