How drag queen story hour became a battle over gender, sexuality and kids

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RENTON, Wash. — 

Late connected a Saturday day past month, a gaggle of children, ages 1 to 5, trickled onto a patio adjacent to a bar, sat successful mini integrative chairs, and waited for a big who was astir to motorboat a singalong to nan tune of “If You’re Happy and You Know It.”

Their parents and grandparents stood adjacent astatine nan Brewmaster’s Taproom, nan tract of a monthly arena that has go a halfway of ceremony — and contention — successful Renton, Wash., an different quiet Seattle suburb champion known for its Boeing factory.

After kicking disconnected her position pinch books astir Santa and snowball fights, Sylvia O'Stayformore led nan opus pinch a shout: “If you’re a resistance queen and you cognize it, rustle a kiss!”

A female and kid perceive arsenic Sylvia O'Stayformore sounds a book

Maile Murphy of Tacoma, Wash., holds her boy Briar Murphy-Simmons arsenic Sylvia O'Stayformore sounds nan book “Inch by Inch” during a resistance communicative hr astatine nan Brewmaster’s Taproom.

(Jason Redmond / For The Times)

“Muah,” nan kids replied, arsenic they mimicked nan adults, smacking their lips and blowing crossed their palms.

O'Stayformore has been starring resistance queen communicative hours present for much than a year, pinch fewer glitches. But connected this Saturday, attendees were greeted pinch a slash of portion covering a spread successful nan model adjacent to nan bar’s beforehand door, a reminder that personification had changeable up nan pub — quiet astatine nan clip — weeks before. In addition, location were cameras successful spot successful nan parking lot, a level of information antecedently chartless astatine nan quiet portion promenade wherever nan Taproom is located.

A close-up of nan model harm astatine nan Brewmaster's Taproom.

A close-up of nan model harm astatine nan Brewmaster’s Taproom.

(Jason Redmond / For The Times)

“What do they dislike truthful overmuch astir reference to kids?” O'Stayformore asked earlier nan reading. “What’s truthful bad?”

Over nan past 2 years, resistance communicative hours — featuring men who dress arsenic caricatures of women — person expanded into libraries, bars and schools successful almost each state. Some of nan communicative times characteristic resistance kings, aliases women performing arsenic men. The books scope from run-of-the-mill children’s titles to those pinch LGBTQ themes, for illustration “Santa’s Husband” and “If You’re a Drag Queen and You Know It,” written by a performer named Lil Miss Hot Mess.

But nan communicative hours are progressively attracting nan attraction and ire of right-wing extremists and blimpish parents and politicians, immoderate of whom insist that nan events entreaty to pedophiles. Armed Proud Boys members person stormed productions successful San Francisco and New York. Recent threats of protestation and unit resulted successful cancellations astatine an simple schoolhouse successful Columbus, Ohio, and a LGBTQ halfway successful Orlando, Fla. According to nan defense group GLAAD, location were 141 protests and attacks connected resistance events past twelvemonth nationwide — astir of them against communicative hours aliases brunches.

Protesters and supporters quadrate disconnected astatine nan tract of a resistance communicative hr event

Protesters and supporters of a resistance queen communicative clip arena quadrate disconnected successful beforehand of Old Nick’s Pub successful Eugene, Ore., connected Oct. 23, 2022.

(Chris Pietsch / Register-Guard via Associated Press)

Lawmakers successful 14 states, including Nebraska, North Dakota, South Carolina and Texas, person projected laws to outlaw resistance successful nationalist aliases astatine businesses that admit group nether 18. In Tennessee, projected authorities could require places pinch “male aliases female impersonators who supply intermezo that appeals to a prurient interest” to registry arsenic portion clubs.

The backlash comes astatine a clip of affirmative developments for LGBTQ communities. According to a Gallup poll, support of same-sex marriage is astatine a precocious of 71%. Congress precocious passed a bipartisan measure that codified same-sex matrimony into federal law. Drag performers and transgender icons are now acquainted faces successful TV, movie and music, and polls bespeak that a increasing number of Americans opportunity they cognize personification who is transgender aliases uses gender-neutral pronouns.

Even so, dozens of bills person been projected this twelvemonth connected nan authorities level to restrict nan expertise of transgender group to update their IDs, usage bathrooms, subordinate sports teams aliases person aesculapian attraction that aligns pinch their gender.

For nan resistance queens adjacent doorway — galore of whom grew up closeted, started their careers astatine seedy bars and now relish nan chance to beryllium connected shape successful bookstores and java shops — it tin consciousness for illustration nan timepiece has been turned backmost to an earlier era. For their opponents, nan maturation of resistance is another chapter successful a conflict betwixt alleged accepted Americans and what conservatives deride arsenic nan “woke left.”

O'Stayformore wants thing to do pinch immoderate of that. She conscionable wants to publication books to kids.

Her look — a beehive blonde wig, arched eyebrows, black-rimmed glasses, dense caked-on makeup, agleam reddish lipstick and a teacher’s smock printed pinch a shape of rainbow bingo boards — suggests eccentric 1960s librarian meets Ms. Frizzle. It’s an artistic she’s perfected complete 30 years of donning drag.

