Amid the upheavals, wars & rumors of war of the first weekend in October, 2023, there was a burst of light and fun and even joy, in one seemingly unlikely place — Alamance County, North Carolina. Let’s go visit it:
The occasion was as unlikely as the locale, by the historic railroad station in the city of Burlington, which was the scene of the ninth annual Alamance Pride Festival. It had the whole nine yards: tons of rainbow flags, stunning drag queens, and —yes, they went there— Drag Queen Story Hour— in fact more than one. (But, in truth, they didn’t really last an hour; too many other things to do — “Psst, hey: the Quakers have candy!”) Continue reading For Quakers, Friends & Others – A Welcome & Colorful Break From The Weekend Madness→
NOTE/Confession: Halfway through reading the “Explainer” piece below, a suppressed memory broke through the mind fog: that of my own drag experience; and yes, bowing to the current fashion, I’m going to spill the sordid details right here.
It was around 1990, on or about what the world calls Halloween, at a Friends meeting near — well, I won’t be more specific; they don’t need the exposure. We decided to have a party for the occasion, as an alternative to trick-or-treating; coming in costume was encouraged, and the outlandish was expected.
But I didn’t have a costume: no Luke Skywalker getup, no skeleton mask, or whatnot, naught but a stifled middle-aged imagination; what to do??
Well, I did have three daughters, and dressups were a thing, and somewhere we found a very plus-size dress, mostly red as I remember, and a fairly billowy straw hat with a sash. So, soon I was walking in the meetinghouse door, as — yes — a bearded lady.
And a bit more: the waist of the dress was capacious (and my waist, believe it or not, was then much less so), and a pillow was somehow strapped to my middle under it, to add a certain blushingly expectant air.
The ensemble thus made me appear not only ridiculous, but also insinuated to the more observant and worldly that sometime in the recent past the character had been involved in ess-eee-echs (Of course, I met all the knowing “Oohs” and “Aahs” with demure deflection.) So I think that now makes me not only a gender bender offender, but furthermore a Boomer Bloomer proto-groomer (try to say that fast three times).
Beyond the, um, couture, I had no act, no Shtick; the guffaws were reflexive and sufficient. Certainly I was not trying to be a “drag queen”; we were Quakers, after all, and had no truck with royalty. (A Drag Clerk? That is an idea which did not occur to us.)
The evening passed in what then seemed like harmless revelry. I think some snapshots were taken, and dimly recall one of me, the hat slightly askew, my mien mimicking a maid awaiting a blessed event. If so, one hopes it has been lost in the shuffle of the decades; otherwise, when I run for president next year, some oppo researcher is sure to dredge it up for an attack ad proving me to be an acknowledged threat to civilization.
In which case, I guess I could still move to Georgia, change my name to Herschel and run for the Senate . . . .
The art form has been cast in a false light in recent months by right–wing activists and politicians who complain about the “sexualization” or “grooming” of children. Opponents often coordinate protests at drag events that feature or cater to children, sometimes showing up with guns. Some politicians have proposed banning children from drag events and even criminally charging parents who take their kids to one.
Performers and organizers of events, such as story hours in which colorfully clad drag queens read books to children, say the protesters are the ones terrorizing and harming children and making them political pawns — just as they’ve done in other campaigns around bathroom access and educational materials.
The recent headlines about disruptions of drag events and their portrayal as sexual and harmful to children can obscure the art form and its rich history.
WHAT IS DRAG?
Drag is the art of dressing and acting exaggeratedly as another gender, usually for entertainment such as comedy, singing, dancing, lip–syncing or all of the above.
Drag may trace its roots to the age of William Shakespeare, when female roles were performed by men. The origin of the term is debated, but one possibility is that it was coined after someone noticed the dresses or petticoats that male actors wore onstage would drag along the floor. Another casts it as an acronym — an unproven notion that notes in scripts would use “DRAG” to indicate the actor should “dress as a girl.”
Drag performances could later be seen on the vaudeville circuit and during the Harlem Renaissance. They became a mainstay at gay bars throughout the 20th century, and remain so.
