BY DAVID DANIEL
Dear Los Alamos,
Greetings and salutations from your very own drag queen of record, reigning supreme, and everyone’s fiercest Auntie, Leona La’Roux. I’m writing you all a nice little note today to help some of you out in your struggles to integrate the fabulousness of drag into the otherwise ordinary day to day of your life, especially your family life, and most especially into the experience of your children.
I understand, truly I do, why some people might have a little “record scratch” when they hear “Drag Queen” and “Children’s Story Hour” in the same breath. After all, for actual centuries now, the fine art of Drag has been the gold star standard in adult entertainment across the globe. Indeed, many of my sisters are filthy, freaky, fantastic performers who can bring a house DOWN…just probably better it weren’t a schoolhouse…right?
And if the depth of your understanding of drag is limited only to these legendary echoes, I can forgive you for not knowing why a Drag Queen is EXACTLY the person you want around your children. So here I have compiled a list of bad arguments and good counterpoints, for your education and empowerment on the subject of Drag, children, and the beautiful power of self expression.
Gays are gross and women are for f……reproduction.
This is the first and foremost ugliness that underpins most of the arguments you will ever hear about Drag being “inappropriate” for children. If you break down most of the objections people have to drag queens around children if involves fundamentally these two positions: queerness is too dirty for children, and women are most importantly of all a sacred receptacle for reproductive power. (I do not think these things). Now, these positions are IMPLICIT, meaning just like racist ideas, sometimes very well meaning people can have these views without KNOWING they have these views. And that situation is neither a condemnation nor an excuse. It simply means implicit views are hard to spot, especially when they fit nicely into the status quo. The usual objection to drag queen story hour for children is that children should not be exposed to “inappropriate” material. But when you break down the claim to its simplest form, what the objection seems to be is that gayness is somehow something that doesn’t get to exist until adulthood (again, because it is icky), and that women and their various accoutrements are supposed to be for reproduction, and therefore displaying these patterns of gendered expression is a fundamentally sexual act, one that disrespects women when displayed by a non-womb haver.
OBVIOUSLY we aren’t discussing here the ignorant view that a drag queen should be able to death drop into a kindergarten classroom dressed in a pearl string bikini and twerk on little Timmy. That would be ridiculous, and if you think that’s what’s happening, then as we might say in the South, bless your heart, sugar. No one is arguing that a Drag queen should be held to any different standard than anyone we trust to be around our children. Nor are we suggesting our gatekeepers (in this case our frankly sainted Librarians) have somehow lost their mind, seduced by the hypnotic stare of a man with glue on his eyebrows, and been bamboozled into allowing their children’s reading nook to become a queer strip club.
We agree, I think, that there ARE in fact some things which are not age appropriate for children to know. Just as we agree there is language that is inappropriate for children, and some ideas that are too complex or nuanced to present to them especially in a PICTURE BOOK format.
However, if the objection you have is to the very IDEA that some people, even when adults, play dress up and like to be both silly and satisfied with what they choose to put on their bodies, then I’d like to introduce you to any four year old on the planet, who immediately understands this.
Drag is about pretending to be a woman
This is another common misconception I see flying around about Drag Queens in general. The idea is that Drag is about “pretending” to be a woman, and therefore, is somehow inherently disrespectful to women. Again, I will direct you to my first point for why the idea of a man dressing as a woman is NOT fundamentally disrespectful to women. But I also thought it was important to mention that Drag is not a monolith. There are as many reasons for dressing in Drag as there are courageous beings dressing in Drag. Yes, there are some people within the Drag aesthetic for whom presenting as an ideal of feminine beauty, or a caricature of our cultural conceptions of womanhood is the goal. And those Queens are valid. But there are spooky queens, who dress up in what society thinks of as scary ways. There are camp queens, who dress as funny characters poking fun at the fringes of society. There are art queens who dress up as works of beauty, wonder, and bizarreness with no desire to appear human at all. And there are some Queens who just dress in what makes them feel powerful with no goal at all beyond fierceness (and slay, babies, slay).
But Drag is not now, nor has it ever been the same as transgender expression or transvestite expression (and if you don’t know the difference between all three of THOSE things, then you my friend needed a Drag Queen Story Hour as a child).
OBVIOUSLY we are NOT talking about having the same Queens who hyper exaggerate the sexual characteristics of their presentations go in and provide childcare to toddlers. No one thinks that it is appropriate to have g-strings and pasties present with juice and crackers. And if you THINK that is what anyone here is arguing for then, as I may have mentioned we often say in the South, bless your heart, sugar.
Drag is, at its heart, about self expression and empowerment. Yes, the most common interpretation of this is people we think of as men, dressing up in clothing we usually associate with women. But it isn’t fundamentally about gender and never has been. DRAG is about power, acceptance, and reclaiming the unjustly forbidden. While it would be impossible to trace an ORIGIN of Drag because it is an evolution of traditions so old as to predate even oral histories, we CAN identify the norms of Drag as it exists in modern western civilization. And when we think of Drag, the earliest queens spoke not of gender, but of beauty. They didn’t want to be viewed as women, rather, they instinctively felt that the presentation of women was the presentation of DESIRE (again, see point one), and in a society that did not reflect their value at all, queer people began to adopt these symbols of desire as a way of declaring themselves worthy of love and attention. It isn’t their fault that the implicit biases I talked about earlier meant that western civilization coded the genders the way that it did (again, see POINT ONE), but they knew that dressing up with the forbidden felt powerful and exciting and like claiming an ineffable “selfness”.