O'Stayformore applies constitution looking successful a mirror

Sylvia O'Stayformore applies constitution successful her basement arsenic she prepares for a resistance communicative hr successful Renton, Wash.

(Jason Redmond / For The Times)

O'Stayformore puts connected a bra while preparing earlier a reference

O'Stayformore, who goes by Benjimen Blair erstwhile not performing, gets dressed earlier a reading.

(Jason Redmond / For The Times )

Growing up successful a Mormon organization successful Logan, Utah, O'Stayformore, who goes by Benjimen Blair erstwhile not performing, remained closeted until she was 21. It “would person been a dream” to person resistance communicative hours erstwhile she was a kid, she said, adding that it “would person helped maine truthful overmuch to beryllium myself. So I’m trying to springiness that to different kids, whether they turn up to beryllium cheery aliases transgender aliases not.”

She’s been a regular big connected Seattle’s resistance bingo circuit for much than a decade, performing astatine elder centers and vino bars up to 3 nights a week. During nan day, she useful arsenic a “senior sidekick,” helping clients tally errands, return medicine and spell connected walks. She started her sidekick business aft leaving a occupation arsenic an activities coordinator astatine a elder surviving facility.

O'Stayformore adjusts her wig.

O'Stayformore adjusts her wig while getting ready.

(Jason Redmond / For The Times)

And for nan past twelvemonth and a half, O'Stayformore, 55, has been doing monthly communicative hours for children astatine nan Brewmaster’s Taproom.

“I’m becoming a female of a definite property erstwhile it comes to performing astatine clubs,” O'Stayformore said. “Bingos, communicative hours? Those are overmuch much my gait and clip of day, honey.”

During nan caller communicative hr astatine nan Taproom, O’Stayformore publication “The Lipstick,” a colorful 2021 book by Laura Dockrill successful which a boy finds his mom’s lipstick and applies it earlier utilizing it to tie connected nan walls. His mother insists that he cleanable each nan reddish streaks — isolated from for those connected his face, “where lipstick belongs.” O’Stayformore besides publication “The Snowy Day,” a classical 1962 book by Ezra Jack Keats, astir nan adventures of a boy named Peter arsenic he builds a snowman, makes a snowfall angel and brings location a snowball that promptly melts successful his overgarment pocket.

O'Stayformore connected nan Brewmaster's Taproom patio.

O'Stayformore sounds connected nan patio of nan Brewmaster’s Taproom.

(Jason Redmond / For The Times)

Toni Bader, 44, and her wife, Alex LaRosa, 37, used to spell to resistance shows earlier they had kids, and they wanted to acquisition nan communicative hr astatine nan Taproom aft they watched a section news study connected nan shooting astatine nan bar. They brought Gabi, 1, and 3-year-old Gio.

“Gio has a flamenco dress he likes to wear,” said LaRosa, who lives pinch her family successful Seattle. “He’s gotten into lipstick. So we want him to spot things for illustration this and cognize it’s wholly fine.”

Maile Murphy was location pinch her 1½-year-old son, Briar. “We spell to communicative clip successful Tacoma wherever we live, but it’s conscionable immoderate woman who reads,” said Murphy, 28, who was joined by her hubby and dad. “This 1 is much fun, it’s much inclusive. For us, it’s astir education, astir diverseness and supporting a section queen.”

The gathering besides attracted critics.

During a Facebook livestream of nan event, personification scrawled: “Look astatine each nan parents who can’t moreover beryllium bothered to publication to their ain kids.”

Emails, galore of them hostile, poured into nan bar’s inbox earlier and aft nan get-together.

“When I was a woman successful nan 60s, we weren’t moreover allowed to SAY nan Q-word (queer)! Our parents loved america and did not want america to cognize what that connection meant!” wrote Cindy Bin, who described herself arsenic a grandma successful Illinois. “Now nan schools are pushing this onto schoolhouse children, and bars for illustration yours clasp ‘drag queen communicative hours’ for KIDS?? What is WRONG pinch you??”

A mini LGBTQ group formed to protestation communicative hours and all-ages resistance shows besides chimed in. Gays Against Groomers, which launched past year, has a fewer twelve representatives successful respective states who look connected power and TV to speak retired against resistance communicative events.

Three months ago, 29-year-old trucker Alexandra Chrostowski volunteered to correspond nan statement successful Washington authorities aft she objected to nan activity acquisition program successful her kids’ schools.

“I’m a cheery female and I’m being called homophobic for being against this,” said Chrostowski, who is joined to a female and has 3 middle-school-aged children. “I’ve been to a batch of resistance shows. I admit them. But why do you want to dress men up successful women’s clothing successful beforehand of kids?

“I don’t person a problem saying nan connection ‘normal,’” she said. But “being cheery aliases a resistance queen is statistically not nan norm. So past you are trying to publication books connected gender ideology to kids and get them to position nan world successful this radically caller way, concepts that would not person been mainstream until recently.”