RuPaul took things a step further with his reality–competition show “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” which became an award–winning hit and allowed drag to explode in popularity — and into the mainstream.
IS DRAG SEXUAL?
Many drag opponents cite nudity in their objections. Every performer makes different choices, but drag queens often wear more, not less, clothing than you’d see on a typical American woman of the 21st century, at a public beach or on network TV.
Their costumes tend toward extravagant, sometimes floor–length gowns. Drag queens may use false breasts, wear sheer costumes, and use makeup or other means to show cleavage and appear exaggeratedly feminine.
The difference, performers note, is that opponents of drag see sexual deviance in the cross–dressing aspect.
Drag does not typically involve nudity or stripping, which are more common in burlesque, a separate form of entertainment. Explicitly sexual and profane language is common in performances meant for adult audiences. Such routines can consist of stand–up comedy that may be raunchy — or may pale in comparison with some mainstream comedians.
SHOULD CHILDREN SEE OR DRESS IN DRAG?
It’s up to parents and guardians to decide that, just as they decide whether their children should be exposed to or participate in certain music, television, movies, beauty pageants, concerts or other forms of entertainment, parenting experts say.
Performances in nightclubs and brunches meant for adults may not be suitable for children, while other events, such as drag story hours, are tailored for children and therefore contain milder language and dress.
Drag performers and the venues that book them generally either don’t allow children if a performance has risque content, or else require children to be accompanied by a parent or guardian — basically, how R–rated movies are handled by theaters.
Drag story hours, in which performers read to children in libraries, bookstores or other venues, have become popular in recent years. The events use a captivating character to get their child’s attention — any parent whose kid can’t take their eyes off Elsa from “Frozen” gets the idea. The difference here is that the goal is to get kids interested in reading.
Some children have performed drag at age–appropriate events. One 11–year–old who dons a princess dress and tiara was scheduled recently to perform at a story and singing event at an Oregon pub — but was downgraded to “guest of honor” after protests outside broke out into fighting.
“Part of keeping our children safe is allowing them to be children, to be playful, to take risks, and to be silly, without it necessarily meaning anything deeper or more permanent,” says Amber Trueblood, a family therapist. “Many parents are OK with children dressing as assassins, evil villains or grim reapers, yet they seldom take the costume choice to mean anything more than playful and fun.”
THREATS AND ‘GROOMING’
Opponents of drag story hours and other drag events for audiences of children often claim they “groom” children, implying attempts to sexually abuse them or somehow influence their sexual orientation or gender identity.
The term “grooming” in a sexual sense describes how child molesters entrap and abuse their victims. Its use by opponents of drag, as well as by protesters in other realms of LGBTQ opposition, seeks to falsely equate it with pedophilia and other forms of child abuse.
Perpetrators of the false rhetoric can then cast themselves as saviors of children and try to frame anyone who disagrees — a political opponent, for example — as taking the side of child abusers.
The objections are often religious in nature, with some opponents citing the devil at work. Threats to drag events, and story hours in particular, have increased along with the rhetoric. In addition to the protest in Oregon that failed to suppress one such event, organizers of a recent one in Florida did cancel theirs after what they said were threats from hate groups.
The threats are likely an attempt to scare parents into not taking their children to such events, leading them to fizzle out and push drag back into the closet, observers say. Some organizers, parents and performers have dug in their heels, insisting they won’t cave.
In another tactic to discourage attendance, drag opponents have been known to attend performances, take and post a video that lacks context, and then troll or “dox” the performer or venue.
One such video clip showed a profane drag act in front of a young child and framed it as abuse — though the child was with adults and the venue had advised attendees about coarse content, suggested parental discretion and required any children to be accompanied by parents.
Other undermining efforts include a false claim that a performer flashed children at a Minnesota library and another false claim that the head of the Drag Queen Story Hour organization was arrested for child pornography.
