We are the hosts and directors of Drag Queen Story Time, Trent Lira and Devin Will. Our monthly library program has become an inescapable topic of conversation, and everyone has a strong opinion. Some feel it’s a great way to promote literacy and acceptance; others believe it’s a form of indoctrination and sexual misconduct. Until now, we have spoken in interviews about our experience, but it’s time to speak to Houstonians directly.
When we launched Houston’s Drag Queen Story Time in September 2017, it wasn’t to much acclaim; mostly, people didn’t know we existed. Our average attendance at the Freed-Montrose Library was about five children. One story time around Christmas brought in a larger crowd, but on the whole, we weren’t particularly popular. And we didn’t care, because the families that did attend loved it. People from the neighborhood and beyond wanted their children to be accepting of others, and what better place to begin than the library?
Six months of programs passed, and we touched base with Freed-Montrose’s youth specialist. She liked what we were doing and was excited for us to continue. And so we did. For another four months, we quietly hosted our story times. Then came a TV news feature in July.
Blackberri, one of the drag queen readers at our very first event, had read to children at an unrelated story time at the Heights Library, and KHOU did a brief segment on that. We didn’t know the event had occurred until we saw the video being shared online, but we certainly don’t own the idea of drag queens and kings reading to children; cities across the United States host similar events. It was a pleasant surprise to see our friend getting recognition for her work.
As it happened, though, the segment coincided with a City Council meeting at which at-large member Michael Kubosh condemned our program. We got our first protesters that same month, July 2018. Texans Against Transgender Tyranny, they were called. They were peaceful and civil. No one inside the Freed-Montrose Library knew there were protesters outside until a patron came in and told us. It continued like this through August and September. It disturbed us, but what could we say? They were standing outside and politely informing the public that there were drag queens in there reading to children. It was their right. It was not a threat.
When Tex Christopher, Tracy Shannon, Chris Sevier, and Calvin Miller filed a lawsuit against Mayor Sylvester Turner and Houston Public Library Executive Director Rhea Lawson in October, the protests intensified. At that time, we gave the HPL legal department a comprehensive list of every guest performer, every book read, and every song sung. From that point forward, if any performers wanted to be involved in our story time, or if previous performers wanted to read in the future, they needed to apply as volunteers and undergo background checks—an existing library policy that, until then, had not been enforced in this case, an oversight for which the library has apologized.
The lawsuit was thrown out in January of this year, but the controversy has remained. Protesters and counter-protesters continued to show up in great numbers. Tex Christopher continued to come to nearly every story time, watching from inside the room and waiting for any opportunity to prove what we were doing was vile. We cannot explain how it feels to put on a show while trying to avoid the stare of someone you know hates you. Another protester was arrested after he refused to leave the premises at the January event. It was discovered that he was carrying a concealed gun (he had a license). The patrons of the story time began to express concerns about safety, and the staff of the Freed-Montrose Library were threatened to such a degree that some were reassigned to different branches.
This is when we decided, along with the team from HPL, that it would be best to temporarily move the story time out of the Freed-Montrose. Our priority was providing a safe and enjoyable experience for the parents and children who attended; the priority of those opposed to the story time was that we didn’t hold the event in a municipal building. This was, we thought, a good compromise. HPL would still promote the event on their calendar, and they would show up with a van full of books ready for checkout, but the story time would be held on private property. Kindred, a church in Montrose known for its support for the LGBT+ community, agreed to host us.
Our first story time in the new spot, which took place last month, was the calm before the storm. Very few people showed up to voice their dissent. We made plans to return this month.
Then, last Friday, the ball dropped. News broke that one of our former readers was a sex offender. She was part of story time before HPL started enforcing background checks for every performer, and hasn’t been back since they started. When Trent spoke to the queen in question this weekend, she confirmed that she had been convicted in 2009. It was devastating. We had insisted and insisted that what we were doing was safe for children, and yet here was a performer who had been charged with sexual assault of a minor. We didn’t know about the conviction prior to last week, but it would have come up if a background check had been conducted. It was a systematic mistake.
Everyone who has performed since October—including ourselves—has undergone a background check and has clean records. It is frustrating that the past conviction of a single performer now undermines the efforts of three dozen other drag kings and queens who have delighted parents and children alike with songs, costumes, and most importantly, stories.
The most upsetting outcome is the hate Blackberri has faced because of the controversy. She has become the canvas onto which these right-wing pundits project their hatred and fear: an African American with a beard and a full face of makeup. Breitbart.com has since misidentified her as the sex offender in question. It isn’t her fault. She has a clean record and is one of the most prolific drag performers in the city. She’s done nothing wrong. How could she have known, when we invited her to read a story book to a handful of children, that it would evolve into death threats and national scorn? How could any of us?
We have tried so hard to take the high road, to not stoop to mud-slinging. We have patiently listened to the people that declared we were sexualizing and molesting children. We have asked counter-protesters to be peaceful or not show up at all. We have been calm. We have been collected. But we are angry. And we are tired. And we are sick of well-intentioned but misinformed news stories that have only polarized people more. And so we wanted you to hear it from us.
Houston Public Library has not wavered in their support of Drag Queen Story Time, which we are extremely grateful for. But ourselves and our library team believe it is time to step away and not continue with the program in March or for the foreseeable future. What started as a fun community event shared between us, a couple of drag queens and kings, and a few families has become a national controversy. People are being threatened. People are being hurt. We believe in what we’re doing, but we don’t believe in putting our friends, our families, or our children in danger. If another person or persons wants to continue our effort or host their own event at some point down the line, they have every right to do so, and it’s likely somebody will. Drag Queen Story Time belongs to everyone, not just the two of us.
This isn’t what we wanted. We have so loved seeing the smiles on children’s faces, their laughter, their dances. We have so loved connecting with parents and connecting with our community. We appreciate the support and experience we gained working with the team at HPL and hope to work with them again in the future. And of course, we have so loved our drag queens and kings. That is why we are choosing to step away, to protect the lives and the livelihoods of the people we love. We want to serve the LGBT+ community, and we will. We will just have to do it another way.
Let us leave you with the words we used to end every story time: We hope you enjoyed your stay. Outside the sun is shining. It seems like heaven ain’t far away. It’s good to have you with us, even if it’s just for the day.