“Isn’t location thing a small disconnected astir that? On 1 manus we enactment for illustration kids are incredibly naive to resistance queens astir them. On nan different hand, we are taking distant their innocence. So erstwhile we opportunity ‘grooming,’ we mean normalizing talking astir gender ideology and activity successful nan minds of children.”

Chrostowski, who lives adjacent nan Oregon border, didn’t be O'Stayformore’s caller reading. But she said she plans to be an upcoming communicative hr successful Renton to softly observe — without her kids.

Drag queen communicative hours started astir 7 years agone successful San Francisco erstwhile Michelle Tea, a queer author, creator and caller mother, couldn’t find immoderate kid-friendly book readings for LGBTQ parents.

Tea joined 2 colleagues from a queer arts organization, Julián Delgado Lopera and Virgie Tovar, to motorboat nan first resistance communicative hr astatine nan Harvey Milk Memorial Branch Library, named aft nan pioneering cheery activistic and San Francisco supervisor who was assassinated successful 1978. A resistance queen called Per Sia publication successful beforehand of a crowd of mostly LGBTQ parents and their kids. There were nary protests aliases violence.

The reference inspired others to motorboat their ain communicative events. Drag Story Hour, a New York-based nonprofit that manages galore of nan events crossed nan country, listed dozens connected its online almanac past year. Today, location are regular communicative hours successful West Hollywood, Eagle Rock and Santa Monica, among different areas successful L.A. County.

“It’s for illustration nan muppets,” said Tea, who is 51 and now lives successful Glendale. “Kids emotion it because it’s wildly imaginative. And adults emotion it for nan aforesaid reason. It’s besides gotten a batch much straight. It’s mostly consecutive couples now who bring their kids.”

The antagonistic guidance to resistance queens, Tea said, “is nary different than nan obsession nan correct has pinch captious title studies aliases ‘The 1619 Project’ aliases thing that’s not astir white, heterosexual men.

“They don’t want queer group to understand our beautiful history,” she continued. “And each this talk of grooming? Kids are now traumatized by having to moreover study that connection because of nan Proud Boys shouting it astatine them erstwhile they large wind these communicative hours.”

Fox News has regularly weighed in. Tucker Carlson precocious said that resistance queen communicative hours “indoctrinate and sexualize children.”

The communicative times person besides go regular fodder connected Libs of TikTok, an influential blimpish Twitter relationship that mocks what it sees arsenic governmental correctness tally amok among liberals while coating a image of vulnerable taste storms sweeping complete nan nation.

O'Stayformore hosts a bingo nighttime aft communicative hour.

O'Stayformore hosts bingo nighttime astatine nan bar, which takes spot aft each communicative hour.

(Jason Redmond / For The Times)

In 2019, a resistance communicative hr launched astatine a room successful Fairwood, a organization extracurricular Renton, that featured a different resistance queen. Armed members of nan right-wing groups nan Three Percenters and nan Proud Boys showed up, while media outlets questioned if specified an arena should hap successful a abstraction supported by taxation dollars.

It was short-lived, but, successful 2021, nan privately owned Brewmaster’s Taproom launched a caller communicative hr pinch O'Stayformore astatine nan helm. She relished nan opportunity to return a guidelines and prime books that she believes are due for children.

“You’re making these broad statements that resistance queens are pedophiles erstwhile nan reality [is that] nan pedophiles are nan group who look for illustration your husbands,” she said. “We’re not needfully children-likers. I’m not a immense kid person successful immoderate way. I americium conscionable easy approachable and a performer. I tin publication books.

“I do my naughty shows astatine nighttime astatine bars. I person shirtless men, go-go boys, a shape stud who comes up and inappropriately is grabbed by us. Kids don’t come,” said O'Stayformore, who has gradually shifted galore of her gigs to early evening bingos and nan monthly communicative hours successful bid to person a amended work-life balance.

She precocious considered nan anticipation of launching communicative hours crossed Seattle and recruiting resistance queens to read. Branching retired and building a unchangeable of performers would let her to beryllium down a small more. She’d get location astatine a reasonable hour.

But a friend who is besides a resistance performer discouraged her. “Could you spot anybody but yourself to do it correctly?” she asked. “We don’t request to springiness them immoderate much fodder against us.”

Alex LaRosa watches arsenic her son, Gio LaRosa-Bader, high-fives O'Stayformore.

Alex LaRosa watches arsenic her son, Gio LaRosa-Bader, high-fives O'Stayformore aft a reading.

(Jason Redmond / For The Times)

O'Stayformore took a agelong look astatine what she already had going. Her resistance profession was flourishing, pinch regular bookings each week. She was earning $400 for 5 to six hours of activity performing astatine a communicative hr and a bingo nighttime for adults. Expansion, she concluded, wasn’t worthy nan risk.

She’d already been pulled into a civilization warfare she didn’t want to beryllium a portion of — and didn’t want to extremity up further connected nan beforehand lines.