“Reimagining the World” through drag

Lil Miss Hot Mess. (Photo credit: Tammy Orr Wyant, Museum of Contemporary Art Tucson)

Politicians in Florida and Texas have proposed banning minors from drag performances, including storytimes for children. There have been demonstrations by white supremacists at drag storytimes in California and North Carolina. Drag queen and children’s book author Lil Miss Hot Mess has been a leading voice opposing those actions, and thinks kids and drag have a natural rapport.

“There are so many cultural affinities between kids and drag queens,” she said in an interview. “We’re both encouraged to explore and expand our imaginations, to tap into our creativity, to use play as something that’s not only fun but also a learning opportunity. Drag queens get to play dress-up for a living.”

Hot Mess, who has performed on Saturday Night Live (among other venues), is an assistant professor at the University of Arizona and serves on the board of Drag Queen Story Hour (DQSH), a nonprofit network that organizes readings for children at libraries, schools, and bookstores. She has been doing drag storytimes since 2016, the year after DQSH formed.

“Seeing kids’ reactions to drag and their interpretations of it is so incredible,” she observed. When kids come dressed up to DQSH events, “Sometimes I don’t know if it’s their version of drag, if it’s a leftover Halloween costume, if it’s their Disney princess look. There is something powerful about that transformation … about having the audacity to be creative and public.”

Even at home, she said, “There are ways parents can use drag as a tool to invite creativity and play with their own children,” such as sometimes changing “dress-up time into drag time” or encouraging kids “to express themselves artistically as performers, as visual artists, musicians, or whatever interest they have.”

Her picture books, “The Hips on the Drag Queen Go Swish, Swish, Swish,” and “If You’re a Drag Queen and You Know It” (Running Press), further invite kids “into the action” of drag. She explained, “There is a long history of drag performers making parodies of songs, so this felt like an age-appropriate way to do that. I also wanted kids to see what it feels like to shimmy their shoulders or push their hips or shout ‘Yaas, queen!’ because even if that’s not who they are, I think another part of drag is about stepping outside of your comfort zone and being willing to try something new to better get at who you are, inside and outside.”

Although that may seem like a positive lesson, Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) last month specifically targeted Hot Mess and her first book in a letter to the Secretary of the Air Force, successfully urging him to cancel a scheduled DQSH reading for Air Force families and repeating myths that the event would include “explicitly sexualized” performers.

“I didn’t expect this intensification and level of hatred and violence to be so profound lately,” Hot Mess said. Yet even though she’s “horrified” that “words like ‘groomer’ are becoming more mainstream in conservative discourse as ways to try to discredit all LGBTQ people,” she noted, “That’s the kind of language that’s been thrown around at us and our program for years now. I wish that more mainstream LGBT groups and progressive groups had been taking that seriously all along.”

The current attacks, she said, are “rooted in the same old homophobia, transphobia, racism, sexism, etc.,” with the politicians “targeting a group to deflect attention from themselves” and from their inaction on matters like gun violence.

She views the attacks as a “war on imagination,” explaining, “They want us to be afraid, they want us to not be able to imagine possibilities beyond what they’re offering us. I think one of the great potentials — and to them one of the threats — is that drag offers us a way of reimagining the world to be a more bright and beautiful place.”

“I like to remind them that we’re doing this in age-appropriate ways, we get trained by librarians and educators, and we think deeply about how to translate this traditional art form of drag into things that will be not only appropriate but also educational and entertaining for children,” she explained.

She added that DQSH embodies many of the same themes and values already promoted in children’s literature, “like expressing yourself, finding your inner voice, standing up for what you believe in and for your friends, standing up against bullies, and doing things to make the world around you a better place.”

To help counter the attacks, the biggest thing people can do is to financially support programs like DQSH, she said. They can also work with local libraries and schools to create demand for such events. To minimize potential opposition, she suggests “relationship building and knowing who your allies are,” so that supporters will likely outnumber any protesters. Additionally, “Having conversations with families about the value of Story Hour, about the history and herstory of drag and the ways in which drag performers have been and are parts of communities, the ways they can position drag performers as role models for children, all helps to set the stage.”

She admitted, “We’re in a moment where the Right is trying to claw back the rights and freedoms that we’ve achieved in the past several decades through multiple political struggles, and it’s scary.” At the same time, she asserted, “I’m optimistic that if we keep holding our heads up high, if we keep organizing like our lives depend on it, and if we keep creating joy and fabulousness, that we can truly build the more just world we all want to live in.”

Dana Rudolph is the founder and publisher of Mombian (mombian.com), a GLAAD Media Award-winning blog and resource directory, with a searchable database of 1000+ LGBTQ family books, media, and more.

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