‘There is just a lot of anxiety in the community’: Bay Area drag queens become targets for right-wing agitators – San Francisco Chronicle

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Per Sia was on edge. She had read to children more times than she could count as part of Drag Queen Story Hours throughout the Bay Area. When the program started in 2015, she was its first reader, one of the founding queens. She calls it “one my favorite things to do in the whole world.”

But last Tuesday, as she got ready for a reading in Oakland, she couldn’t shake a deep anxiety. Just days before, five men thought to belong to the far-right Proud Boys group had stormed a storytelling event in San Lorenzo, shouting down the reader, calling her a pedophile.

Story hour has long been a target of right-wing outrage, but it had never felt so real, so close, Per Sia said. “What makes me think that I’m excluded from having someone barge into a Drag Queen Story Hour?”

Per Sia — pronounced like “Persia” — hailed a ride from San Francisco to the Rockridge neighborhood. That felt safer than taking public transit in drag. When she arrived at the library, she saw a police car in the parking lot. The library staff greeted her warmly, thanked her for being there and proceeded to give her instructions in case of an emergency.

“Just in case anything happens, you must go up these stairs, turn the corner, go down that hall,” they told her as they walked her through all the steps. “You’re going to lock yourself in this office and hide under this desk.”

“As an adult, I’ve never experienced that,” Per Sia said. And yet, two days later, before another reading, the organizers walked her through a similar set of precautions.

“I guess now that’s going to be sort of the norm,” she said. “When you think about it, you’re like, ‘I’m just reading to kids.’ And while I’m so appreciative of these extra measures, it was a little traumatizing.”

In recent weeks, right-wing agitators have seized on drag as the latest front in the culture wars, part of an ongoing effort to paint queer people as groomers and pedophiles.

Late last month, the influential antigay and anti-trans Libs of TikTok Twitter account, which has more than 1 million followers, tweeted a thread of family-oriented drag events, including the story hour in San Lorenzo, Libs of TikTok, which, according to the Washington Post, is run by a real estate agent in Brooklyn, did not respond to a request for comment.

This month, Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida successfully shut down a planned drag storytelling event at the Ramstein Air Base in Germany. (As part of his objection, he cited a book read at an earlier event titled “The Hips on the Drag Queen Go Swish, Swish, Swish.”) Republican lawmakers in Florida, Arizona and Texas have announced plans to pass legislation banning children from drag events.

The allegation that children are not safe around — or could somehow be indoctrinated by — queer people has a long history in American conservatism, even in California. In 1978, activists Harvey Milk and Sally Gearhart campaigned successfully against the Briggs Initiative, a statewide proposition that sought to block openly out individuals from teaching in public schools. Recently the online right has breathed new life into this trope, stirring up controversies around LGBT-themed books in public libraries and pushing Republican legislators in more than a dozen states to try to ban teachers from discussing gender and sexuality in the classroom. Last week, Ben Shapiro, a popular right-wing podcast host, took aim at queer representation in media, specifically criticizing the inclusion of a lesbian couple in Disney-Pixar’s “Lightyear,” a “Toy Story” spin-off movie.

Henry, 6, and Luca, 3, listen to Yves Saint Croissant as she reads a children’s book during Drag Queen Story Hour at a Pride event for the National Center for Lesbian Rights in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco.

Henry, 6, and Luca, 3, listen to Yves Saint Croissant as she reads a children’s book during Drag Queen Story Hour at a Pride event for the National Center for Lesbian Rights in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco.

Photos by Adam Pardee / Special to The Chronicle

Drag Queen Story Hour, a nonprofit that began in San Francisco in 2015 and has since grown to 50 chapters in the U.S. and 20 chapters internationally, has always dealt with a certain level of right-wing resistance. But the events in San Lorenzo have driven home the reality that the culture wars playing out online and in states such as Texas and Florida have effects even in the progressive Bay Area.

“Because we’re in San Francisco, and we’re in such a bubble, I kind of took for granted that it wouldn’t happen to anybody here,” said Yves Saint Croissant, another one of the founding story hour queens. Now, she can’t help but wonder and worry about how this all ends — and she knows other drag performers are feeling the same way. “I think there is just a lot of anxiety in the community.”

While some drag can be raunchy and risque, that’s not the case with Drag Queen Story Hour, Yves Saint Croissant said. These are children-focused events, with age-appropriate books. “I pick books that are going to make them laugh and have fun,” she said. “I think it’s about showcasing and developing creativity in any sense.”

Yves Saint Croissant grew up in a strict Jehovah’s Witnesses family in Orange County. That upbringing left her with a lot of self-hate that has taken years to untangle, she said. Something like Drag Queen Story Hour could have been a saving grace. “That’s what keeps me going.”

Drag Queen Story Hour started as part of a program to “queer the Castro.” Writer and activist Michelle Tea, who now lives in Los Angeles, got the idea after taking her child to library readings. They were boring and flat. Drag queens, it occurred to her, were the answer. “It would just transform it,” she thought at the time. “It would just make it so much more fun.”

The concept took off and quickly became a mainstay in Bay Area libraries. “We hear from parents of LGBTQIA+ children all the time about what it means for them to see their children represented in our collection and programs and to also know that their kids feel safe coming into our spaces and engaging with our staff,” San Francisco City Librarian Michael Lambert wrote in a statement after the San Lorenzo incident.

“Children obviously adore costumes — intense expressions of femininity are very delightful for children. You know, think of fairies and ‘Frozen’ and princess culture and all of that,” Tea said. “And drag queens encompass all of that in a way that is even more fun because there is that camp humor aesthetic.

“Anybody who thinks that there’s a problem with kids being around drag queens, you know, needs to investigate why they think that.”

Jonathan Hamilt, the executive director of Drag Queen Story Hour, put it more bluntly: “Any insinuation that we’re doing anything other than education is just deeply rooted in homophobia and transphobia.”

At least one highly influential right-wing activist is making that subtext clear. On Friday, Christopher Rufo, the man who helped spark the movement to ban critical race theory and discussions of gender and sexuality from classrooms, tweeted, “Conservatives should start using the phrase ‘trans stripper’ in lieu of ‘drag queen.’ It has a more lurid set of connotations and shifts the debate to sexualization.”

Yves Saint Croissant reads to children during Drag Queen Story Hour at a Pride event for the National Center for Lesbian Rights in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco.

Yves Saint Croissant reads to children during Drag Queen Story Hour at a Pride event for the National Center for Lesbian Rights in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco.

Adam Pardee/Special to The Chronicle

“To them anything queer is sexual,” said Lil Miss Hot Mess, the drag queen who wrote the book that Rubio singled out. She serves on the board for Drag Queen Story Hour and said there are discussions about security and how to respond to the increasingly heated rhetoric, though she declined to offer specifics for safety reasons.

“Drag Queen Story Hour has been the canary in the coal mine, a little bit,” she said over the phone from Tucson, where she lives part time. “We’ve been getting this rhetoric for years that now has become more and more mainstream. And that’s scary, not not just for us, but for society as a whole.

“This groomer discourse — it’s so hard to know how to respond to it because it’s so absurd and it has such strong kind of rhetorical value.”

Still, a part of her sees the blowback as a sign that “we’re doing something right.” Drag is about “literally changing the world around you,” and she said that scares the people pushing these narratives.

At one of Per Sia’s readings last week, the room was packed with families. Many of them told her they were there because they had heard about what happened in San Lorenzo. They wanted to support the libraries, and they wanted to support her.

“It took all my energy not to start crying right there,” she said, her voice cracking a bit, “because I felt safe and accepted. And I realized my work is not in vain.”

Ryan Kost is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @RyanKost

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