Since starting in San Francisco eight years ago, Drag Queen Story Hour—recently rebranded as Drag Story Hour to be inclusive of all gender identities—has advocated for youth literacy across the U.S. through events featuring drag performers reading to children.
But what was supposed to be an hour of wonder and whimsy was broken at Alameda County’s San Lorenzo Library on June 11, 2022, when a group of five men believed to be affiliated with the far-right extremist group known as the Proud Boys stormed the gathering, harassing attendees and performers with a slew of homophobic and anti-LGBTQ+ slurs.
"They said, 'Who brought the tranny? It's a groomer. It's a pedophile. Why do you bring your kids to this event?'" Panda Dulce, the performer at the San Lorenzo Library that day, told ABC7 after the disruption, which also made national headlines.
The Alameda County Sheriff’s Office investigated the incident as a possible hate crime at the time. But the county District Attorney’s Office ultimately determined that the disturbance did not meet the criteria of a hate crime and no charges have been filed, said Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Lt. Tya M. Modeste.
One year later, around half a dozen sheriff’s deputies were standing outside the library as drag performer Vera! read stories to children and families. Outside, dozens of protesters for and against Drag Story Hour chanted and waved flags for their respective causes on four corners of the street at the intersection in front of the library’s entrance.
On one side of the street, demonstrators in opposition to Drag Story Hour blasted country music, carried Christian and American flags and shouted, “Save our children,” while holding up signs with slogans like, “Keep Drag 18+,” “Biology Is Not Bigotry” and “Drag Queen Story Time Not for Kids.”
On the other, colorfully dressed organizers and supporters of Drag Story Hour, including members of the community group Castro Valley Pride and other LGBTQ+ advocates and allies, held up rainbow flags and signs and danced to the music of Taylor Swift as cars whizzed by—some honking in a show of support for one of the two opposing protests.
While a few occasional attempts to cross the street—and the proverbial aisle—turned into curious Q&As between the two sets of demonstrators, others turned into short-lived shouting matches, all swiftly broken up by a private security guard attempting to maintain the peace or a Drag Story Hour organizer trained as part of the organization’s new Shields Up! Royal Guard safety marshal program.
The Shields Up! program was developed in part as a response to last year’s San Lorenzo Drag Story Hour—as well as other anti-LGBTQ+ attacks such as Colorado’s Club Q shooting last year. In addition to deescalation techniques, the new pilot program trains Drag Story Hour volunteers in safety contingency planning and strategies for entering and exiting events safely.
“Even though it is really deeply sad to me that there is so much hostility against the LGBTQ community right now, especially transgender women and drag performers, knowing that we have a community of support and a solid base of people is really heartening,” said Baylee Van, coordinator for Drag Story Hour’s San Francisco chapter and the pilot program. “Our goal is to create a more accepting and expansive world for children, even in the face of hostility. Ultimately, we don't want to show children that you will have to hide because there are people speaking out against you. You're still allowed to be who you are.”
Opposition to Drag Story Hour, however, still remains strong with some Bay Area community members who believe that drag is overly sexual and its performance is inappropriate for children.
“Fringe alternative sexual lifestyles shouldn't be presented in front of children,” said David Reddy, co-founder of a social media-based group of concerned parents and individuals called Bay Area Against Mandates, which organized the anti-Drag Story Hour protest. “Leave the kids out of it. If you're a consenting adult, ‘Hey, that's fine.'”
But representatives of Drag Story Hour reject Reddy’s narrative, noting that none of the organization’s programming is sexual in nature.
“The only sexual content existing at this event are the signs of the counter-protesters,” Van said, commenting on a range of anti-Drag Story Hour protest signs coded with sexual innuendo, including one that read “Groom Dogs Not Kids.”
“All of our performers are background checked on a county, state and federal level, and we put a lot of effort into keeping these events safe and child-friendly,” Van said.
Drag Story Hour Executive Director Jonathan Hamilt maintains that the group’s storytelling style “captures the imagination and play of the gender fluidity of childhood” and offers kids the opportunity “to see people who defy rigid gender restrictions and imagine a world where everyone can be their authentic selves.”
Other supporters of Drag Story assert that exclusive focus on the “Drag” of Drag Story Hour also misses the event’s larger mission to encourage youth literacy and the power of the artistic medium to challenge societal norms.
“Drag Queen Story Hour’s most potent teachings, like any good drag performance, are best read between the lines,” wrote Drag Story Hour performer Lil Miss Hot Mess in an op-ed for NBC News last year. “Through drag, we’re able to see those elements of society that are a hot mess and find the courage and creativity to change them.”
Other anti-Drag Story Hour protesters in the group—which included Hayward politician and former Republican congressional candidate Tom Wong—cited religious beliefs or political views for opposing Drag Story Hour. “I’m supporting the parents and the community and conservative values,” Wong said.
Even though some Drag Story Hour supporters—or defenders, as they also call themselves—felt trepidation at coming to the site of last year’s scene, several hoped to show solidarity with Drag Story Hour, demonstrate that San Lorenzo is a safe and welcoming community for LGBTQ+ people and dispel misinformation around Drag Story Hour and LGBTQ+ identities.
“I'm glad that we're here having these debates in person now,” said Sister Eva of the SF-based human rights and LGBTQ+ advocacy group The Sisters Perpetual Indulgence. “I think it's really important that we do have these conversations.”
While moments of the day’s two opposing protests were tense and the fear of potential violence loomed, Alameda County Librarian Cindy Chadwick, said the library was prepared for the political actions. The day ended without ever boiling over into physical violence.
In a roundabout way, Chadwick said that while the day’s events were fraught, its backdrop did demonstrate the power of the national library system to be a platform for civic discourse.
“It's democracy in action, right?” said Chadwick. “This is exactly the place where these kind of things should happen. It's a public library. [...] This is a place for those for different viewpoints, for different backgrounds to meet.”