New York’s drag queens show kids it’s okay to be themselves

By Evelina Kulp


Drag Queen Story Hour in New York are teaching kids that there are many ways to be, one story at a time. Having a positive queer role model makes a huge difference.’

‘Does anybody know what a drag queen is?’, Chalula Lemon asks as she steps onto the stage at the Brooklyn Children’s Museum on Saturday, meeting a crowd of around sixty children and parents. ‘Well, a drag queen is not a dragon. It’s somebody that likes to create a fantasy and play dress up’, she says, the kids cheering. ‘You also like playing dress up? I love it!’

Drag queen story hour is an organisation that hosts events with drag queens reading stories to children in libraries, schools and community spaces in more than 25 cities in the U.S. The purpose of DQSH is to help kids develop empathy and tolerance and to celebrate gender diversity. ‘We want to help kids see beyond ‘blue is for boys, pink is for girls’. We want to provide queer role models for kids to teach them that it’s okay to be themselves’, says Rachel Aimee who is one of the founders of the NYC chapter. ‘And kids love it! They are amazed by the drag queen’s creative expression and outfits.’

The organisation was first founded in San Francisco in 2015, and the NYC chapter was started in August 2016. The NYC chapter has twelve performers and do about eight events a month across the city. Jordana Starkman, who is the manager of public programming at the Brooklyn Children’s Museum, says it’s one of their most popular events, and one of those that parents and children enjoy equally. ‘We have an advocacy programme where we teach children to express themselves and stand up for themselves and their communities in a healthy way. DQSH is a part of the programme that really hits those values’, she says. ‘Here at the museum we really strive to show every type of lifestyle, so every child can see themself reflected but also learn that there are many different ways to be.’

Chalula Lemon starts off the Story Hour lip syncing a Disney song, then goes on to reading a few books and singing ‘Shoulders, knees and toes’. ‘See how good she is with the kids? It’s important to us that the drags we send out aren’t just great performers but that they can also relate to the kids’, says Mor Erlich who is Chalula’s facilitator for the day. Chalula has been doing drag for two and half years and she’s been a part of Story Hour for two. She says doing drag for children is not too different from performing to adults. ‘We joke and say drunk adults are a lot like kids, but what I love about kids is that they’re naturally so open minded and non-judgemental.’

Chalula grew up in South Texas, which is a more conservative community than NYC. She says that one of the most rewarding moments of DQSH has been getting messages from mothers that live in South Texas, saying that they are inspired by what she does. ‘That is really touching to hear and that is why we need to keep doing this. Their kids need to see this. I wish I had this growing up. Having a positive queer role model makes a huge difference.’

DQSH is growing in the whole country, and in NYC the response has been overwhelmingly positive. Rachel Aimee says that if there’s negative responses, they are mostly found online. ‘But DQSH chapters in other parts of the country have a much harder time with protesters than we do here in NYC’, Rachel says. For instance, a City Commissioner in a Michigan community said DQSH would confuse children from defining their gender identities. In the media DQSH has been harshly criticized on far-right Breitbart News, Rapture Forum and Daily Wire.

Chalula Lemon agrees and thinks it’s important to still keep growing in visibility in NYC to support the other chapters across the country. As part of their growing, the NYC chapter has started doing programming for older kids and teens as well as younger kids. ‘For instance, we are starting to do DQSH makeup tutorials for teens’, says founder Rachel Aimee. The goal for the chapter is to become a sustainable nonprofit organisation with full-time paid staff.