I’ve been putting this video off for a long time. I don’t want to touch this topic. It’s a very charged topic, and for the most part I try to stay out of this controversy.
Actually… I’ve also avoided this topic because for the life of me I can’t figure out why this is controversial at all. It perplexes me that so many people are willing to stand in defense of this behaviour. It escapes me. But I guess that’s exactly why we need to talk about it.
We need to talk about drag story hour.
I presume most people know what drag story hour is, but for the sake of any who do not: Drag story hour is this ritual that’s become common at libraries, book stores, and other public venues whereby a performer embodies the most pernicious conceptualizations of femininity including dress, hair, makeup and behaviour. Like drag for adults, it is designed to be an over-the-top conceptualization of the most stereotypical feminine behaviour.
Oh, and they read stories to small children while they do this.
Now I want to be fair in this discussion. Most drag story hours are not particularly sexually explicit (though there are of course examples where this has happened). For the sake of argument let’s presume we are only talking about non-sexualized drag story hour since I hope we can all be in agreement that targeting sexualized behaviour towards small children is not something we are defending.
Proponents say that drag story hour—and I quote—captures the imagination and play of the gender fluidity in childhood and gives kids glamorous, positive and unabashedly queer role models.
That is the argument in support of these rituals.
And I might find that convincing, maybe, except that drag queens are not the ideal queer role models. In fact, they are quite the opposite.
Being transgender and performing and watching drag for entertainment are, how do I put this… different. Very, very different. The first is the real-world experience of individuals who transition to live in alignment with the opposite sex from their biology in order to relieve acute discomfort and dysphoria. The latter are individuals who enjoy dressing up as the opposite sex and embodying the most exaggerated and regressive stereotypes of sex for the purpose of performance and making money.
Do you see why I am a little annoyed right now?
When you’ve navigated through a social, hormonal and medical transition to alleviate dysphoria, being compared to drag performers is insulting. Actually, that’s an understatement. Even being placed in the same categorically is demoralizing. I’m not saying this to insist that drag is inherently bad, but if your argument is that it helps people understand transgender identities than you couldn’t be further from the truth.
And as drag has caught on in recent years the comparison has become ever more frequent. For a lot of people who are not transgender or who don’t have a close relationship with someone who is transgender, drag and transition are being perceived as increasingly similar concepts. You’d be shocked how many well-meaning trans-loving progressives refer to something they saw on Ru Paul’s drag race when trying to discuss my transgender experience.
I’ve shifted a bit here to talking about adult drag. Not gonna lie—I’m not a fan and I find the entire drag culture works against productive transgender understandings. But let’s bring the back to the children.
If you want to argue that children should be exposed to diversity, I can get behind that. Cultural diversity, racial diversity. Diverse families. Diverse socioeconomic realities. Yes. These are all so important to expose our children to. And yes, diverse gender identities are important as well.
But being a drag queen is NOT a gender identity. You do get that right?
It’s absurd to use ‘drag story hour’ to expose children to the reality of transgender individuals. Let’s say we want to increase visibility of religious or cultural or racial identities with children. We might do this by, perhaps, having a Muslim speaker explore their ethnic background. This could be really interesting and enlightening for children and might help those who don’t know much about other cultures to humanize ethnic diversity.
Do you know what we wouldn’t do? Get a white man to dress up as an Arab, impersonate a middle eastern accent, and exaggerate the worst stereotypes of middle eastern culture. This wouldn’t achieve the goal of broadening children’s horizons to understand diversity. At best, it would teach them to find humour in other ethnicities, and it may very well confuse children into believing that being Muslim is mostly about wearing clothing of a particular style or speaking differently than those of the western tradition.
We’d find that pretty offensive, wouldn’t we?
Do you know what we could do instead of drag story hour? We could do regular story hour, where unremarkable parents read stories to children. Sometimes those parents might be mothers and sometimes they might be fathers. Sometimes they might be Christian and sometimes they might be Hindu. And, yes, sometimes they might be unremarkable transgender individuals like myself. Can we deal with that? Highlighting diversity as it arises naturally, rather than in a contrived and overexaggerated demeanor that promotes regressive stereotypes?
I do want to acknowledge that there are differing opinions here. Some think it’s important to introduce their kids to the existence of transgender individuals, since we are part of everyday life, while others believe that young children shouldn’t be exposed to transgender existence at all. I can empathize with both positions to a certain extent.
But speaking specifically to those who do want to expose their children to gender diversity, wouldn’t it be more helpful for your children to meet someone like me as an example of unremarkable human diversity than to attend a kiddie drag show? If our message is that gender diversity exists and is simply a part of life then we don’t need to make a big deal of it—we can just let it happen as it arises.
There are lots of young children in my life. Below a certain age they usually don’t notice anything particularly unusual about me because their own conceptualizations of sex and gender are not solidified, and older children might notice that I am a bit different. This can lead to some really great conversations between parent and child.
Drag story hour reminds me movie troupes as we’ve worked towards gay acceptance. First, gay individuals on TV were exclusively villainized. That was a problem. We then reached an era where gay characters were flat characters portrayed solely as being gay. Sure, we had visibility, but their entire persona was fixated around their over-the-top gayness. It’s better than villainization—I suppose—but do you know what we really needed? Highlighting that gay men and lesbians can be doctors or construction workers or accountants or nurses just like everyone else. We needed characters who were complex humans who happened to be gay, rather than characters who existed only to fulfill the most regressive gay stereotype.
So, if you’re going to argue that we need to highlight gender diverse individuals to children, I hope this gives you pause. How might we do this in a way that actually creates a realistic understanding. That creates acceptance and empathy towards real individuals, not caricatures of regressive stereotypes.