Drag Queen Story Hour, where men dressed as glamourous, sexualised women are invited into schools and public libraries to read stories to children, is a new and concerning phenomenon. Dreamed up by San Franciscan Michelle Tea in 2015, it is a nationwide program in the United States, and in recent years has appeared in public libraries and schools in the UK.
Safe Schools Alliance is opposed to Drag Queen Story Hour. It is being pushed as the new, inclusive thing to do in order to “inspire a love of reading, while teaching deeper lessons on diversity, self-love and an appreciation of others”. We believe this is a spurious justification, is ill-conceived and contrary to basic safeguarding principles and Government guidance. We object to children being used to validate adults and to the misogyny inherent in drag queen performances.
With these objections in mind, we were disappointed to see that Laura England, an Early Years teacher and author, recently posted a link to her “new favourite book”, The Hips on the Drag Queen Go Swish Swish Swish, to the 49,000 followers of her ‘Little Miss Early Years’ Facebook page. Her post resulted in some robust criticism for advocating exposing children to a form of adult entertainment.
Laura did not take too kindly to this criticism, and later, the objections were the subject of her first podcast, ‘Drag Pedagogy’. Using her podcast to defend herself and defame her critics as ‘terfs’, Laura refers to an academic paper called Drag pedagogy: The playful practice of queer imagination in early childhood, written by Lil Miss Hot Mess, (drag queen and author of The Hips on the Drag Queen Go Swish, Swish, Swish) and academic Harper Keenan, Professor of Gender and Sexuality in Education at the University of British Columbia. The paper seeks to provide justification for Drag Queen Story Hour in schools and children’s spaces, arguing that drag creates a “pathway into the imaginative, messy, and rule-breaking aspects of drag for children.”
This article focuses on the issues that arise out of the incompatibility of the ‘pedagogy’ promoted by Lil Miss Hot Mess and Keenan in their paper, and of UK government guidance and universal safeguarding principles.
The question asked in the paper is: “What might Drag Queen Story Hour offer educators as a way of bringing queer ways of knowing and being into the education of young children?”
Starting with their key question, ‘queerness’ is not a concept that is relevant to any child in any functioning school that correctly follows non-discriminatory, non-sexist policies. Drag is a form of adult entertainment, and as such can never be appropriate for the age, developmental stage, or background of pupils. Aside from being developmentally inappropriate, the imposition of adult modes of entertainment is entirely unnecessary because children already know, and are already encouraged, to play and be messy – exactly how a correctly functioning Early Years environment should operate. Drag is not a necessary precondition for either play or messiness – there are dressing up boxes in every classroom and children are always encouraged to explore their imagination; if this is deficient, the first person to call would not be a drag queen but the schools’ inspector.
The authors attempt to forge a tenuous link between play for children and drag for adults on the basis that they are both enjoyable for their respective participants. They imply that the absence of drag means children will be disadvantaged because, without it, children can’t know that it’s possible to act “out a fantasy outside of everyday life…” This is insulting to teachers, children, and their parents.
As the paper develops, it appears that drag is encouraged in Early Years settings for the gratification of drag queens, on the basis that “early education is one of the few remaining school settings that encourages play.” But activities for children are meant to cater for their educational and social development – not the gratification of grown adults. This is further reinforced by the statement that “queens do very little to teach anything explicitly. There is no lesson on the meaning of gender, no worksheets on how to be kind.”
It is particularly pernicious that the paper weaponises the Reggio Emilia educational philosophy, named after the Italian region in which it was practised. This philosophy encouraged children to learn through exploration and trusted that they have a natural curiosity and desire to learn. The inhabitants of Reggio Emilia believed that such an approach would protect children from blindly following fascistic ideas such as those of Mussolini.
The conflation of those who reject drag for children with the ideology of a fascist regime is disingenuously designed to silence critics of those who would impose their adult needs onto minors. The risk here is that the ability of responsible teachers to envisage the abuse of children is short-circuited by those who would shame them for engaging their critical faculties.
For this reason, it is concerning that Laura England in her vociferous promotion of Drag Queen Story Hour in her podcast dismisses parents that raise objections as “a bit dodgy” and needing “to do their own learning”.
It is also inappropriate to discuss “rule-breaking” and what the co-founder of Drag Queen Story Hour, Michelle Tea, calls “pushing limits and pushing boundaries.” Children feel safe when they are supported by caring boundaries, and they understand what is and is not permissible. There are plenty of children’s stories that involve characters breaking boundaries without introducing adult entertainment or other inappropriate concepts; and for very young children these stories are usually designed to gently reinforce the ideas of actions, consequences and safety.
