Arts & CultureLGBTQ

Charlotte Area Drag Story Hour Promotes Literacy, Diversity for Kids

Empowering children with diversity

Over the past year, Queen City Nerve has delved deep into the discrimination and legislative attacks faced by the LGBTQ+ community. Drag kings, queens and other royal artists have been at the epicenter of many of these attacks, but it’s not all negativity.

For years, drag culture has brought joy to communities and provided safe spaces for people across the Charlotte area. And despite any opposition from a loudly emboldened right wing, it will only continue to do so in the years to come.

Created by Michelle Tea in 2015, Drag Story Hour encourages literacy and diversity among children through global networks of local organizational chapters.

Joshua Jernigan, lead organizer of Charlotte Area Drag Story Hour and founder of the nonprofit Gender Education Network (GEN), became swept up into the world of drag after seeing a Drag Story Hour held by the New York chapter. Jernigan’s friend, Courtney, quickly called up the organizers of what was then called Drag Queen Story Hour to license the name, and Jernigan joined Courtney to co-found Charlotte’s chapter through GEN.

In the lead-up to Charlotte Pride, Queen City Nerve spoke with Jernigan to clear up common misconceptions, spread inclusivity and share ways to support local drag artists.

Queen City Nerve: What is Drag Story Hour?
Joshua Jernigan: Drag Story Hour is basically drag kings and queens and friends who get dolled up and read affirming and inclusive books to children. Our prime age range is somewhere between 3 to 10, somewhere in that general age range because that’s where picture books are really hitting their sweet spot. Specifically with Charlotte Area Drag Story Hour, our tagline is that we promote diversity in literature through performance and drag.

We absolutely have a blast with our kings and queens to come to read to our children. They read, we do silly little kid stuff like “If You’re Happy and You Know It” or “Simon Says.” One of our readers, Shelita Bonet Hoyle, does “Shelita Says” instead of “Simon Says,” which is something that really tickles the kids.

But we specifically read LGBTQ+ inclusive books, because we firmly believe that children need diversity in their life and they need that diverse exposure to understand different communities. And so our goal is to help kids understand and be exposed to as many different communities as possible.

It was previously called Drag Queen Story Hour. Why the name change?
When it was started way back in the day by a drag queen called Michelle Tea, she was a drag queen who was doing story hours so she called it Drag Queen Story Hour. In 2021 or 2022, Drag Queen Story Hour, as a national chapter, voted to change the name to Drag Story Hour to make it more inclusive because every chapter has kings who read for them, not just queens. And we have kings, queens and non-binary readers. Inclusion is one of the tenants of Drag Story Hour so we felt like it was really important that we do that as well.

Two married men looking into the camera, one with a lovely beard
Joshua Jernigan (right) with his husband (Courtesy of Joshua Jernigan)

There has been a lot of misinformation over the last year about the motives of Drag Story Hours from bad faith actors on the right. Could you tell me the stated goal of DSH?
The goal is just people who dress up and read to kids. It’s no different than any other dress-up character reading to kids. The goal is just to promote diversity and literature. We read all sorts of books. They aren’t just LGBTQ books. They aren’t just books about drag queens. They aren’t just books about the LGBTQ community. We read race books, we read silly books that have nothing to do with anything.

One of our most requested books is the book called Don’t Read This Book, and it has nothing to do with anything other than this little dot saying “Don’t read this book!” and doing silly things like making fart noises. Like, that’s not community specific to any one community, except for children.

Conservatives seem to think that we’re out there performing songs and all of that fun stuff and that’s not what’s happening.

What’s the best part about working with drag performers, and those who work with kids specifically?
The creativity. Our kings and queens are some of the most creative individuals I have ever met. I am not a drag queen. I make a very horrible woman. So I’m an organizer and I thought that I was moderately creative and then I started working with drag queens and drag kings and they blew me off the water. The things that they come up with and the fun ways that they interpret stories and read them to the kids, it’s just absolutely fascinating.

A lot of our kings and queens, their day jobs are working with kids. They work in preschool or daycare or something of that nature. So they have Educational Credential Evaluators (ECE) degrees and things like that where their job is working with kids and then they bring their drag persona into it at our story hours. And they are just some of the most amazing individuals that I’ve ever worked with.

Not all of our kings and queens [work with kids for a living], but some of our more popular ones absolutely work with kids for a living and you can see that in their passion for what they do when they bring a story to life.

How many kings and queens do you work with?
So we run on a rotating system. We have one main queen; Shelita Bonet Hoyle has been our queen since the beginning. She was our first reader, and she has stuck with us all the way through today. She lives in Raleigh now unfortunately, but I can call her and say “I’m putting one together for this date, whatcha got?” and she can, most of the time, work it out.

But other than that, we run one king and one other queen pretty regularly. And we kind of have a rotating crop of people who would like to give it a try. And so they come and they read for us and some of them stick around and some of them realize that this really isn’t what they want to do and so they move on to other things. So I think we’ve had up to 10 different kings and queens read for us over the last few years.

Drag Queen in a red dress reads to children
Drag Queen reads to children (Courtesy of Joshua Jernigan)

How do you and your performers handle all the hate you receive, especially as of late?
We’re big fans of ignore, ignore, ignore. It’s not always the best way to do it. I try to insulate my readers from a lot of things. I don’t want them to see a lot of the hate that we get, because they’re there for the kids to have fun.

