Dressed to Impress: Drag Queen Story Hour

Our Conversation with Alison Westermann, Director of the Drag Queen Story Hour

There is, sadly, a growing movement in this country to marginalise those who are different than “us.” The term “other” describes anyone who isn’t one of “us.” It’s used to describe anyone who is from a different country, speaks a different language, or has a different lifestyle than what we consider the norm. For this article, the “others” seems to be Drag Queens.

Not too long ago, while surfing through the plethora of misguided posts on my Facebook wall, I came across two in succession. The first post was about something I had never heard of in El Paso: The Drag Queen Story Hour this Saturday, the 15th of February, at the Downtown (El Paso) branch of the public library.

I thought it was interesting that this was happening in El Paso. It’s not something I’ve ever seen here.

The next post was an event calling for a protest of that same event.

I began to talk with a few people I know about what a drag queen is, and what their opinions were of the story hour happening at the library.

“What’s a drag queen?” Geoffrey, a former roommate of mine from New York City asked me. “It’s just a man who dresses in woman’s clothes as a form of entertainment. They’re not all gay.”

“Remember when we wanted to recreate Shakespeare faithfully? We used men in all the roles,” Geoffrey reminded me.

We did. We wanted to put on Shakespeare just as the Bard himself did it. During that period in history all the roles in a play were performed by male actors. In fact, the word Drag is actually an acronym for Dressed as a Girl and originated from that time period.

“I believe in the maxim of love the sinner but hate the sin,” said Maria. “But aren’t they just so entertaining!”

“We have drag queens in El Paso?” asked Rodger.

Of everyone I spoke to, only one person had anything negative to say.

“I know you will exclude my comments from your story as all media would, but they are judged guilty of God,” said Raymundo. “They are trying to convert the kids by reading them agenda-pushing books. Not right!”

Having lived and worked in New York City, I’ve seen drag queens of all types – club kids dressing up just for the looks and stares, to flaming queens who command everyone’s attention when they walk in the door. Then, there is Eddie Izzard, a stand-up comedian who used to call himself an Executive Transvestite.

Eddie Izzard (Rated R)

I decided to reach out to Alison Westermann, the coordinator of the El Paso Chapter of the Drag Queen Story Hour.

My first question for Alison was just what Drag Queen Story Hour is.

“It’s exactly what it sounds like. A drag queen reading storybooks to children,” said Alison. “These storybooks range from things that you’ve heard of that have been in the news, to things that you might not have heard of because the publisher is small, or the topic is a little too niche. But most of the books are mass market and already in our library system.”

For the past year, this unique event has been gathering followers and having a Drag Queen read books to anyone who shows up. Before the El Paso Public Library, they used to meet at the Borderland Rainbow Center with maybe a dozen, or so, in attendance.

“Last month in January was the first time we had an event at the downtown [at] the main branch of the El Paso public library,” said Alison.

Almost fifty people attended that first gathering – children and adults alike sat and listened to stories pulled from the shelves and read to them by a Drag Queen.

“It was all ages,” said Alison. “There were tweens and teens and grandparents, and it was definitely an intergenerational affair.”

This Saturday, the 15th of February at 2 p.m. will be a celebration, a birthday of sorts for the Drag Queen Story Hour.

A celebration with a cloud hanging over it.

“I do know that I’ve seen the event page on Facebook,” said Alison, of the protest planned by Walk Away EPT. “They’ve called the protest in order to protest I guess in their words, something like it offends them that drag Queens are reading to kids. I’m not really sure because the wording in the event invitation is wording that I don’t really understand coming from my perspective, coming from, you know, my point of view.”

Walk Away EPT posted the following on their event page:

From Walk Away EPT’s Event Page

We’ve all seen groups that protest such events claiming that they are trying to proselytise or forcing the LGBTQ lifestyle off on other people. I asked Alison who she would respond to about such claims.

“I would say that for many, many, many years in this country, as well as all over the world, queer folks have been marginalised, and have had other ways of being shoved down their throats, and been told over and over again that who they are, their identity, their core being, it doesn’t belong,” said Alison. “For us to be in the main branch of the public library is very symbolic. I will allow for that. It is symbolic because it’s the city saying, yes you are people too and all people are welcome to come and rent the space here because you’re residents of El Paso, and so that’s what we’re doing.”

“We are bringing something that was marginalised and has been marginalised for so many years and we are putting it out there for public view and of course that brings with it some risk, but I think the potential reward is so great because it enriches the discussion. It enriches the understanding of what it means to be an El Pasoan and what it means to be human, what it means to be American, and if Drag Queen Story Hour can help with that kind of identity building for our kids. I think it is such a powerful experience.”

Coming from a Jewish background myself, I know a thing or two about marginalisation. I know what it’s like to be hated. I know what it’s like to be looked down upon by certain segments of society. It’s not an enjoyable feeling.

That Jewish background had lent itself to my being able to accept so many other people just for who they are. I don’t look at you and judge you because of who you may be in love with, what clothes you choose to wear, or even if you happen to like the Dallas Cowboys. I’m not going to judge you.

As a society, we need to stop judging people. A house divided cannot stand. Our over zealousness in judgement has divided our nation to the point that I fear for our collective future.

The Drag Queen Story Hour could have cowered beneath the threat of protest. They could have moved back to the Borderland Rainbow Center. So, in the face of threatened demonstrations, what have they decided to do? A fundraiser!

“Anyone can call the Borderland Rainbow Center and pledge a certain amount of money for however many people show up to the protest or for how long they stay, number of minutes,” said Alison. “So your pledge could be, for example, $1 for every protester that shows up. And we will have people there counting the number of protestors and keeping track of how long they’re there for. So, if my pledge was a dollar for every minute, the protest lasts for 30 minutes, then on February 15th, my card will be charged $30.”

That is how you take what could be an ugly situation and make a positive out of it.

The annual budget for the Drag Queen Story Hour is about $3,000. As Alison said in our conversation, depending on how many people show up, how long they stay and the number of pledges, they could raise their whole budget because of this one protest.

I want to go back to my conversation with Geoffrey and a question he asked me: What do I think about all of this? Do I believe it is pushing the Drag Queen lifestyle on children?

My answer is no.

As someone who has kids, I knew what my children were doing. If there is an event that went against my personal beliefs, I simply would not allow my kids to attend.

Drag Queen Story Hour is happening at a location in Downtown El Paso. It’s not happening in a neighbourhood community Center to which people can walk. It’s not as if children are going to show up for the reading randomly, without their parents. No, the kids who attend these readings are there with a family member.

As for the protesters, they have a right to protest. What everyone needs to keep in mind, just as they have the right to protest, others have the right to hold Drag Queen Story Hour.

“I would like to express an enormous amount of gratitude for being able to operate this chapter of Drag Queen Story Hour for almost a year now, for the Borderland Rainbow Center being the host, the parent organisation for Drag Queen Story Hour. It has provided so much support for our chapter,” said Alison. “We wouldn’t be as successful as we are without Brenda, who’s the director of the borderland rainbow Center and all the people on the board and everyone in the community who has reacted so positively to our chapter and our events and come to participate with their families.”

“There’s just so much love, I can’t even express it,” continued Alison. “It makes me sort of speechless when I think about there is a protest, but the amount of emotion that is on the support side for Drag Queen Story Hour, as opposed to opposing us, the amount of love and support and friendship is absolutely eclipsing the fear and the misinformation.”

You can pledge, or reach the Borderland Rainbow Center and Drag Queen Story Hour at either www.BorderlandRainbow.org or by calling 915-263-4623.

Click here for the Drag Queen Story Hour Facebook Page.

Categories: El Paso, Texas

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