Society

Far-right religious groups protest my drag storytime events. Here’s why I won’t stop.

"These protests are about power and control of knowledge. Drag Queen Story Time is about education."
By Isaac Maker
IMG_5442_PC Erika Mark

I’ve loved the arts since I was kid—piano lessons, painting and drawing, trips to the theatre in Peterborough with my mom. When I was four, we went to see Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. We were up in the mezzanine and, apparently, during the intermission I went up to the barrier and asked “How do I get down there, to the stage?” It’s unclear whether I was just asking for better tickets, but my mom likes to say that I knew I was destined to be a performer.

I found drag when I was fourteen, watching seasons 8 and 9 of RuPaul’s Drag Race. There was such a huge focus on creativity, comedy and costume. I was so inspired by Bob the Drag Queen’s ability to come up with non-stop quips or Sasha Velour and Shea Coulée creating the most stunning conceptual looks on the runway. And the divas—they were similar to me, but they were elevated versions of me. Queer people who were not just creative geniuses, but also kind, caring, compassionate and funny.

READ: How drag is revitalizing queer culture in rural Canada and smaller cities like Kingston

In February of 2019, when I was 15, I performed as Betty Baker for the first time at a charity bingo event at Trent University. That’s where I met my drag mother—my mentor—Sahira Q. She’s taught me a lot of dance, shared wigs and jewelry with me and helped me with the business side of drag—producing shows and making sure they’re accessible, booking other performers, making posters. I look up to her not just as a performer but also a person. 

From that point on, I had one or two monthly gigs—then Covid hit. Doing drag over the pandemic was interesting. It lacked the performance and audience interaction, but I got to work on my sewing and content creation. My mom and I did a four-part livestream series, Baking with Betty Baker, where we made cookies and muffins and raised $1,000 for Kawartha Food Share, which distributes food to food banks. I did online drag competitions, like Drag Rodeo. Every month, there’d be a challenge, like making a music video. I did “Babooshka” by Kate Bush and hand-painted clouds on grey fabric to make it look like the cover of her album Never for Ever. I’m still friends with some of the divas I competed against—online drag gave a lot of young performers the chance to curate community throughout the pandemic.

Storytime also started online. It was my mom’s idea—she’s a retired teacher—and she thought it would be great if I could just read books over the internet. My mom has always been supportive of me as a queer person. When I wanted to try makeup, we went right to Shoppers Drug Market. My stepdad is phenomenal too. He organizes all my shows and sets up the sound equipment and he’s an absolute business mastermind. And, honestly, he has great drag ideas. My 90-year-old grandma taught me to sew and comes to all my shows. Everyone in Peterborough has always been so supportive, too.

(Photo by Chris Coghill)

I worked with Lavender and Play, a local pregnancy and children’s store, to make some storytime videos, and then they had me in-person last year. We had a packed house. It was so much fun.

Last September—Pride month in Peterborough—someone from our local library reached out. They’d been receiving a lot of requests for more content catering to queer families and their allies, and they wanted me to do storytime. Not just for Pride, but all year long. They believe things like drag storytime that should be a regular part of their programming. September was our kick-off event.

I’ve been lucky. Until last September, I’d never really faced any adversity or harassment as a drag queen. 

A few weeks ahead of storytime, someone sent me a blog post by Hill City Baptist Church. It talked about grooming, and the sexualization of children, and how drag queens are evil because they’re men wearing women’s clothing. (I mean, I don’t identify as a man, but I guess that’s beside the point.) I felt sick to my stomach.

I was at Sahira’s house when I first saw the post. I don’t know what I would have done if I’d been alone. I was scrolling through the comments, and one stuck with me. I still think about it sometimes. It said “A psychologically distraught pedo turned up to storytime expecting a crowd of children and instead there were 50 dads waiting to beat Dorothy within an inch of her life.”

