Reading Rainbow

Why Is Everyone Up in Arms About Drag Queen Storytime?

The reading program featuring local kings and queens has suddenly become a hot-button issue.

By Gwendolyn Knapp December 31, 2018 Published in the January 2019 issue of Houstonia Magazine

Performers Ian Syder-Blake and Lexi Blake-Lamour

Image: Marco Torres

On a recent weekend, anti-LGBTQ protestors in all-black attire stood in front of the Freed-Montrose Neighborhood Library holding Jesus Saves signage, facing down a group of dazzling, colorful queens who’d come out as a counter-protest.

It was the last Saturday of the month, which meant the historically gay neighborhood’s library was hosting Drag Queen Storytime, a free reading series whose mission is to bring acceptance, inclusion, diversity, and engaging storytelling to children—not, as a protestor holding a Homo Sex is Sin sign shouted into a megaphone, to “teach 5-year-olds how to be Caitlyn Jenner.”

Inside the library, shielded from the demonstration, Trent Lira, the lanky, bespectacled 26-year-old who founded Houston Drag Queen Storytime in 2017, strung up his not-too-spooky Halloween decorations, tested the PA, and waited for his guest readers—drag king Ian Syder-Blake and drag queen Lexi Blake-Lamour—to arrive.

A musician, activist, and UH graduate who works for HISD, Lira doesn’t do drag himself, but counts, oh, some 95 percent of the city’s performers as friends.

“There is a stigma associated with drag,” he said. “It’s still ‘other,’ but I think that’s really changing. These queens want to be a part of that, making it accessible to everybody, because at the end of the day, it’s art.”

It was on a trip to San Francisco in 2016 that Lira discovered that city’s Drag Queen Story Hour, a series founded by author Michelle Tea in 2015 that now has satellite programs all over America. Houston, as diverse as it is, deserved to have its own story time, Lira realized, and who better to start it?

He teamed up with Devin Will, the daughter of a longtime librarian who grew up on Houston Public Library’s free community programs. The duo pitched their idea to the Freed-Montrose Library in early 2017, their application was accepted by HPL, and the reading series launched in September of the same year. Inspired by Tea’s national nonprofit, but not affiliated with it, Drag Queen Storytime is the only program of its kind in Houston and features local kings and queens exclusively.

The inaugural reading starred the city’s favorite bearded lady, Blackberri, and beloved glamour queen, Tatiana Mala-Niña, who delighted the crowd with their interactive, fun approach to engaging kids. There were only a few attendees, mostly toddlers, but at each subsequent reading, the crowd grew bigger and bigger, despite little press or publicity.

That changed in July 2018, when KHOU aired a piece about a similar event at the Heights Neighborhood Library, a one-off occasion that wasn’t organized by Lira and Will, but by the library itself. Suddenly Drag Queen Storytime became a hot-button issue.

Anti-LGBTQ groups, including The Houston Area Pastor Council and Conservative Republicans of Texas—both of which successfully campaigned to defeat the pro-LGBTQ Houston Equal Rights Ordinance in 2015—called the program a perversion. City Councilman Michael Kubosh condemned it during a public hearing, and the Houston chapter of MassResistance announced it would protest every upcoming reading in 2019. Meanwhile, during the midterm elections, Steve Hotze, founder of the Conservative Republicans of Texas and the Campaign for Houston PAC, spent nearly $1 million on ads and mailers that erroneously tied Democratic candidates to the program, claimed it was taxpayer-funded, and characterized it as drag queens teaching children what it’s like to be gay or trans and perform in nightclubs.

Front: Trent Lira, Devin Will, and Courtnie Penson. Back: Lily Von Tease, Richard Long, Angelina DM Trailz, Tatiana Mala Nina, Vincent Van Goku, Blackberri, and Sister Sneakin da Bone

In fact, the program is run for free by volunteers, including the guest readers, whose backgrounds are all checked. The themes of the readings are suitable for 3- to 10-year-olds and don’t touch on gender orientation. “It’s not just giving back,” said Syder-Blake, who can spend up to four hours on prosthesis makeup to become a real-life version of Peter Griffin, the dad on Family Guy. “It’s teaching kids a love of the written word, and to accept other people and accept themselves.”

By last September, just as the event was celebrating its one-year anniversary, protestors started showing up. Some wore kilts and played bagpipes; some recited prayers and held anti-trans signage; some carried statues of the Virgin Mary.

“Those protestors were all very civil,” said Lira.

But the next month, they were a bit more aggressive, and Lira feared for the safety of his guest king and queen. Days before the event, a U.S. District Judge had denied a conservative group’s lawsuit against Mayor Sylvester Turner and the head of the HPL, Rhea Lawson, which tried to halt the program on the grounds that it violated the First Amendment’s establishment clause, favoring one religion over another. The judge informed the plaintiffs—including a pastor, a local businessman, and a guy known for suing cities to let him marry his laptop in protest of gay marriage—that the suit had no basis.

Syder-Blake, who arrived at the library in a simple stone-bedazzled vest, satin pants, and fresh makeup, ready to read about skeletons and pumpkins, said he felt no fear. “There were so many other signs,” he said, “that displayed messages of love and acceptance and solidarity.”

One of those signs, Yass Queen in neon lettering, had been carried by a girl who’d asked to attend Drag Queen Storytime for her birthday. She sat among the crowd of about 70, which included higher-ups from the mayor’s office and plenty of toddlers. She listened to Pumpkin Trouble and other books and got up to dance as Lira and Will performed a kid-friendly Vampirina’s Dance Party.

Outside it was a zoo. There was a queen done up like a tropical macaw; there was a man in combat boots reciting Bible verses through a megaphone. A police officer stood nearby, hands on hips, as cars crawled past and onlookers stared.

Back inside, the birthday girl waltzed up to Ian and Lexi to thank them and tell them it was her birthday wish to be there. Ian gave her a bracelet; Lexi, a pair of earrings. She skittered off to dance to the Monster Mash.

“She was thrilled,” said Ian. “This world belongs to all of us.”

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