I never figured a dress-up story session for children could draw so much ire, but certain people, mostly trolls and bots, always end up badly misconstruing Drag Queen Story Time, a kaleidoscopic afternoon of charismatic drag performers reading stories about acceptance, diversity and inclusivity to kids.
In 2018, the Worcester Public Library found itself besieged by waves of hate-spewing Facebook commenters reacting to the library hosting the event, created by the local campaign Love Your Labels.
“Worcester wasn’t going to stand by and watch the library get mobbed,” former Worcesteria columnist Bill Shaner wrote after the attack. Several hundred residents jumped to defend the library, soon drowning out the vitriol with messages of support and empowerment.
For the last four years, Redemption Rock Brewing Co. has happily hosted Drag Queen Story Time. Dozens of families flock to the popular Sunday event, which feels right at home at the colorful brewery. Just like the themes in the children’s books read by the drag performers, Drag Story Time largely inspires bursts of love and acceptance, and not only within the LGBTQ community. Redemption Rock has not experienced anything like what the library dealt with. But in these polarized times, you can just about set your clock to the next hateful outburst on social media.
On July 17, U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern attended the most recent Drag Queen Story Time at Redemption Rock, later posting scenes from the reading — him sitting next to the day’s reader, Robyn Millyonz, and several of the books, with titles like “Love Makes a Family” and “The Boy with Flowers in His Hair” — on his Facebook and Twitter accounts. Comments criticizing McGovern oozed in; as with the library, they were based on the fallacy that the event sexualizes and indoctrinates children. Even McGovern’s opponent, Jeffrey Sossa-Paquette, tried to amplify the hate on his Twitter account, hoping to use it as a political weapon.
Thankfully again, as with the library, nearly as many people came to McGovern’s defense. Redemption Rock co-founders Dani Babineau, Dan Carlson and Greg Carlson watched the reactions in real time, first disgusted and scratching their heads over the hatred, then overjoyed by the positivity. I met with them at the brewery one evening last week to talk about what Drag Queen Story Time is and is not. The hour boils down to dress up, crafts and books for the kids — sometimes over 50 attend — and beer and coffee for the adults.
“We have some kids who show up to every single one and whose parents have been in tears about how much it means to their family for a kid who isn’t necessarily gender conforming or a little boy who likes to wear dresses or doesn’t feel like they can be their full self in school or any environment they’re in,” Babineau said. “They come here and see another little boy wearing a dress. They’re able to experiment with their identity, play around and just be free in an area where people are going to be accepting.”
The drag performers truly embrace the spirit of story time, too, reading each book with flair. “Drag as a performance art is about being outlandish, bright and colorful. Kids love that kind of stuff,” she said.
After McGovern’s posts, the trolls descended to criticize the event based on the same tired, false narrative.
“It’s a little embarrassing to have to say this, but there are some people who choose to believe that this is an adult-style drag show, and it feels weird that we have to say it’s not,” Dan Carlson said. Equally embarrassing is having to explain that Drag Queen Story Time never seeks to indoctrinate children or push any kind of lifestyle or values on them. And the notion that this event has anything to do with sex is simply nonsensical.
“People are making these connections because of what they’ve been told by nefarious influences or based on whatever agenda they follow. And instead of looking into it themselves, they’re just reacting and moving on with their lives,” Babineau said.
The reality is Drag Queen Story Time sets up a space of support and love and inclusion and community. The books read during the hour hold messages and lessons like embracing and overcoming fears or welcoming everyone to schools.
“The messages in the books are universal,” Carlson said. “Love is love, express yourself how you want, be a good friend. If there’s a lesson being taught, it’s that you should have confidence in yourself and empathy for others.”
And anyone who spends a second to look at photos from the event would understand that nothing corrupting has taken place. “It blows my mind when people call this a sexually-charged event, when I’m looking at a picture of kids doing crafts or someone in a dress and wig holding up a children’s book,” Greg Carlson said. “Get a grip.”
The next Drag Queen Story Time at Redemption Rock is on Sunday, Sept. 18.