My job as the organizer is kind of to take that heat and put it where it needs to go. So the ones that need to be reported, we report, the ones that we can ignore, we ignore. If I felt there was a reason to reach out to my readers about something specific, I would. We’ve had that happen before where they’ve threatened a very specific reader and so I’ve, unfortunately, had to have that very uncomfortable conversation of “Hey, we got this threat in your name” type thing.

But for the most part, we just ignore it because they’re not our business. We don’t really care. Our business is making these fun, amazing, safe spaces for kids to come and be exposed to diversity and have fun. The kids don’t have to worry about it. So I try to keep everybody a little insulated from it.

As an organizer, do you worry about your readers and their safety?
We do. We work with several different groups around the Charlotte area to help us run security. We have very vast, expansive security protocols that we as an organization follow. So we have all of the things in place that we need to make sure that our readers are safe and, knock on wood, our readers have always been safe and it’s because we put as much work into the forefront as we can.

Why is it important to continue holding these events despite protests, anti-drag bills and targeted attacks?
Because people want it, people love it. Our shows sell out — and I say sell out, they’re free — but you do have to sign up, that’s one of our safety measures. Our shows sell out within 24 hours of posting them. We’ve had shows that have sold out in an hour. People want these events so we try to put on as many as we can. And it’s not always easy. We do have venues cancel on us because of the heat that they end up receiving from the protesters.

But you know we have a few very solid venues who work with us over and over and over again and we are so appreciative of them. And so we push through because there’s a need and want for it.

Have you seen the kindness that story hours promote come out in the children and adults that attend?
Absolutely. The families who come to our shows are some of the nicest people you will ever meet. They are nice to each other. They’re nice out in the world. We have seen them out in the wild, not at shows, and they’ve recognized my family and they have come up and struck up a conversation or come up and made a comment about something and it’s just always so kind.

One of our major tenants is also kindness and I think that the families that come to our shows reflect that very well.

How can people support drag queens and Drag Story Hour right now?
One of the biggest ways is to follow us on social media and we shout out our different kings and queens and their events that they’re doing outside of story hours. It is only me, unfortunately, running this so I miss some things.

Also, get involved. Find a local spot that’s hosting drag and go. Not all drag is kid-friendly drag and that should be recognized. So make sure that you check in with the venue because some venues are 18+ or 21+. Some are family-friendly. It just really depends on what they’re wanting to promote within their venue.

And so one of the biggest things you can do is just find your local drag and go out there. And if you want to support Story Hour follow us on social media, reach out to us, come to our shows and share our events. That is the number one way because a lot of drag is known by word of mouth. If you go on Instagram or Facebook or any social media and you share drag events, that is one of the best ways you can help because the more people it reaches, the more people who are going to come to shows.

Drag Queen reading to children
Drag Queen reads to children (Courtesy of Joshua Jernigan)

Are there any upcoming events that you’re excited about?
We have a couple that we haven’t announced, unfortunately. We don’t announce anything except for two weeks before our shows. And we do that as a safety measure. Watching our Facebook page and our Instagram page are the two of the best ways to find our announcements. Because two weeks before a show, I put everything up, there’s a signup sheet, there’s who’s performing, what they’re performing. It gives you all the details and ways to contact us should you need to get in touch with us for any questions.

But I can tell you that we do have some coming up in September and we do have some coming up in October and we have a huge one coming up in December. That’s as detailed as I can get right now. Just because it is a safety issue. We do have to be mindful of how long we have that information out there because the longer it’s out there, unfortunately, the more people will start staging protests and that’s just unsafe. But, yeah, we do have events coming up and if you watch our Facebook page, our Instagram page, that’s where we’re dropping all those announcements.

Even if the event says that it’s full, if you reach out to us sometimes we have extra spots, especially for people who’ve never been to an event before, and we love to invite people out. So we fill up but if it does stay full, people can reach out to us and we can see what we can do. There have even been times when we’ve had an event full but people reaching out who could do it the next weekend and we have put together an event just for them that next weekend. Because we’ve tried to be as accommodating as we possibly can. And our venues are awesome.

What are your plans for Charlotte Pride weekend?
We will have readers there on both Saturday and Sunday. I think we’re up to six readers right now. But we will have readers on Saturday and Sunday that will all be posted on the Charlotte Pride website. We will also post it on our Facebook and Instagram once we get the time solidified, but we will have at least two readers every day and I think we have three right now on Sunday and three on Saturday. So we are trying to get more readers but that’s something that we can announce because that’s been announced by Charlotte Pride.

Is there anything else that we haven’t discussed that you think is important to mention?
I think the biggest thing is just making sure that we focus on the positivity of all of this. A lot of things are written about the negativity. Let’s focus on what we’re doing, not who’s trying to shut us down. If I could do anything in the whole wide world: Yes, we have to be mindful of what negativity is happening but we can also celebrate the positivity, especially with Charlotte Pride coming up.

Drag Story Hour Charlotte is on Facebook at CharlotteDSH and Instagram at @charlotteareadsh.

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