Silver six-inch stilettos tap across the floor.
Miss Sandy’s nylons snake up her long legs leading to a tight pink pencil skirt and matching blazer. Her nails have elegant French tips and her hair is styled to an Audrey Hepburn-esque updo. Her shoulders are pressed back, and she seems to glide across the floor rather than walk.
She smooths her skirt, sits down and crosses her legs. This isn’t in a drag bar with fancy lights and a cheering crowd, but with kids sitting crisscross applesauce waiting to be read to. Miss Sandy may sing a song, but nothing you’d see on a Saturday night, less Gaga and more “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.”
Miss Sandy reads “Where the Wild Things Are” out loud in a voice that fills every space of the bookstore and lingers on each page to show pictures. Parents eye their children to make sure they are on their best behavior, but kids have no trouble paying attention. In fact, they can’t seem to take their eyes off of their beloved story reader.
A new reality
Drag Story Hour Arizona is a local chapter of a national nonprofit organization with the mission of bringing children LGBTQ role models through storytelling. For three years, volunteers have read to children in rented out library spaces, bookstores and LGBTQ events.
But now amid coronavirus shutdowns and social distancing, drag queens and kings have migrated to virtual platforms to tell stories to children. With kids sheltering in place, Drag Story Hour fills a need for many families.
By reading stories virtually, Drag Story Hour will continue with its mission of offering kids LGBTQ role models, encouraging inclusivity and promoting literacy.
The Arizona chapter, founded in 2018 by Phoenix residents Michelle Thorstad, David Boyle and Christopher Hall, has hosted around one event a month.
Arizona’s drag storytellers have faced numerous hurdles, but nobody expected the challenge posed by a pandemic.
Due to social distancing, Drag Queen Story Hour in Arizona and nationally stopped face-to-face story hours. To stay connected, many of the national organizations turned to livestreamed story hours. Many take place on Facebook Live. Each chapter has its own schedule and links to a variety of livestreams.
Thorstad says major chapters like San Francisco, LA and New York have had a story hour once a week. The Arizona chapter, Thorstad says, waited until Pride weekend in early April to launch its first virtual story hour to give plenty of time to put together at-home program materials for families, sing along songs and test technology.
Due to COVID-19 and social distancing, Arizona Pride weekend moved onto online platforms. By going to a “Virtual Pride” website, participants could find links for livestreamed events for the various organizations participating in Pride weekend, including Drag Story Hour.
The nonprofit had three livestreamed events, two being children’s virtual story hour similar to many other story hours playing across the United States and Mexico. Drag king Keo Llewelyn read the first and drag queen Felicia Minor read the second. Both were streamed on Facebook Live. The page stayed active with posts, including PDFs for at-home arts and crafts, a literacy tip sheet for parents, book titles, and links for singalong songs.
Due to copyright laws, the livestreamed book readings are no longer available on Facebook Live, but the Drag Story Hour team encourages users to like its Facebook page to stay up to date on more events coming up in the future.
On April 5, instead of another story hour, three drag queens conducted a Q&A session about Drag Story Hour and drag as a whole. The discussion ranged from literacy and favorite books to read aloud, to identity, pronouns and the importance of LGBTQ role models for children. The drag queens, dressed in their finest, shared their own experiences of having a lack of a support system and emphasized the importance of creating their own within the LGBTQ community.
Being part of Drag Story Hour is a gift.
At the end of the weekend, more than 3,800 people had tuned into Virtual Pride.
Who knew rainbows could be so controversial?
Thorstad, now a 26-year-old ASU librarian, started Drag Story Hour in 2018. At the time, she worked for a different library, which she won’t name. She said it was well funded and had a nice story hour room for children to sit and listen, but there was one thing missing.
“I started to notice that programs weren’t that diverse. They mainly catered to the wealthy, heterosexual, Caucasian family. I wanted to change that.”
She and a coworker tried reading books that had two mommies or two daddies instead of a heterosexual family as the focus. Upset parents posted on the library website, outraged by the LGBTQ story hour content. The books were “completely uncalled for,” Thorstad recalls the parents saying.
“We shouldn’t be sharing stories about this because it’s a political issue,” she recalls hearing. “We shouldn’t be forcing the LGBTQ lifestyle on people.”
Instead of giving up, Thorstad continued to bring in books that promoted gender diversity. “Surprisingly enough,” Thorstad says, parents didn’t post complaints on the website. But she recalls one parent saying: “That was a cute story; however, don’t you think that was an inappropriate topic to talk about?’”
Thorstad says that was the push she needed. “It got me thinking that we need story hours like this, especially in Arizona. She added there weren’t many “publicized rainbow story hours” because of the “controversy that surrounds it.”
She was close to hosting her own rainbow story hour at a public library but was suddenly rebuffed. The library said no. The library told her to modify her event, taking out any mention of LGBTQ and reducing the number of decorative rainbows, she recalls.
