Need Help Deconstructing Gender Norms and Toxic Masculinity with Your Kids? Try a Drag Queen Reading Program
Written by Colleen Keeler & Brie Radis, DSW, MSS, MLSP, LCSW
When you hear the word “drag queen”, what comes to mind? Maybe you think of entertainment: fashion, performance, glamour. Or perhaps you’re reminded of the underpinnings of social justice and empowerment that are a key aspect of drag culture. Regardless, I’m willing to bet there’s one phrase that doesn’t come to mind, and that’s exactly what we’ll be focusing on: drag reading programs. If you’re unfamiliar, drag queen reading programs are quickly becoming a common offering in programming among public libraries, bookstores, community centers, universities, and museums. But how did we get here?
While some may view drag queens simply as entertainers, historically, they have transcended this role, with many using their platform to engage in social justice efforts and community literacy. For example, at the onset of the AIDS epidemic, an Atlanta-based drag queen troupe known as the Amorettes symbolized and gave voice to injustices perpetrated toward the LGBTQIA+ population and donated their tips to combat the epidemic and its stigmatization. Drag performances create a place to express freely, form community, encourage social literacy, and support social activism. Recently, these affirming queer spaces have extended to storytimes in libraries and other settings for preschoolers and school-aged children and their families.
Drag queen reading programs (DQRPs) shift the focus from a one-way performance about the drag queen to an invitation for children to explore individuality, receive positive messages on gender fluidity, deconstruct harmful gender norms and toxic masculinity, and appreciate difference with the freedom to express themselves however they want. In these programs, children’s books are carefully selected to highlight LGBTQIA+ representation and gender expansive themes, and participatory discussion is encouraged to help children and their families relate the experiences to their own lives.
Over the last five years, DQRPs have started popping up across the country. First popular in larger liberal cities like San Francisco or New York City, virtual platforms have recently expanded programming to more rural areas. That said, these programs can vary according to the venue, facilitator, and community environment. Some programs encourage kids to pick out costumes to wear during the reading, others utilize puppets to act out scenarios from the selected books, and others integrate singing and dancing into the programs.
Despite their good intentions, hosts of DQRPs across the nation have received a considerable amount of backlash and negative feedback, including threats of violence and legal action. Most commonly, DQRPs are criticized for the misguided belief that performers intend to discuss age-inappropriate sexual material with children. There is often the assumption that these story times would mirror the adult nightclub atmosphere rather than being family friendly. Backlash from DQRPs has included the firing of librarians, politicians, and board members for supporting DQRPs, and the creation of bills, such as Missouri’s Parental Oversight of Public Libraries Act, which sought to mandate jail time or fines for running DQRPs at public libraries. One event caught the attention of multiple national conservative groups, and a petition to cancel it was signed by over 17,000 people. Ironically enough, recent research suggests that the protests and negative discourse around these family friendly programs places children at risk for their safety and exposes them to hate.
Despite this backlash, there have also been counter protests in support of this programming. Those who support DQRPs recognize the important role that these programs can have in dispelling fears, widespread stigma, and stereotypes about difference, gender fluidity, sexuality, and gender identity. Certainly, parents can assert their right to decide what they are personally comfortable exposing their children to, but supporters argue that the community as a whole needs to be inclusive. Further, reception from those who have attended DQRPs has been overwhelmingly positive. A recent survey of DQRP attendees showed that over 95% of participants enjoyed the program and would attend a similar program in the future, and 100% of participants indicated that they would recommend the program to a friend. One caregiver noted that “this was a rare and welcoming experience.”
In addition to gauging participant satisfaction, Radis et al.’s 2021 study examined specific characteristics of DQRPs to expand knowledge of the modalities used to challenge cisheteronormativity — a pervasive system of belief that being cisgender and heterosexual, and associated ways of being in the world, are the default, and “normal” — of gender expression. Researchers noted how one performer utilized a storybook about a boy who doesn’t wear what is “expected” as an introduction to discuss gender pronouns, engaging the audience in a discussion that included masculine, feminine, and gender-neutral pronouns. Using puppets as a conduit, several performers offered questions related to the content of the stories, such as, “I want to dress like myself, but will people think I’m weird?” When such questions were posed, another drag queen reassured the puppets that their feelings were valid, with responses like, “wearing whatever is much more fun!” The performers used the final storybook, which told the story of a prince who fell in love with a male knight, as an opportunity to ask, “Is it okay for two boys to get married?” To this, the drag queen responded, “This is 2019, and yes, it is okay!”
At the end of the day, the intention of DQRPs have the potential to deconstruct harmful gender norms while creating affirming spaces, and emerging research suggests that they are doing just that. For example, research has shown that involvement in and exposure to the activities associated with DQRPs may provide affirmation for children and families with members who are exploring gender identity and expression by supporting acceptance, tolerance, empathy, respect, and inclusion. Transgender youth are at a heightened risk of anxiety, depression, and suicidality; however, when they are supported or affirmed in their identities, these risks decrease significantly. Additionally, anecdotal evidence has suggested that these programs have the potential to encourage imaginative identity exploration, social and emotional learning, and healthy relationship skills.
If you’re interested in attending a drag queen reading program, you can find a list of local chapters and events here. Currently, they have a lot of virtual programs live streaming on their Facebook page, so you can join in from anywhere!