Despite some opponents’ claims, drag cannot “turn” a child gay or transgender, although its playful use of gender may be reassuring to kids who are already questioning their identity. That way, therapist Joe Kort wrote in a blog post in Psychology Today, gender–nonconforming kids can have “other templates as they begin to sort out their feelings about who they authentically are.”
Retired police officer and army veteran Jim Thomas drove to downtown Helena, Montana, the state’s capital, to provide what he considered a community service. On a Saturday in mid-July, he joined a vocal crowd outside a local LGBTQ-owned independent bookstore and began scanning his surroundings.
Ultimately, hundreds of people attended the Billings story hour as supporters, far outnumbering the roughly 50 protesters who lined the street outside the zoo with signs saying “drag belongs in a nightclub not in front of children” and “stop sexualizing our kids”. One woman’s poster made a sharper accusation: “We know the ‘+’ in LGBTQ+ means pedophile.” . . .
Jonathan Hamilt, executive director of Drag Queen Story Hour and drag performer, said the organization is used to seeing protesters stationed outside venues. But recently, far-right groups have begun disrupting story hours and other LGBTQ Pride events around the country, an escalation fueled in part by the national resurgence in homophobic and transphobic rhetoric smearing drag performers and queer people as child predators.
In June, a story hour in San Lorenzo, California, was thrown into chaos when a group of self-identified Proud Boys stormed the venue, claiming they were there to “protect the kids”. One man wore a shirt depicting a gun and the slogan “kill your local pedophile”. Law enforcement responded and later began investigating the coordinated disruption as a possible hate crime.
When drag story hours are targeted with that kind of hateful rhetoric, Hamilt said, the national organization sees no benefit in engaging in debate – anyone who is genuinely curious about the history and culture of drag can do their own research in good faith. The group is forging ahead with new reading curricula for kids and schools, and planning more events that seek to normalize gender and cultural diversity.
“People forget that this is queer programming. This is queer family programming,” Hamilt said. “And under heteropatriarchy, there’s not a lot of room for introspective or creative thinking or complexity … Anything deviant from that is deemed evil.”
Even if the protests and outright attacks continue, Hamilt said interest in drag story hours is unlikely to be deterred. If anything, Hamilt said, the positive reception of the reading events is growing.
“There’s lots of queer people and a lot of queer families,” they said. “And that’s the reality of the world.”
In the sometimes sleepy government town of Helena, population 32,655, the storefront of the Montana Book Company has for years been turning heads of passersby with colorful posters and cheeky political quips scrawled on a sandwich board outside.
In July, Helena’s annual Pride month, the store had a colorful LGBTQ Pride flag fluttering near the front door. A sign in the window said “bodily autonomy is a human right”. Another sign pasted above the doorway called for “solidarity” in yellow script, encircled by a sub-slogan: “We are all we really have.”
In an Instagram post shared with nearly 4,500 followers, the bookstore asked supporters to show up in solidarity. Owners Chelsia Rice and Charlie Crawford began sending Facebook messages to friends and allies like Thomas, appealing for their time and presence at the store that Saturday. And at two separate events earlier in the week, one of the scheduled drag performers gave Pride-goers explicit marching orders.
Crawford, 49, bespectacled and often wearing a dark baseball hat, and Rice, 44, with coiffed hair and a wide smile, have co-owned the bookstore since 2018. The two former educators’ passion for books and reading was what drove them to buy the local business. As flashpoints erupted in national politics, the couple says the store’s display of progressive politics has only gotten “louder”.
“I feel like we have more people come into the store saying, ‘I follow you on Twitter or I follow you on Instagram. I love what you all stand for. We came here because of that,’” Crawford said. “And then they buy books.”
The bookstore’s bold liberalism stands out in the reserved city of government employees, public school teachers and small-business owners. The city has typically been represented by Democrats in the state legislature, but is seen as less overtly progressive than Montana’s university towns of Missoula and Bozeman.
Residential areas outside Helena city limits, largely to the north and east, have gone red in recent elections. In 2020, former president Donald Trump won Lewis and Clark county, which includes Helena, by four percentage points. Trump won the state in both presidential election cycles with double-digit margins.
