Missouri Republicans fear glamourous queens reading to children

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Magdalena Padilla poses with new friends. Magdalena came with her mom and brothers from Russellville, Missouri. “We work hard to teach our kids that everybody is equal and everybody matters. We were talking this morning, and she’s like, “I’m 7, and I know that God loves everyone and could never hate someone why would someone say that,” Magdalena’s mom recounts. // Photo by Chase Castor.

As the perfect spring sun shone down on Jefferson City, MO, on March 7, upbeat dance remixes incited dozens of children to dance around the empty Fountain of the Centaurs north of the Capitol building. The Parasol Patrol from Denver lined the sidewalk and opened their rainbow umbrellas to block from children’s view the dozen or so white supremacists standing across the street wearing American Guard: Missouri hoodies and waving a Trump 2020 flag. Westboro Baptist Church members had already come and gone, having briefly made their presence known before packing up and heading off to spread their message of hate elsewhere, but not before being confronted by a man dressed as a clown, who loudly reminded them that wherever they found themselves, there too would he be, irritating them with a taste of their own medicine.

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Members of Westboro Baptist church pack up their counter protest of the drag queen story hour protest. // Photo by Chase Castor.

Shielded by the Parasol Patrol, librarians, literacy advocates, concerned parents, and their brightly-costumed, wildly imaginative children united with allies and members of the LGBTQ+ community in Springfield, Missouri for #DRAGPROTEST, a peaceful grassroots rally aimed at drawing attention to and shutting down Missouri House Bill 2044, cited as the “Parental Oversight of Public Libraries Act,” sponsored by state Rep. Ben Baker, a Missouri Republican. According to Baker’s website, the proposal is co-sponsored by Missouri Republicans Sara Walsh and Suzie Pollock.

What, exactly, is it that’s got these Missouri Republicans’ boa in a ruffle? It seems they’re none too pleased about one of the hottest new trends in children’s literacy, Drag Queen Story Hour. The bill aims to censor access to materials and somehow (homophobia, transphobia, gender roles) Drag Queen Story Hour got dragged into the spotlight with Rep. Baker at the helm of misrepresentation.

“This proposal is ridiculous,” says mother and advocate, Deanna Balestra. “Libraries are for everyone, and there’s no reason to create a parental advisory board to decide what libraries can and can’t have on the shelves. From a personal standpoint, my son is gay, and he is a child. He should be able to walk into the library and checkout books that help him understand himself and his world better, without any government interference. I’m his parent. I can help him decide what book. I don’t need their help.”

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Scenes from the Drag Queen Protest in Jefferson City where drag queens and friends gathered to protest a bill that put in place parental review boards that could have librarians fined and jailed for holding drag queen story hours. // Photo by Chase Castor

“I read the bill and I couldn’t help but attend today,” says Christina King, Ms. Trans Illinois 2020. “There are already lots of procedures in place in the library for age-appropriate material by section. This bill is so subjective that it could allow a committee to decide what’s appropriate [for your child]. I mean, there could be a five-year-old reading at an accelerated level who wants to read Harry Potter, and a committee could deny them that option at the library [even if their parent was ok with it], and if they do get the book from the library [and someone complains], the librarian could be arrested for allowing that to happen. This bill is government-sanctioned censorship.”

Baker’s proposal aspires “to repeal section 181.060, RSMo, and to enact in lieu thereof two new sections relating to parental oversight of public libraries, with penalty provisions.”

In more layman’s terms, HB 2044 aims to prohibit access to “age-inappropriate sexual material” including “any description or representation, in any form, of nudity, sexuality, sexual conduct, sexual excitement, or sadomasochistic abuse.” HB 2044 goes on to further threaten that, “Any public library personnel who willfully neglects or refuses to perform any duty imposed on a public library under this section, or who willfully violates any provision of this section, is guilty of a misdemeanor and on conviction shall be punished by a fine of not more than five hundred dollars or by imprisonment in the county jail not to exceed one year.”

Drag Queen Story Hour (DQSH), is an event in which a volunteer performance artist who spent one to three hours applying makeup and costuming themselves in elaborate attire arrives at a local, public venue to don a humorous, fictional persona and read a few preselected, age-appropriate books to elementary-aged children who are in attendance and under the supervision of their parent or trusted guardian. Sometimes the kids eat snacks, stretch, or dance. They most definitely sing songs and laugh. There’s always crafts and an underlying educational curriculum.

