Houston drag queen Angelina DM Trailz was afraid of kids—until she read to them.
She knows that her fear seems irrational now—but she attributes it to growing up as a “flamboyant” child in a devout Catholic family and a less-than-welcoming school.
“I was just who I was,” she told The Daily Beast. “And I got bullied a lot for it.”
That’s why, despite growing up to become a confident drag performer, Trailz was always a little wary around school-age children, assuming they must be judging her. (“What are they thinking about me?” she would wonder.)
As it turns out, kids think she’s great.
“I love your dress!” they shouted.
“It’s so big and fluffy!”
“I love glitter!”
The experience was transformative for Trailz, who identifies as gender-fluid—and now she plans to perform at as many of the child-focused charity events as she can.
The only obstacles in her way are the anti-LGBT groups who are protesting drag queen story hours as they spread across the country, having originated in San Francisco in 2015 as a joint project of Radar Productions and author Michelle Tea. They are backed by the American Library Association, and are also popular in Britain.
One December 2018 drag queen storytime in Michigan was condemned by religious critics. At a contentious Houston storytime in early February, an armed protester was detained by police. Last weekend, authorities in Greenville, South Carolina had to implement a heightened security plan to protect a late February storytime that had received “multiple threats made over social media,” as the Greenville News reported.
Those threats made some of the Greenville drag queens nervous to come to the library.
“I was probably the most terrified,” drag queen Ridley Havoc told The Daily Beast, citing the Pulse nightclub shooting as one recent act of violence that rattled her.
But event organizer and fellow performer Rylee Hunty calmed her down, while battling her own fears. (“I think 24 hours before the event happened is when my anxiety really kicked through the roof,” Hunty admitted.)
The event turned out to be a success—and not just because there was no violence. The children heard stories like Kathryn Hahn’s My Wish for You and Dr. Seuss’ Oh, the Places You’ll Go! Those selections went over well with all the kids except for one little girl who, as Hunty recalls, stood up and shouted, “I thought we were going to read a princess book!” (“She even handed me her bracelet, saying that I was a princess, and I deserved to wear her bracelet,” Hunty said, laughing.)
Some of the children made arts and crafts, sitting down with the queens to color and make crowns out of pipe cleaners. Drag performer Ariana Venti remembers assembling a pink-and-purple crown with one gender non-conforming child whose father thanked her afterward for showing the child that it was okay to be different.
“From the beginning of the event to the end of the event, there was hardly a dry eye in there,” Venti recalled.
“It was beautiful,” said Hunty. “There were double the amount of supporters as protesters.”
By the end, even Havoc—the self-professed “most terrified” of the group—was assuaged. “When I walked out and saw that there were only four protesters out there after the reading was done, I felt good,” she said.
It’s easy to see why drag queen storytime events—some of which are run independently, but many of which are organized by the group Drag Queen Story Hour—are enormously popular.
Unfortunately, they still have to endure the ire of those who fear that LGBT adults are a corrupting influence for children. The fears are as old as they are nonsensical, like the concern that gay men are pedophiles who shouldn’t be allowed near children—or that children who are exposed to LGBT issues at a young age will somehow be “turned gay.”
For some protesters, the primary issue is that the events often take place at public libraries, and are therefore funded in part by taxpayer dollars.
But any way you slice it, the protesters don’t want drag queens near kids.
One Houston mom, Courtney Sellers, who serves as the executive director of the homeless youth center Montrose Grace Place, remembers watching anti-LGBT memes of drag queens in risqué attire spread on social media in advance of one recent story hour with the leading caption: “Do you want these people around your kids?”
The images for the memes, she says, appear to have been taken from a leather bar called Ripcord—a place where children literally cannot go. And besides, as Hunty notes, drag queens are more than capable of tailoring their act to a family-friendly audience.
“Just like an actor can do an R-rated movie and a G-rated kids’ movie, we have different levels of how we entertain and how we can put on our character as well,” Hunty said.
But acknowledging that would deflate the anti-LGBT argument against these events.
“They’re never going to show a picture of a drag queen in a beautiful princess dress reading to kids or having fun,” Sellers said. “They don’t want people to see that.”
Sellers said that she wasn’t nervous to bring her seven-year-old daughter Chloe—whose name she requested be changed in this article for privacy reasons—to a recent drag queen story hour, despite the presence of armed open-carrying protesters.
Chloe, a voracious reader, “loves [the drag queens’] dresses and makeup,” Sellers said—and will often go say hello to them after the stories are finished.
“I think that if I was nervous and I was like, ‘I’m not going to go anymore,’ then they’ve won—they’ve accomplished their goal,” Sellers said. “Their goal is to ultimately have the program shut down or scare us into not going—and I could understand if a parent was like, ‘Listen, I’m scared, I can’t go’—but that’s never gonna be me.”
Musician Trent Lira, part of the band Space Kidettes, hosts the Houston drag queen story hours—and is not worried about the recent heated incident outside the Montrose library, where police detained one protester. The police, he said, are “present and we do not think things will escalate in that direction again after that incident.”
Still, Lira and his bandmate have decided to move the event “to a more LGBTQ-friendly spot not too far away, just to alleviate the stress on the staff at that location and to provide more space and safety for those who actually support us,” he told The Daily Beast. (Houston Public Libraries did not immediately return a request for comment.)
Lira said he and his bandmate brought drag queen storytime to the city of Houston because they wanted to “showcase the art and talent of our friends in the drag world” but also to “provide the opportunity for them to give back and be seen in a light that drag is not usually seen.”
Indeed, the drag queens who perform at these events say that it’s fun to perform for free at a family-friendly venue with which they’re not typically associated in the popular imagination.
“Drag queens are notorious for performing on stage and in clubs and at brunches,” says Venti. “But to do something like this that gives back to the community is much more rewarding than just doing a show at a club.”
The audiences, they say, are also much kinder.
“The kids are always so sweet,” said Havoc. “They don’t care what you look like or anything because they’re so young. And I believe that you’re taught hate. For them to be so open-minded, it’s just amazing to see that—because sometimes in nightclubs you don’t see that. There are people out there who come out [at night] who are not very friendly, but I’ve never met a kid who wasn’t friendly or talkative.”
The primary purpose of the events, the drag queens say, is to promote literacy and help the kids have fun. The only not-so-hidden agenda is to show that difference is beautiful. No drag queen can “turn” a child gay or transgender with a storybook—but for those kids in the room who are starting to understand that they might be different in some way, the events can be powerful.
In fact, most of the drag queens wished they could have attended them back in the day.
Havoc, who grew up in small-town North Carolina, said that “childhood probably would have been a lot better” if there were drag queens reading stories at the library. Venti said, “I probably would have come out a lot earlier and been more comfortable in myself from a very young age.”
Hunty, who is already turning her attention to a follow-up event even as outrage begins anew over the security costs at the public library for the debut event, says that the events help all kids, not just those who may later come out as LGBT, because they end up feeling “more appreciative and accepting of someone who is different.” (The Greenville County Library System did not immediately return a request for comment.)
That would have been a life-changing message for Trailz growing up.
“I wish I had that when I was little,” says Trailz. “I wish I had my parents take me to a drag queen storytime just so I could see the diversity in the room, and for them to show me that it’s OK to be who you want to be.”