For most girls, there’s nothing worse than showing up to a party to find your outfit matches someone else’s.
But at Drag Queen Story Hour, there’s no shame in donning the same purple sparkles as storyteller Tree Empress 45 Onalicious Mercury. Just ask 7-year-old Nevele Martin, who wore her most sequined, feathery, royal purple dress for the Sunday story hour at the Vancouver Community Library’s Columbia Room.
“Their dresses are so pretty,” said the wide-eyed girl, gazing at the bedazzling queen.
Drag Queen Story Hour is an international event started by RADAR Productions, a San Francisco-based queer literary arts organization. Libraries across the world have hosted storytellers in drag. More than 100 people packed the Vancouver Community Library for its second Drag Queen Story Hour to dance, sing, craft and, of course, listen to Onalicious read stories.
“You can be anything you want,” Onalicious told the children at one point. “I’m a drag queen.”
But where performers have gone, controversy has followed. A cluster of protesters including Rep. Vicki Kraft, R-Vancouver, gathered in front of the library to protest the event. They were challenged by black-clad counterprotesters, but it was a mostly civil demonstration.
Critics say it’s inappropriate for drag queens who also perform at bars and night clubs to be invited to read to young children. Kraft said the event promotes “gender confusion, which is damaging to children.”
“It’s taking advantage of young minds,” Kraft said.
Gary Wilson, another protester, is encouraging people to vote no on the next Fort Vancouver Regional Libraries levy. (Drag Queen Story Hour is paid for by nonprofit Friends of the Library, not the library itself.) Wilson said he’s gathered 3,500 signatures in that effort so far.
“That’s how strongly they feel about it,” he said.
Those inside the library, however, dismiss the notion that there’s anything dangerous or damaging about a drag queen reading to children. Onalicious Mercury is the alter ego of Owen McHatton, who has been performing in drag for more than a decade. Drag has become increasingly popular in the last 15 years and is reaching more audiences than ever before, McHatton said, so it makes sense to bring the same glitz and glamor of drag to a family-friendly stage.
“We’re the embodiment of fantasy and fairy tales,” he said. “Why not be for kids?”
McHatton selected a series of books for Sunday featuring messages of self-expression and self-acceptance, like the popular “Julian is a Mermaid,” about a little boy whose grandmother encourages him to dress as the mythical aquatic creature.
“I’ve read that book like a thousand times,” squealed one excited child to laughs from the adults in the room.
“We’re just trying to be a positive image of your dreams can come true,” McHatton said. “What your imagination is telling you can come true.”
Take little Nevele, who dreams of being a drag queen some day, according to her mother, Bertney Martin. She even has a stage name picked out: Ariel Sparkle, combining her love of mermaids with her love of, well, sparkles. Onalicious Mercury showed Nevele how to pose like a queen at one point, one hand planted on her hip and the other held high in the air.
“She thinks the overdone makeup, the jewels are amazing,” Martin said. “She was so excited.”
Meanwhile, Ken Mach was helping his daughter Hazel, 4, make a crown to accompany her unicorn outfit.
“We support programs that allow kids to see and celebrate all marginalized people,” said Mach, as his daughter scampered off to dance with the other kids. He shrugged off the controversy, saying there’s no need for divisiveness at a children’s story hour. He just wants his children to celebrate “the unique qualities we all have,” he said.
“They don’t see the negativity,” he said. “They just see the love.”