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Betty Cocker is from Louisville Kentucky, but grew up in St. James, Missouri where his mom is still a librarian today.”I’m out here for her, I’d really hate to see her in prison if she decided to host an event.” // Photo by Chase Castor.

“We use our library training to plan the events,” says Allison Saiko, librarian and co-founder of the Springfield, Missouri chapter of DQSH which occurs on the first Saturday of the month at various venues and includes stories, activities, songs, and crafts for children up to eight years old. In collaboration with librarian and advocate Paige Harp, and the national chapter of Drag Queen Story Hour, Saiko saw a need and filled it.

“A lot of community members and coworkers had heard about [DQSH] happening around the country and we decided to launch our first event in September 2019 after a couple of years of researching best practices,” says Saiko. “There aren’t a lot of story times on the weekends, so this brings the whole family together on a day off. I see LGBT families in the library all the time; two moms, two dads, trans parents, and now also at story hour. I think when you specifically hold space for LGBT families, it’s so important. It’s an opportunity for them to be able to introduce their kids and family to people like them, who have the same type of family they do. It has built a sense of community among LGBT families and community members in the area. I’ve had a couple of queens reach out and express their love for children and the desire to participate in DQSH.”

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A protester holds up a sign that says “Make America Gay Again!” // Photo by Chase Castor.

Free educational programming and weekend story times being rare in most communities nationwide, parents from all walks of life flock to these events with their young children, many who have dressed up for story time as well. After all, it’s not just story time, this is reading with a Queen! You remember reading as a kid, folks? Remember how your imagination let loose stegosauruses and talking lions, soaring through the cosmos, defeating evil villains, and breaking dreadful curses? Remember how the hero always looked a little like you? Yeah, THAT reading, the reading that grew your imagination and transported you anywhere in the universe with the turning of a page. Today’s Drag Queen Story Hour costume attire for children is what airline fashion was in the 50’s, intentional. So, everyone arrives and finds their seats, the late comers line the walls in these often full-house events, and parents watch in great amusement as their children eagerly learn colors and numbers from their costumed narrator. Everyone in attendance also learns things like sharing, compassion, empathy, how and when to be brave and kind, how to accept and celebrate each other’s differences,… and then they craft, creating art which scientifically helps cement the lessons they’ve learned into their conscious and subconscious memory.

Drag Queen Story Hour also provides LGBTQ+ families the opportunity to be visible and interact with other families they might not socialize with otherwise, and the event allows queens to take on a different, more nurturing and playful role. DQSH promotes inclusivity and education.

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Members of The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence chat at the protest. The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence is an Order of queer and trans nuns who have a house in Kansas City, The City of Fountains Sisters, and in St. Louis, The Fourth City Sisters. // Photo by Chase Castor.

HB 2044 proposes, and plagiarizes, the redundant reinforcement of federal obscenity laws, in addition to forcing libraries to foot the bill for advertising the upcoming election of a Parental Oversight Committee and enforces penalties of $500 or up to one year in jail for librarians who violate the proposed legislation by making “age-inappropriate” resources available to children. In essence, even though most of these events aren’t held at public libraries, the passing of HB 2044 would prevent them from ever occurring because the liability and backlash could be costly for anyone organizing the event.

HB 2044 specifically states that. “The board shall be composed of five adult residents of the public library’s geographical area. Each board member shall serve a term of two years… The board shall determine whether any sexual material provided to the public by the public library is age-inappropriate sexual material. To make such determinations, the board shall convene public hearings at which members of the community may present concerns to the board. After receiving comments from the public, the board shall examine individual instances of the questioned sexual material to determine whether it is age-inappropriate sexual material under this section.”

To be clear, oversight committee members elected to enforce HB 2044 do not have to be: attorneys familiar with current obscenity laws, developmental psychologists, credentialed child educators, parents, or have any training, skill sets, or understanding of children or sexuality at all.

Hypothetically, HB 2044 could allow for a community member who is a sexual predator or even a convicted sex offender to be elected to the Parental Oversight Committee. There’s no law preventing that from happening. Furthermore, public libraries in Missouri are organized under chapters 182, 137, and 70 of the Missouri Revised Statutes and are each already governed by individual Board of Trustees consisting of five to nine publicly elected members and background checks are run on all volunteers within the library system.

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A drag queen meets youngsters and poses for a photo.// Photo by Chase Castor.