I had never received a death threat before. (And to have the first one be so creative…) There were so many other comments on the post that were just like that one. It hurts so much. That’s not what drag is, that’s not what I’m doing. Betty has become an extension of me. She’s bubbly, optimistic, happy, fun, and she just wants to make people smile. That’s all I’ve ever wanted to do with my drag. Sahira just said “It’s okay. We’re going to get through this.”

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We found out they were planning on protesting the September storytime. My mom and I worked with PFLAG to put a call out for community support and a kind of counter-protest. It was the first in-person Peterborough Pride since before Covid, so we got some good traction: 150 people came to storytime, and there were about 100 counter-protesters. There were maybe 30 protestors.

I’m the only drag queen on the planet that’s early to things, so I didn’t see anyone on my way in. But after the event was over, I knew I wanted to address the crowd. I was scared—shaking like a leaf on a windy fall day—until I saw all the people with rainbow flags. I had just moved to Toronto to study performance production, but I love Peterborough so much. To come back and receive that kind of outpouring of support made me feel so good. I thanked them for being there, and I cried.

 

Drag storytime is pure joy. My mom and I workshop everything together. She’s got a puppet, Butch—he’s the star of the show, if I’m being honest—and we sing songs, do call and response and chat about issues that Butch might be having, like how to deal with frustration. And we read happy, meaningful books like My Many Coloured Days by Dr. Seuss and Annie’s Cat Is Sad by Heather Smith and Stick and Stone by Beth Ferry. Then, outside there are people shaming fathers for bring their kids to the event and holding up signs that say “Stop grooming children.” It just doesn’t make any sense to me.

Our most recent event was this past weekend, and I had been hoping it would be, well, uneventful. The theme was friendship. But about a week before, I heard that Save Canada, a far-right Christian youth group, was planning a protest. Once again, PFLAG rallied about 100 counter-protesters. There were 15 from Save Canada and the adjacent groups.

A lot of families have come to every event since we started. Many of them come because they like seeing Betty Baker—and the makeup and the huge dress and the big ol’ wig—read stories. But many come because they are queer families and they know how important this is, how important it is for kids to have queer role models.

(Photo by Luke Best)

On Saturday, there was a kiddo in the audience who was just so excited to be there. They were wearing all camo with a bright pink purse and it was awesome. It wasn’t their parent who brought them, it was someone from the Big Brothers Big Sisters program. And after the show, the kid showed me everything inside their purse—tiny hairbrushes, so many mini makeup kits—and played with my fan. (Being in drag is hot work, and every queen needs a clacking fan.) They told me that kids at school were making fun of them, and we talked about different ways to deal with that. And they just had the biggest smile on their face.

I saw the kid’s friend from Big Brothers Big Sisters the next day at a drag brunch I hosted. They told me that the kiddo’s mom isn’t as supportive of her child as she could be, and they thanked me for putting on storytime. I thanked them for bringing the kid. They’re going to change that kid’s life. It’s so important to be able to thank the parents and families and guardians who are bringing kids to these events. It’s going to change their worlds. 

I hadn’t really been aware of the rise of anti-drag protests until last year. A storytime I had planned at Lavender and Play had to be cancelled because they were receiving threatening, violent phone messages. Around the same time, a protester at a Brockville storytime tried to set fire to the library’s roof in order to set off the sprinkler system and ruin all the books inside. It clicked then in my head that these protests weren’t about drag or storytime. They’re about power and control of knowledge. 

Being out there like this is not always easy. It’s not easy to see people call you a groomer and a pedophile all day. I know I could stop, but I would feel like I was letting myself down and letting down the kids and families who need to see themselves represented. To have a voice from the future saying “It’s going to be okay!” You can be weird and wacky and different and you can be a successful human. It’s okay to be queer. It’s crazy that we still have to say that kind of thing in 2023. 

What’s happening now is scary for queer people and people of colour—people the far right doesn’t see as people. I think a lot of it’s down to misinformation. But drag storytime is all about education. It’s reading books and singing songs and learning and teaching. So if we’re able to educate some people who don’t understand, then we’ve done something right.

—As told to Caitlin Walsh Miller