When the Paperback Exchange in Port Richie, Fla., hosted a "Drag Queen Story Time" a few days before Christmas last December, featuring a children's book reading by Stephanie Stuart, a 53-year-old drag queen, a local Baptist church organized a protest, with dissenters shouting at parents and children through bullhorns as they entered the store. "I have been a member of the LGBTQ community for 40 years and respect the right of people to protest and of peaceful assembly," said bookstore co-owner Joan Hepsworth, "But yelling at children was not peaceful. So I called the police."
As events like the one featuring Stuart become more mainstream, the challenge for booksellers is finding strategies to handle protests that have become increasingly more organized and disruptive, while at the same time maintaining a safe and inclusive space for customers and members of the community.
Hepsworth had one solution: when the store hosted a second reading, on January 5, she allowed parents and children to enter and exit through the back entrance of the store in order to avoid any confrontations. "It worked, though the police had to get involved again." What's more, the protestors this time had opposition of their own. "For the second reading, there were twice as many counter-protestors as protestors," said Hepsworth.
Drag queen storytime began popping up in 2015 in San Francisco and have spread across the country to libraries, community centers, and increasingly, bookstores. An official organization, Drag Queen Story Hour, promotes such readings and now has more than 20 affiliate groups across the U.S., as well as in Sweden and Japan. Protests are commonplace at the readings and some communities have even seen lawsuits attempting ban such readings, though these efforts have largely been thwarted by the courts.
Linda Sherman-Nurick, owner of Cellar Door Books in Riverside, Calif. began hosting drag queen storytimes at her store last November. "For the first one, we had a woman and a man protesting outside the store," she said. "I anticipated we might have someone object to it and I was fine with the protest, up until the point when started filming themselves and the children coming into the store. Filming children is not permissible, so we called the police."
A second drag queen storytime at Cellar Door in December drew the attention of internet trolls saw, who, Sherman-Nurick surmised, must have seen an online listing for the event. "We got some very, very ugly and hateful things said to us on Facebook and elsewhere," said Sherman-Nurick. Concerned by threats of violence, police were also present at the store's second reading.
Despite the challenges of hosting such events, both booksellers vow to continue hosting the readings. "Drag queens typically only perform at night, in bars, and have very little interaction with children. So something like this is really special for both groups of people," said the Paperback Exchange's Hepsworth. She noted that the purpose of the event is to promote literacy, tolerance and self-expression. "The queens dress appropriately and modestly and, of course, we don't talk about LGBTQ sex. Why would we?" She went on to explain that her intention is to create a safe space for children, parents and all people in the community, "however they may identify themselves."
At The Cellar Door, Sherman-Nurick said she was especially motivated to continue the series after hearing an exchange between one of the readers and a young child in attendance. "It was a little girl who said to one of the drag queens after a reading, 'My brother likes to wear my mommy's dresses,' to which the queen responded, 'and that is perfectly okay.' It was then that I knew we were doing something good for the community."
Beyond the social value of the readings, the events are drawing potential customers who may buy books. "We had 40 children at the first [drag queen storytime] and 50 at the second," said Sherman-Nurick. "They have easily been the best attended children's story times we have ever had."