Drag queen story hour doesn't traumatize my kids — but the anti-LGBTQ protesters certainly could

Far-right protesters showed up at our library claiming drag is inherently sexual and damages children. I disagree

Published July 1, 2023 4:00PM (EDT)

Drag Queens Kelly K, left, and Scalene OnixXx read story book on the last Drag Queen story hour at Canyon Crest Town Centre location of Cellar Door Bookstore on Saturday, April 29, 2023 in Riverside, CA. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
Drag Queens Kelly K, left, and Scalene OnixXx read story book on the last Drag Queen story hour at Canyon Crest Town Centre location of Cellar Door Bookstore on Saturday, April 29, 2023 in Riverside, CA. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

For the past year, I've been holding my breath.

Every time I see coverage on drag queen story hour (even my liberal San Francisco Bay Area), I brace myself for stories of violence and hate. It's been this way since the sharp rise in hate crimes driven by anti-gay sentiment skyrocketed in 2021. Every time I watch these reports, I find myself frustrated. The media interviews far-right protesters, giving them a platform to tell the world about their beliefs. Some may interview the host or performers. But I haven't seen the media giving enough space to queer families and allies who attend these events and who want to talk about the irreparable damage that these protests can cause to our children.

This year, my family decided to return to drag queen story hour after a long hiatus during the pandemic. I had a conflicting virtual author event, but I decided to dial in from a library study room so that I could catch the end of the show–and be with my family in case the planned anti-drag protest became violent (as it has at many libraries this past year). During my online panel with the wonderful NYC store, Books of Wonder, I heard shouting. My heart racing, I turned off my camera and moved to the far side of the study room. I knew my husband was with our daughter, but I was terrified–wondering what was happening outside.

Once I finished up with the event, I ran out to find a line of nervous-looking librarians and a few counter-protester allies standing in a line in front of the event space. Protesters held cameras in their faces, yelling that they should be let into the room. A library manager told them that the library's conduct rules didn't allow for filming people against their consent — in particular, children. The protesters didn't listen. They moved closer. They yelled that the library was grooming their children. They accused the librarians of allowing child molestation. Taking a deep breath, I joined the line with the librarians.

Shouting hate speech and detailing horrific acts against children was referred to as peaceful.

I want to explain what this was like to face but, first, let me explain who I am. In addition to being a librarian myself, I am a queer woman. I am also a middle-grade author ("Drew Leclair Gets a Clue" and "Drew Leclair Crushes the Case"). This spring, I found out that a group was trying to get my first book banned for "age-inappropriate" LGBTQ+ content in an Alabama public library. My seventh-grade main character, Drew, has crushes on both "boy and girl characters" in film, but thinks kissing and holding hands are akin to exchanging a snotty tissue. The only thing that separated my book from others on the shelf was its appearance on the American Library Association's Rainbow Booklist.

For some, the mere presence of a queer character is damaging to youth. This fits with a pattern of these protesters. Where they claim sexually explicit material, there is often merely a book containing gay characters or explaining that families can look different. Many of these book banners will cite content in LGBTQ+ books that are clearly labeled as for teens or adults, but they do so while holding a copy of "Pride Puppy" or "And Tango Makes Three." This misdirection is only paving the way for more confusion, and more violence.

A similar misdirection happens with drag. While far-right protesters like the ones I was facing that day claim that drag is inherently sexual, I would disagree. I've attended drag queen story hour with my child before. Our experience was what can only be described as wholesome: A person in a pretty outfit reading a picture book. The drag queen might wear a tight outfit, but nothing that a child wouldn't see on a cheerleader at a football game. This argument also ignores the many art forms that have varying levels of content. Adult drag shows can contain kink, yes. But so can movies and television shows. So can musical theater, for that matter. Yet, I don't often see parents in Times Square protesting "The Lion King" because of the content of "Avenue Q."

When I stepped into line with the librarians, wondering what was happening with my husband and daughter inside, I felt angry. Who were these people and why were they trying to film my child? However, as they continued to yell hate speech, I also got scared. They shouted that we were protecting pedophiles. That we were grooming children. They asked why we were targeting kids for sex shows. They shouted slurs. All the while, they held up phones, filming us even when we repeatedly asked them to stop.

When the police showed up, one protester got specific, yelling that there was a naked man inside molesting kids as we stood there. The crowd yelled in support. Shaking, I turned to one of the librarians and asked, "Did the kids hear them say this?" She shrugged her shoulders, red-eyed.

Eventually, the library cleared the families and performers from where we had hidden them in the staff room in the back. Reunited with my family, I held my daughter, who asked, "Mom, why were those people so mad? It was fun." I said I didn't know.

"I was really scared," she told me after that. "They scared me."

I still don't know if my seven-year-old daughter heard anything they said, or if she knows enough to ask. The news later that night framed the event as "mostly peaceful." Shouting hate speech and detailing horrific acts against children was referred to as peaceful.

Right now, librarians are being threatened with jail time all over this country to defend the First Amendment, so I know a bit about it. And, yes, hate speech without the inciting of violence is protected under that law. However, just because it's protected doesn't mean that the speech is right. Hate speech is not protection. Filming children without their or their parents' consent is not protection. Using harmful tropes and lies to spread fear isn't protection. If my daughter caught even a sliver of what those people said, she knows more about sexual acts than I or any drag queen have ever exposed her to.

So, I will exercise my own free speech today by saying this: The speech used in these protests cause real harm to children. And I will not be silent about it. I hope you won't be, either.

By Katryn Bury

Katryn Bury is the author of the middle grade mystery "Drew Leclair Gets a Clue" and the sequel "Drew Leclair Crushes the Case." A lifelong true crime nerd, she has a bachelor’s degree in sociology and criminology. Her short and serialized fiction can be found in Suspense Magazine and The Sleuth. By day, she is a library technician who is lucky enough to work with her target audience. She lives in Oakland, California, with her family and a vast collection of Nancy Drew mysteries.

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Anti-lgbtq Books Drag Queen Story Hour Essay Lgbtq Libraries Parenting