Guest Opinion: Why drag queen story hour belongs in public libraries

  • by Cindy Chadwick
  • Wednesday August 10, 2022
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Alameda County librarian Cindy Chadwick, Ph.D., delivers remarks at the July 27 kick-off for Every Month is Pride Month at the San Lorenzo Library that was sponsored by District 3 Supervisor Dave Brown. Photo: Courtesy San Lorenzo Library
Alameda County librarian Cindy Chadwick, Ph.D., delivers remarks at the July 27 kick-off for Every Month is Pride Month at the San Lorenzo Library that was sponsored by District 3 Supervisor Dave Brown. Photo: Courtesy San Lorenzo Library

On June 11, San Lorenzo Library, part of the Alameda County (CA) Library system, hosted a Drag Queen Story Hour as part of the library's annual Pride Month programming. As the event began, members of a local chapter of the Proud Boys — a national hate group — entered the library and shouted homophobic and transphobic slurs at the event's performer while families and children were in attendance.

I was present at the story hour that day; a post on the right-wing social media account Libs of TikTok two weeks prior to the event tipped us off that there might be trouble. I'm extremely proud of how our San Lorenzo Library team responded, including getting our performer, Panda Dulce, and the children and families safely out of the room. I am grateful for our partnership with the Alameda County Sheriff's Office, deputies' quick response, and their ongoing investigation of the alleged crime. I am also grateful for the courage, conviction, and general fabulousness of Panda Dulce, who not only finished the story hour after the protesters were removed, but has spoken bravely and publicly about the experience.

My team and I have fielded a lot of questions in the last two months. One is: Why does Drag Queen Story Hour belong in public libraries? This is an honest question asked by well-meaning people. I've learned that some folks don't initially get the connection between public libraries and drag culture.

A great resource for learning more is the website (and social media) of the nonprofit group, Drag Queen Story Hour. Its mission statement explains that "Drag Queen Story Hour celebrates reading through the glamorous art of drag. Our chapter network creates diverse, accessible, and culturally-inclusive family programming where kids can express their authentic selves and become bright lights of change in their communities."

The art of drag has a long and diverse herstory; as RuPaul famously put it, "We're all born naked. The rest is drag." Drag is a flexible and multi-faceted art form. Drag Queen Story Hour is tailored to the age of the attendees (children) and to the performance space (a public library). Nothing age-inappropriate happens; as one librarian put it, "It's a person in a pretty dress reading stories to kids — the same as any other story hour."

There are at least two big benefits to Drag Queen Story Hour. In an interview after the June 11 incident, Panda Dulce put it this way: "When you do story hour, sometimes there are queer kids, and you can really tell because they light up in a way where you just know, and you have that immediate connection. ... Words can't capture what that feels like." As librarians, we believe books can be both windows and mirrors; some books provide windows into unfamiliar worlds, and some books reflect and confirm our own experiences. Both are important for children — and adults. For some kids, Drag Queen Story Hour is a window into a new, colorful world; for others, it reflects and confirms a deeper part of themselves. That sense of exploration and discovery is at the heart of public libraries.

A second benefit is that Drag Queen Story Hour provides a space for families to connect. An essential mission of public libraries is connecting community members in spaces that are open to all. Librarians want folks not just to feel welcome at the library, but to feel like they belong. We want everyone to feel that the library is their space — because it is. Libraries are one of the few institutions that belong to all of us, equally.

In such a space, not everyone is going to agree with everything they see or experience. As we sometimes jokingly, but proudly, say, "We have books to offend everyone!" But we believe it's essential that our communities find ways to connect, even with our different opinions, beliefs, and experiences. The library is the perfect place for this connection; in fact, the vision statement of Alameda County Library is "Kind, Connected Humans." Come to the library to find kindness, to find connection, to find people — even, or perhaps especially, people who see the world differently than you.

And if you can't abide what is happening, you don't have to come, or let your children come.

Drag Queen Story Hour is all about connection — connecting with our own creativity and joy, and connecting with others. Drag Queen Story Hour belongs in public libraries.

Cindy Chadwick, Ph.D., is an Alameda County librarian.

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