Despite its location in Helena’s more progressive-signaling downtown, Crawford and Rice said they have felt increasing blowback against the bookstore’s politics over the past five years. Anti-LGBTQ policies and rhetoric in Montana have become more mainstream since 2020, when Montanans elected socially conservative Republicans to every statewide and federal office on the ballot.
Last year, the first-term Republican governor, Greg Gianforte, signed three laws opposed by LGBTQ civil rights groups, including a ban on transgender women and girls playing on school sports teams that align with their gender identity. Another law made it much harder for trans people to update the sex listed on their birth certificate. After the policy was blocked by a district court judge in April, the state health department leapfrogged the court order to create an even more restrictive rule arguing that sex is a biological fact that can’t be changed.
The political turmoil of the 2021 legislative session made an indelible impact on many members of Montana’s LGBTQ+ community, and created a sense of foreboding about what may happen when lawmakers return to Helena in January.
Helena residents coming inside the store to disagree with their political slogans. The debates range from civil disagreements to vocal hostility. Other times, the opposition comes in the form of hate mail.
. . . In June, the negative response took a new form: a man came into the bookstore with a pistol strapped to his chest. Crawford and Rice say he repeatedly ignored requests to leave the store when Crawford informed him that guns weren’t allowed on the premises. Rice dialed 911. The man left before police arrived but made an unsettling impression on the owners, who described his actions as intentionally intimidating.
The couple had twice hosted Drag Story Hour during Helena’s Pride week, in 2019 and 2021 (the 2020 event was cancelled because of the coronavirus pandemic). Until this year, they said, there had never been any opposition or threats of disruption. But after the chaos in San Lorenzo [California], the man with a gun in their store, and weeks of publicized outrage around the Billings event, Crawford and Rice were on edge when anger about Helena’s drag story hour unfurled on social media.
In the leadup to Pride, they gathered their employees to prepare for the event. “We sat down to talk about who would be forward in store [near the entrance], what we would do if somebody tried to attack us,” Rice said. “We bought everybody mace and talked about how we preferred them to use it if necessary. We strategized because the national threat is there.”
Publicly, Rice and Crawford were wary of stoking fear among families and kids who were planning to attend. They were honest when customers asked about the threats, but always ended with an encouraging message to show up and have a good time. Internally, both owners were riding a wave of anxiety.
“Look, I’m kind of a pessimist. And I don’t have the greatest faith in humanity,” Crawford said. “I mean, the Oath Keepers and these Patriot Front people and these Proud Boys … they’re dangerous. They’re armed. And I don’t think they want to go to prison, so maybe they’ll try and keep doing the right thing. But I don’t trust them at all.”
For Crawford and Rice, the motivation to host Drag Story Hour isn’t about selling more merchandise or attracting new customers during Pride. As former teachers, the couple has tried to make their store as welcoming to young people and parents as possible. They don’t ask rowdy teenagers to leave, even if they never buy anything. They take notice when they haven’t seen a struggling kid in a few weeks: the next time their parents or friends come through, Crawford or Rice will ask how they’re doing.
Drag Story Hour, the owners say, is another way to make the store a safe and celebratory environment for queer and questioning people and their families.
“My experience growing up as a teenager in a town much like Helena was that I didn’t know anybody in my downtown and I didn’t feel comfortable staying in any of the stores, even if I had money to spend,” Rice said. “But I know these kids and I know their parents … It is truly a place where I think we try to surround young people with community that knows who they are and welcomes them.”
In light of that guiding mission, the idea that their bookstore could become a place of fear or trauma is one of their worst fears.
To make the event as safe as possible, Rice began reaching out to friends, including Thomas, to ask them to come down to the store that Saturday. Another veteran and patron of the bookstore, Kai Bauer, said he had no hesitation in agreeing, because of the special role Montana Book Company plays in the community.
“Not many people realise they’re so much more than a bookstore,” Bauer said. “They are a safe haven for a lot of young people … It’s a safe place for so many folks.”