Oftentimes, Thorstad says, public libraries fear losing funding if they put out programs supportive of the LGBTQ community.
Thorstad worked around the restrictions by holding a private story hour in a rented library space. The drag queen reader, Miss Nature—Hall’s stage name—would later become one of the founding board members of the organization.
Thirty people attended.
“I decided I had done enough at that public library and couldn’t really progress,” she says. She joined GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network), a nonprofit organization dedicated to creating a positive learning environment for LGBTQ students. She met fellow board member David Boyles at GLSEN’s anti-bullying seminar.
It was Boyle’s idea to turn the story hours into a nonprofit organization and affiliate with Drag Queen Story Hour National.
The first story hour as a nonprofit kicked off February 9, 2018.
The self-proclaimed queen of charity
It’s the lack of LGBTQ support Hall experienced during his own childhood that pushed him to work with children and charities across Arizona.
Hall started as a drag queen performing in bars as Nadi Nature, rather than Miss Nature, in 2012. “The activism was always there. I’ve done drag in Maricopa, Coolidge and Apache Junction. However, I didn’t like everything that happened in bars. I wanted to have a show for all ages to attend, but it wasn’t until Michelle reached out to me and I started working in that setting.”
Along with Drag Story Hour, Hall hosted and performed at several charity events and benefits for a variety of nonprofits and organizations, from women’s abuse to humane societies.
Growing up in Florence, a small town between Phoenix and Tucson, Hall had trouble finding access to the LGBTQ community. Hall’s experience with a lack of support pushed him to help others. Although his mother was supportive, his father did quite the opposite.
“He would call me Christina when I would do things. He would blame me for things,” Hall recalls. “When I first discovered makeup, I started wearing it in high school and he would make me stand 50 feet away from him in stores so he wouldn’t be associated with me.”
Over time, Hall says his father took a “complete 180.” Hall’s father saw how Hall helped the community through Drag Story Hour and helped in the growth of their relationship. “At the end of the day, I’m his son and he loves me unconditionally,” he says.
In 2018, Hall became the “self-proclaimed queen of charity,” with Miss Nature, a polished person who is one and the same with Hall. “She’s given me the confidence to be who I truly am” he says.
While the fundraisers’ main goal is to help those in need, a major benefit of the charities is the improvement of the image of drag. “For a lot of people, our community is about sex, drugs and alcohol. I want to show that there’s more to us than that,” Hall says.
Hall puts on five benefits, participates in 15 outside charity events and hosts story hours. During performances at the events, Hall and six other performers will do a routine, which caters to people outside the LGBTQ community.
At a recent fundraiser, Hall’s team brought in over $30,000.
Hall emphasizes even though the community receives more support, there are still stories of struggle, much like his own.
“It’s really important why we as a community need to help one another. You get to choose your family sometimes. While your biological family does not support you, we can help create a support system within the community.”
The growth and the resistance
Declaring official 501(c)(3) status in March 2018, Drag Story Hour grew from having two events a year to one event a month.
The organization’s social media accounts have over 1,000 followers and gained local partners.
Bookman’s, a local bookstore chain, helps them put on several story hours. The Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art had them participate in an event, and ASU professors reached out to partner with for projects.
With rapid growth and attention comes resistance.
At events, Drag Story Hour experienced protesters outside their reading time, Thorstad says. Groups like Purple for Parents and Patriots in Arizona, which are anti-LGBTQ groups, have a strong stance in the Arizona government, Boyles says.
Sometimes there are days with over 50 protesters and families have to be escorted to their cars, and sometimes it’s completely peaceful, Boyles says. It depends on what comes up in the groups’ social media and blog posts.
They have received hate comments on social media, to which they don’t acknowledge and they delete immediately, Boyles says.
For them, it’s a matter of giving facts, not engaging with the protesters, and staying true to their mission.
Through rain comes a rainbow
The struggle and hardship are more of a reason why Drag Story Hour needs to exist, Boyles and Thorstad say.
“Drag is a part of our history, of our community, of our culture, and should be celebrated. It should be passed on to the next generation,” Boyles says.
Thorstad says, “It’s really about celebrating those differences that we have, and we should try to embrace them as much as possible.”
Kids don’t mind, nor do they question having drag hosts read to them. Thorstad thinks this has a lot to do with reality TV shows like “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and the new Netflix original series “AJ and the Queen” becoming more popular staple shows in households, exposing kids to the LGBTQ community.
The hosts are seen as princesses or princes in the eyes of children, rather than the beautiful divas and strong kings strutting on bar stages.
Hall said he’s blessed to be a part of Drag Story Hour. “The ability to create an environment that I didn’t have when I was growing up and to be able to offer that for future generations is a remarkable feeling for me. It’s more than I could ever imagine.”