Miss Shirley doesn’t like reading monster stories to children. Like the one about the 31 monsters who recently gathered in a small army in Idaho with the intention of inciting a riot at a nearby Pride event. It’s a true story that comes with the disturbing message that sometimes monsters are just human. But men can be even more gruesome than monsters.
Miss Shirley enjoys reading stories to children like ‘Perfectly Norman’ by Tom Percival. It’s about a little boy who grows a pair of wings, but he doesn’t know how the people in his life will respond to them – so he covers them with a cloak. But when he does, he quickly realizes that he can’t do everything he wants to do. So he blames his wings – when it’s really the coat that’s the problem.
“My goal is to celebrate and encourage inclusion and diversity,” said Miss Shirley, the alter ego of Denver third-grade teacher Stuart Sanks, who is also known in national drag queen circles. as Shirley Delta Blow. His message to children is one that should only threaten those who are threatened by inclusion, fairness and equality.
“I teach kids that there are different types of people in the world and different ways to live your life — and just because they’re different doesn’t mean they’re bad or bad,” Sanks said. “If we don’t get to know people who are different from us, how can we make a human connection?”
It’s the heartbeat behind the radically embracing (and therefore inherently threatening) “Drag Queen Story Time”, when Miss Shirley gathers with children and their families at local libraries and bookstores to read stories that teach lessons. about diversity, self-love and an appreciation of others.
But in 2022, this seemingly uncontroversial message finds itself in the eye of a perfect storm in the battle for freedoms and free speech. After the dismantling Roe vs. Wade On Friday, Justice Clarence Thomas asked the Supreme Court to review precedents protecting same-sex marriage and other LGBTQ+ rights. And it comes during Pride Month, when more and more millions of queer people and their allies gather around the world to celebrate the freedom to just be themselves.
And the stronger this joy becomes, the greater the backlash.
In 2019, Miss Shirley hosted a ‘Drag Queen Story Time’ event at the Bookbar in northwest Denver. A man from a white nationalist hate group called Patriot Front arrived to disrupt the event and was arrested for vandalizing a storefront.
Over the past year, tensions have only escalated. The “Don’t Say Gay” education legislation that was passed in Florida is now making progress in other states. And increasingly, far-right politicians are targeting drag queen events for kids. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis recently suggested he could urge state child protective services to investigate parents who take their children to drag shows.
After Colorado Rep. Lauren Boebert learned that a bar in Texas was hosting a ‘Drag Your Kids To Pride’ event targeted by protesters, she tweeted, “Take your kids to CHURCH, not the bars. of dragsters.” Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene joined the chorus of outrage, tweeting, “It should be illegal to take kids to drag queen shows and strip clubs” — as if there was an equivalence. And Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, who is being investigated by the FBI for suspected minors in sex trafficking, retweeted this message: “They say it’s innocent. They say it’s just a matter of inclusion and acceptance. They say no one is trying to confuse, corrupt or sexualize children. They lie.”
What changed in the speech, Sanks said, is that once upon a time, if parents didn’t want to take their kids to “Drag Queen Story Time,” they just didn’t. “But now it’s turned into ‘I don’t want my kid to go to Drag Queen Story Time – so no kid should go to Drag Queen Story Time,'” he said.
But the success of their efforts, Sanks says, has only emboldened the protesters and amplified the toxic rhetoric. On June 9, a Texas pastor named Dillon Awes of Stedfast Baptist Church in Watauga went online and proclaimed that “every gay man in our country should be… lined up against the wall and touched in the back of the head,” because he said, “That’s what God teaches. That’s what the Bible says.
This kind of inflammatory language, Sanks said, increasingly puts the LGBTQ+ community at risk. Libraries and bookstores that schedule storytime events receive coordinated angry emails and phone calls in advance (mostly from out-of-state, Sanks says) asking for the events to be canceled — and issuing threats if they continue.
“They try to scare people away from attending these events, and that’s why I say these are incidences of domestic terrorism,” said Sanks, who is now often accompanied by a guard for Security. Friends and allies have formed a group called the Parasol Patrol that attends all Drag Queen Story Time events and creates a human wall with rainbow-colored flags and umbrellas as a protective barrier ( and elegant) between families and protesters who might show up.
Here’s the part Sanks doesn’t understand: “No one has been able to tell me what’s wrong with these stories,” he said. “I read stories of unicorns and cupcakes to children.” But then he places his finger squarely on the open wound:
“It’s not what’s in the book that’s offensive (to them) – it’s what’s in the dress,” he said. “If I dressed as a boy and read those same stories, no one would be offended.”
But the problem with bullies is that bullying works. Sanks has canceled several scheduled events, most recently on June 18 at the Denver Botanical Gardens. Officials there were caught off guard for the coordinated early protest, and they had no precedent for how to handle the situation if it continued and the worst happened.
Jennifer Riley-Chetwynd, the Botanic Gardens’ director of marketing and social responsibility, called the reversal a heartbreaking decision the organization didn’t want to make. “After receiving threats of violence and monitoring recent disruptions at similar events across the country, we have made the difficult decision to cancel out of concern for public safety,” Riley-Chetwynd said. “This decision was not taken lightly, and we remain an institution committed to inclusion.”
Sanks understands that. But, he added: ‘Cancelling events because we feel the pressure of a vocal minority saying violent and hateful things sends a very dangerous message to our queer youth that yes, there is something wrong. don’t go to your place. There is something controversial about you. This is a dangerous message to send to anyone.
And one that Nicole Sullivan isn’t ready to do. She owns Bookbar and now The Bookies in Glendale, where the next “Drag Queen Story Time” will take place, she promises, on July 1. “We have a history with these guys,” she said of the protesters – and she won’t be intimidated by them.
“The political environment has become much more contentious in recent years,” she said. “Given this, I think it is even more important that we stand up against these threats. It just makes me want to stay even more firmly in my positions. It is now more important than ever that these events happen and not be silenced. The message we want to send is that we all want to be inclusive and support our LBGTQ+ customers and readers. »
GerRee Hinshaw, a mother from Wheat Ridge and local actor, has yet to attend a “Drag Queen Story Time” event but, she said, “Hearing about what happened at the Denver Botanic Gardens makes me want to work harder to go to the next one, and inspire other parents and their kids to do the same. Because if I can show up for the LGBTQ+ community just by entertaining my kid with a wonderful storyteller, I don’t know how it gets any easier than that.
What’s lost in all of this, Sullivan said, is that “Drag Queen Story Time” is simply about promoting literacy and making story time fun. “These kids don’t see politics,” she says. “They see unicorns, glitter and fabulousness. And if that makes them more excited about literacy, then… great.