The weekend of the event, Thomas and Bauer were among a handful of former law enforcement officers and veterans, wearing T-shirts, baseball hats and cowboy boots, who gathered to patrol inside and outside the bookstore. Thanks to the appeals from Crawford, Rice and the drag performers, the unofficial security crew was dwarfed by about a hundred local supporters.
As the event began in the bookstore’s upstairs gallery, a rainbow-clad crowd gathered outside, where police had blocked off part of the street. Local bartenders, retirees, restaurant workers and marketing professionals joined other Pride-goers to create a buffer around the store’s entrance. Someone started playing music from a mobile speaker, kicking off sporadic dancing under the early afternoon sun.
Inside, more than a hundred other people, including teenagers and parents with young kids, crammed together to listen to the Mister Sisters read queer-friendly story books, including Prince & Knight and The GayBCs.
On the street below, fewer than a dozen protesters, arms crossed and sunglasses on, gathered on the sidewalk opposite the bookstore. A woman took photos of the larger crowd across the street. One man circled between the two sides of the street with a hand-written sign suggesting the drag queens inside were pedophiles – he was often obscured by a bookstore supporter diligently twirling a rainbow Pride flag.
At one point, a protester used a megaphone to tell the crowd that the “sexualization of children” is “morally reprehensible”. Soon after he began speaking, Crawford drowned out his voice with overlapping blasts from a red airhorn they bought from a nearby hardware store that morning.
The standoff was tense, with both groups conspicuously watching the other. But the sizable difference between supporters and protesters seemed to embolden the store’s defenders. More than one person who joined the scene seemed pleasantly surprised when they saw the protesters across the street, wryly asking other supporters, “Are those the people we’re supposed to be afraid of?”
The conflict on the street outside was invisible to the attenders crowded inside. After the reading, Julie Yard asked the audience to talk about the themes of love, acceptance and community they heard in the books. Audience members took photos with Yard and the other performers. People mingled and chatted with toddlers on their laps.
After roughly two hours, the protesters packed up their bullhorns and dispersed, trickling into a bar down the block. The sunburnt and tired crowd of supporters began to thin, planning where to go before the day’s next Pride event. The drag queens exited through the back of the store to avoid any encounters with protesters. Julie Yard surreptitiously climbed into her husband’s car. It was only after she left that Yard, who had spent most of the day beaming to her audience, began to cry.
“I’m not a person who’s going to burst into tears in front of people if I can help it,” she said. Driving away from the bookstore, Yard said, she was “an emotional mess … in the best way possible”.
“Realizing everything that could have gone wrong that didn’t, and just seeing not only the number of folks that were at the event but the number of folks that showed up outside,” Yard said. “That is what got to me.”
She wasn’t the only one who felt overwhelmed by the show of support. After the protesters left, Crawford thanked the remaining attenders grouped outside the store. Rice stood at their side, crying. Later, the owners reiterated their gratitude in an Instagram post written by Crawford.
“I grew up in Helena,” the post said, “and let me tell you how much this place has changed. I felt truly alone here as a baby gay in the late 80s/early 90s and to see the support, and the number of folks who come to Pride events, the flags, the signs, homes with all of it up … makes me so happy for the young and new members of the queer community. I hope we continue to make sure they are not alone!”
Just as the outpouring of support affirmed Helena’s LGBTQ community, Crawford and Rice acknowledged the turnout also showed how much locals value the bookstore and all it represents – even if recognizing that popularity feels “braggy and icky”, in Crawford’s words.
“It just feels weird to me to accept that,” Crawford laughed. “Let’s have a space that people are proud to call their own … And if people want to come and support that and support us, I’ll take that all day.”
After the day of excitement, and getting his photo taken with Julie Yard, Thomas drove back to his home in Canyon Creek, about a half an hour north of Helena. He felt he had done his part, in his own way, to stand up for a group of people being bullied.
“I kind of felt a little proud,” he said. “Like I was on the right side of history. I wasn’t on the cruel, ugly, hateful side. I was on the happy, loving, fun side.”