You know who else instinctively understands the power of dress up, especially in the forbidden areas of life like say, I don’t know, Mom and Dad’s closet? That’s right! Children understand this. They understand that how we dress conveys what is important to us, and what we value and like about ourselves. They, of course, couldn’t ARTICULATE it. But that’s WHAT DRAG QUEEN STORY HOUR IS FOR! And the benefit of exposing your children to ADULTS who have retained this sacred childhood knowledge, is that they TOO might one day survive their upbringing with precious wisdom from their earliest years still intact, because they have seen an example of an adult who can serve as a blueprint.
Drag, and the idea of Queeness in general, is just not AGE APPROPRIATE for Children
This one is probably the one I find even well-meaning and generally accepting people can sometimes get tripped up on, and because they stumble on this, they often feel susceptible to the rest of the false arguments that accompany this one (and again, I’ll direct you to points one and two for those arguments). Essentially, they can’t quite disagree that there is something that feels…adult…about identity and especially queer identities, and that maybe while kids should definitely be exposed to it when appropriate, they don’t NEED to know about these things until they need to know. As in, we’ll get to it when we get to it.
Except: queerness is the only form of so-called adult knowledge that does not have an age appropriate echo in childhood. From their very earliest days children are exposed to the mores and norms of heterosexual relationships and gender binary. From holding hands and kissing, to equitable division of household tasks while playing house, to which toys are for boys and which toys are for girls, children are SUFFUSED with grade level digestible tidbits of what their adult life will hold for them. And this IS NORMAL. It is the way in which we show children what they need to know BEFORE they need to know it. It’s in our best interest to socialize our children into the customs and traditions of our society, and to begin to teach them who they are, and what people like them are good for. That’s healthy. People, in general, WANT to know what they are supposed to do and be. And they want this from their earliest possible cognitions. Even NURSERIES full of infants will begin to develop patterns and culture, babies cry or don’t at the same things, babies sleep or don’t at the same times. It is human nature to want to be part of the group.
OBVIOUSLY we are NOT talking about bringing five year olds in to sit down for a detailed lecture on condom use. That would not be AGE APPROPRIATE. Just like it is ok for kids to know two people kiss, but probably need to find the right moment to really know what all the bases after first are, kids can know that queer people exist without sitting down to watch hardcore pornography. And if you think that is what anyone is arguing should happen, then as we say in the South, bless your heart, sugar.
The broader point I want to make here is this: All Queer Children are born orphans. I want you to sit with that for a minute, especially parents. Realize that you may deeply and completely love your queer child, even if you don’t know they are queer yet. You may have a dedicated commitment to accepting them no matter what. You may even communicate to them, repeatedly, that nothing they do or become can separate them from your love. And that is GOOD! But it is not sufficient. Because see, even if say, an African-American family was the ONLY African-American family in an entire town, children born to that family would still see people that looked and acted like them, be connected to people who had stories and traditions for people like them, and who could answer the question “What are people like me for?”. And you see, Queer people almost UNIVERSALLY report the feeling of being “different” and “alone” as children often from their earliest cognition. They know long before they KNOW. The importance of establishing for our society an AGE APPROPRIATE echo of queer identities in early childhood is that Queer Children will have the chance to be connected to others OF THEIR KIND much earlier, and to have a roadmap for figuring out that it is ok that they are different, and that there ARE others like them, and that EVERY kind of person has a place, a purpose, and belongs in our greater human family. This is the gift you may potentially give your children by bringing them to events like Drag Queen Storytime. And for those children for whom the so-called “standard” mold applies, they learn that people different from them have VALUE, and have wisdom that can inform their experience. And all children learn that we are stronger and better the more diverse we are. And maybe, just maybe, that ALL identity is a performance, and they have permission to put on a performance in their life that makes them happiest.
At the end of the day, do I think this winding missive from one small town Drag Queen will change the mind of anyone dedicated to misunderstanding me in the first place? OBVIOUSLY I don’t. I simply smile at those individuals, and as we do in the South, bless their hearts, sugar. But for those who know Drag Queen Storytime is important but don’t know why, or who hear the arguments being made by opposition and worry that maybe, just maybe, those bigoted views are right, and that this truly is one step too far, I hope my words can bring you peace. In the end, if nothing else, the reason Drag Queen Storytime is important must be this: every Drag Queen on the planet has children they love and care for in their lives. And it is an inalienable right afforded to everyone but queer people to express their culture to the generations that follow after. It isn’t our fault, nor can I explain why the queer family is born orphaned and scattered among all people and all cultures throughout all history. But I can say that as we work to improve our society, to refine what it means to be human, it is important to allow queer people to connect with those that will follow after. I know it feels transgressive, because it has for so long been taboo, just as there was a time when racially integrated schools also felt transgressive, because it hadn’t been done well before. And that is what we are seeing now. We are inventing, and wonderfully so, those small, age appropriate echoes of what it means to be queer. We are saying to the queer orphans among us, you are unique and valuable, and to the non-queer children among us, your queer siblings exist and are important. And perhaps, most importantly of all, we are saying to the queer adults that their identities are not relegated to nightclubs and seedy bars, but rather, for the first time perhaps in history, that we can be who we are and visible to EVERYONE in our lives, and perhaps, can experience love and acceptance from those people, even little people. Just like a hunter who delights in exposing the children they love (AGAIN, in an age appropriate way) to all the trappings of the huntsman like camouflage, safety orange, and trail mix, without necessarily putting a loaded gun in their hands at age three, so too can a drag queen expose the children they love in their lives to the things that bring them joy.
Y’know, almost as if Drag Queens, were in fact, whole people, just like you.
All My Love,
Auntie Leona La’Roux