Whilst adult performers may experience a certain rush when rules are broken, children’s boundaries should remain stable until they reach developmental milestones and need to be able to safely navigate through new situations. Encouraging children to break the rules at such an early age is, therefore, an abuse of trust and an abrogation of responsibility, especially towards neurologically divergent children who may have extra difficulties departing from rules.
The authors of the paper promote their decidedly adult idea that drag should “actively destabilize the normative function of schooling.” Again, not only does this transgress the boundaries that are so important to keep children safe, but it also violates home-school behaviour contracts. Any teacher that embraces this idea – that the normativity of schools needs destabilising – should perhaps reflect upon their choice of work setting and radically reassess what they consider the purpose of education to be.
Moreover, it is risible that Early Years environments are positioned as places of “oppressive conditions often produced by the institution itself” where children are “punished” when they resist. If a nursery was found to be deficient in fun, a wholesale reform in professional practice would be necessary. Boundaries are imposed by schools to keep children safe from themselves, from each other and from exploitative adults. The risk of harm from the latter becomes more likely the more that school managers outsource their critical faculties with respect to safeguarding to others.
The authors evidently believe that they are progressive, but in fact, they are confusing children and retreating into comfortable but regressive stereotypes. For example, the paper says that a:
“Transformative approach might work with children to inquire as to how “boy-ness” and “girl-ness” are given meaning, the limits of these two categories, and how people might organize themselves differently”.
This violates the Department for Education’s RSE (Relationships and Sex Education) guidance, which says that teaching must be “evidence-based and contain robust facts“, because this paragraph actively and deliberately conflates gender and sex. Boy-ness and girl-ness are, in this sentence, criticisms of gendered expectations, and it implies that there are more than two sexes. In any well-functioning school, the idea that ways of being a girl or a boy is set in stone should simply not exist because – to reiterate – that is sexism. Children should be taught that whilst sex may be immutable, ways of being are free and self-expression is not hitched to one’s sex.
The conflation of sex and gender results in greater confusion for children and encourages them to believe that a boy may be a girl if only he puts on a dress – another breach of government guidance, which specifically states that teaching should “not reinforce harmful stereotypes, for instance by suggesting that children might be a different gender based on their personality and interests or the clothes they prefer to wear”.
The question of being a girl or a boy based only on clothing choices has been covered by psychologist Dr Katie Alcock. Writing on the Transender Trend website, Dr Alcock says that “It takes children some time to work out both whether they themselves are a girl or a boy, and that both they and others cannot change sex.” This, she says, is based on “…all the studies that have been done on physical appearance and stereotypes.” A demonstration of this may be seen here, with three-year-old James confusing sex and gender presentation.
In fact, a scientifically accurate and compassionate teaching experience that complies with safeguarding and equalities law is that either sex may dress up in any clothing they like, but that wearing dresses or trousers does not alter the biological sex of the wearer. Anything else promotes harmful sexist tropes. Seeking to keep one’s biological sex from curious children is both abusive and dangerous – children must always be allowed to ask questions so that they may correctly sex a person, no matter how embarrassing that question is or whom it may offend. The needs of adults come a distant second to the unqualified right of children to safety.
The use of children to improve the psychological wellbeing of adults
The authors of the paper describe children who ask drag queens “are you a boy or a girl?” or “why are you dressed like that?” as “embarrassing” and their questions “hurtful”. But questions about biology are factual. Leaving children’s questions unanswered about basic biological facts and ethical issues betrays a real contempt for their developing brains.
The authors state that “In many cases, drag queens may not respond with answers, but with questions meant to complicate perceptions of gender and society: “why does it matter if I’m a boy or a girl?” or “why shouldn’t I wear sequins and feathers and lots of makeup?”
It is, however, a child’s job to ask questions, after all, this is how they learn. Drag queens entering children’s environments is already an abuse of power, and discouraging their questions as well is inappropriately exploitative: responsible adults do not use children to meet their emotional needs.
The authors of the paper appear to endorse the utilisation of children to improve the psychological wellbeing of adults. For example: “It appears that some queens who faced homo- and transphobic mistreatment as children have said that Drag Queen Story Hour has offered a kind of healing and hope.”
To reiterate, children do not exist to remedy adults’ problems – they are their own people with their own needs and these needs must be met by the adults around them. The correct teaching of non-sexist ideas such as not pairing biological sex with stereotypical ways of being would render it wholly unnecessary to highlight “the arbitrariness of norms.” Instead, however, this paper suggests incomprehensible and nonsensical practices which unnecessarily confuse children for the amusement of adults.
Schools are only one line of defence in the effort to safeguard children. Parents need to challenge schools that depart from Government guidance and safeguarding best practice. Parents must insist on factual, evidence-based teaching that does not seek to exploit the power differences between teachers and children and teachers and parents. We must all resist the infiltration of ideology into the classroom.