In its current form, HB 2044 threatens extreme government overreach and is not only convoluting facts, but defying the First Amendment and forcing personal, religious, conservative opinions on the American public. Baker’s targeting of Drag Queen Story Hour insinuates an underlying perversion in the event participants, which couldn’t be further from the truth. He was previously quoted as saying, “[The library is a] public space, our kids could be exposed to something that’s age-inappropriate. That’s what I’m trying to tackle,” and suggested that the event could draw child predators.

He is referencing The Houston Public Library “which received national attention when a drag queen who read at two of its story time events was later revealed to be a registered child sex offender,” The Kansas City Star reported. “The library later apologized for not conducting a background check of the volunteer, as required by their policies.”

This coming from a man who is affiliated with the same Republican party which nominated accused child predator Roy Moore to serve as Senator of Alabama. Moore was accused of having multiple age-inappropriate sexual relationships with underage girls and during his political tenure served as the 27th and 31st chief justice of the Supreme Court of Alabama. He was removed from both positions for ethical violations.

Or we could just point directly to the President of the United States, who has been accused of sexually assaulting numerous women.

Or Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who was accused by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford of sexual assault decades prior. The pesky trial of public opinion was held in part to attempt to discredit the story of a woman who was, and is, credible in every possible way, and yet, Kavanaugh’s nomination became a confirmation to the Supreme Court and everyone in the Republican Party cheered.

On March 6, Congressman Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), who was previously an assistant coach at Ohio State University, was accused by six former wrestling athletes of ignoring sexual abuse reports they made to him regarding the team doctor, Richard Strauss.

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Bach Lava (left) and Venessa Freedle (right) at the protest for Drag Queen Story Hour. Bach Lava does the Drag Queen Story hour at Hamburger Mary’s in Kansas City and is a member of The City of Fountains Sisters, the Kansas City house of The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, an Order of queer and trans nuns that began in San Francisco in 1979. // Photo by Chase Castor.

Even the Democrats are guilty. In November 2019, disbarred attorney and registered sex offender Joe Morrissey was elected to the Virginia Senate, because somehow, in this instance, the public overlooked Morrissey’s guilt because he is now married to the consenting adult woman who was 17 at the time their relationship began.

Baker, in an elaborate entanglement of total bullshit and hypocrisy, will ultimately silence performing arts and queer communities in addition to shutting down a free, widely-attended, publicly accessible children’s literacy program, should HB 2044 gain any traction, and everyone attending #DRAGPROTEST sees it as their personal mission to prevent that from happening.

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An impromptu Drag Queen Story Hour broke out at the protest, “Where the Wild Things Are” was read to kids who had gathered at the back of the event. // Photo by Chase Castor.

“We’ve had record audiences,” says Sister Glamarama Ding Dong of The City of Fountains Sisters. KC’s Drag Queen Story Time was founded by Sister Goldie Grrr and is now maintained by Novice Sister Bach Lava, every third Saturday at Hamburger Mary’s in KC. “We started out with 20 and last month we had 74 attendees,” says Sister GlamaRama. “I’m not a child person, but it’s one of my favorite events ever, to see things through little eyes.”

The City of Fountains Sisters host their monthly event for children (and their parents) and ticket sales benefit a local LGBTQ+ organization.

DQSH in Springfield revolves around themes, including celebration diversity, love and friendship, unicorns, and penguins.

“Each month I try to do the same opening and goodbye song because consistency is really important for children,” Saiko says. “They get excited about knowing the songs, and they sing along. We usually read one to two books, sing some more songs, get up and move around, then do an activity on the felt board that’s consistent with the theme and also educational. The children learn their colors and numbers, simple addition and subtraction, things like that. And then we read one more book and sing a goodbye song. Sometimes we have snacks. We always do crafts and then take photos—usually I just think about what kids would be interested in and then we pick books that are inclusive.”

“To me, Drag Queen Story Hour is no different than going to see a Disney Princess,” says #DRAGPROTEST co-organizer Venus Victrola, who refers to themself as an AFAB hyper-qween drag performer. “I’m kind of awkward around kids, but I am in favor of giving kids role models outside of who they see as options in the mainstream. The messaging consists of things like, don’t bully. Be yourself. It’s OK to be different. There’s nothing harmful about the story hour, and drag queens are not indoctrinating people. We are performers, people, in costumes reading books to children, and once you start censoring people, when does it stop?”

On Twitter: @poetjenharris

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