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Fighting Illiteracy, Preserving Democracy

The Power of Drag Story Hour

In 2023, the SPLC documented 86 active anti-LGBTQ+ hate groups — about 33% higher than 2022, and the highest number ever recorded by the SPLC. The increase is primarily the result of anti-trans organizing motivated by the hard right’s renewed focus on false conspiracy theories that paint LGBTQ+ people, notably trans people and drag artists, and their allies as sexual predators.

Throughout 2023, the activities of anti-LGBTQ+ groups overlapped with white nationalist, neo-Nazi, antisemitic and antigovernment groups who targeted LGBTQ+ people and events for intimidation and violent campaigns designed to drive LGBTQ+ people from public life.

In the lead-up to the 2023 summer Pride season, local events and corporate support for LGBTQ+ inclusive marketing practices were targeted as part of an online campaign intended to “make Pride toxic,” according to right-wing commentator Matt Walsh. At the same time, the frequency and intensity of in-person anti-LGBTQ+ activities grew so dramatically over the past year that a May 2023 Department of Homeland Security (DHS) briefing warned of the potential for anti-LGBTQ+ attacks specifically “linked to drag-themed events, gender-affirming care and [LGBTQ+ inclusive] curricula in schools.”

In an eerie similarity to far-right anti-abortion demonstrations in the 1990s and 2000s, hard-right extremists have variously barricaded entrances to public facilities, hurled Molotov cocktails at churches, slashed the tires of event organizers, and led both online and in-person intimidation campaigns against businesses to prevent public drag performances. Members of Drag Story Hour (DSH), a nonprofit literacy program founded in 2015 to “use the art of drag to read books to kids in libraries, schools, and bookstores,” have experienced the surge in right-wing violence firsthand. In 2023, the SPLC tracked 195 such incidents of right-wing protesters targeting drag events across the country. Literacy events sponsored by DSH, alone, account for more than one-third of the incidents.


Drag, which often challenges strict adherence to binary gender roles, poses a problem for hate and antigovernment groups because it offers freedom from the restrictive ideologies they espouse. Drag in public is especially challenging to these groups because it not only showcases the diversity of human identity and experience, but it also represents the commitment of a free society to inclusive civil institutions– institutions that help guard against the spread of hate and antigovernment ideologies.

Across the country in 2023, the leaders and volunteers of DSH helped push back against the most recent manufactured moral panic targeting drag events and trans people. In the face of hate, they offered hope. In response to violent threats, they offered their communities tranquility, reassurance and a touch of glamor. Their work speaks to the importance of civic institutions to democracy. Namely, teaching kids and adults to read is a public good — it improves society by making it more educated and more politically engaged. Unfortunately, there were few issues more threatening to the hard-right in 2023.

Drag: The personification of pluralism

Drag is generally recognized as a satire of binary gender roles (the idea that men must always be masculine and women must always be feminine), and a send-up of strict adherence to the restrictions those roles place on everyone in society regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Both the term and its meaning (performing in clothing that may not match one’s gender identity) probably originated in the theater to describe cisgender male actors who were playing parts cisgender women were not allowed to. “Drag,” for example, was understood as a slang term with this meaning in the 19th century, according to Them magazine.

Throughout American history, the policing of gender roles has meant that people who do not always conform to the “male/masculine, woman/feminine” dichotomy in their gender expression (the way a person’s gender is perceived or expressed through “a person’s name, pronouns, clothing, haircut, voice, and/or behavior”) have been victimized by social and legal repression meant to force them to conform to society’s standards. “Masquerade laws,” for example, barred people from “appearing in public in disguise” in the 19th and 20th centuries and were generally enforced against people wearing fewer than three items of clothing in public that did not match their sex.

In the decades since the 1969 Stonewall Uprising — during which LGBTQ+ people pushed back against police harassment and entrapment and the exploitation of LGBTQ+ people in New York City — drag has become a prominent feature of popular culture. According to GLAAD, “drag performance is more popular than ever, and the term drag artist is being used to recognize that drag is an art form that is open to everyone.”

Drag performs an important role in American democracy in addition to its artistic value, according to Edward Kammerer, an associate professor of political science at Idaho State University who studies LGBTQ+ politics. From local artists and performers to international celebrities like RuPaul, drag artists “have a platform and an audience that can be used to educate people on the importance of voting and other forms of democratic engagement,” Kammerer said.

Along with helping facilitate education and political engagement, drag is a political statement, representing a visible challenge to sex- and gender-based discrimination. By upending the notion that women are inherently feminine and men are inherently masculine, for example, drag challenges long-held sexist notions that women are a “weaker sex” who should
be subservient to men because they are only valuable for procreation.

Since many far-right ideologies are premised on the subservience of women and restrictive notions of gender, drag offers a particularly devastating critique of the hard right by both personifying a more equitable worldview and exemplifying society’s acceptance of pluralism. Indeed, Kammerer notes, when drag falls under attack, local communities often counter-mobilize “to show why LGBTQ people, including drag performers, are an important part of the community.”

Enter Drag Story Hour

Drag Story Hour was “created by Michelle Tea and RADAR Productions, under the leadership of Julián Delgado Lopera and Virgie Tovar, in San Francisco in 2015,” according to the group’s website. Since then, the group has grown to more than 30 chapters in five countries. DSH builds on the successful concept of “story hours,” popular since the turn of the 20th century, during which educators read books and stories aloud to children.

“Public libraries have been producing story hour events for over a hundred years,” said DSH program coordinator and grant writer Regan Lopez-deVictoria. “This is simply another variation, with glitter, made to reflect the diversity of the human experience,” she said. When asked to describe DSH, Los Angeles chapter director Pickle said, “It is just what it sounds like — drag performers reading to kids in libraries, bookstores, and all sorts of fun places.”

Tara Lipsyncki, executive director of DSH Intermountain West, echoes this sentiment: “Drag Story Hour is an amazing tool to encourage children to pick up a book and use their imagination.”

DSH events are often filled not only with whimsy and imagination, but also a deep sense of solidarity and commitment to helping entire communities flourish. “Ready or not, our children live in a world that is rich with color and sparkling with variation,” Lopez-deVictoria told the SPLC. “Kids build up their empathy muscles by looking through windows into lives that differ from their own.” Indeed, a 2020 study in the journal Curriculum Inquiry, co-authored by DSH board member Lil Miss Hot Mess, suggests programs like Drag Story Hour help both “destigmatize shame” associated with restrictive societal norms that make marginalized children feel like outsiders in their classrooms and foster “kinship” between students from diverse backgrounds.

By leveraging the talents of drag artists, DSH extends the educational and solidary benefits of literacy programs to adults, too. DSH board president David Boyles recounted hearing from one caregiver who was forced to disassociate with their unsupportive religious community after their child came out as trans. “They told me that coming to a DSH event was the first time since that traumatic experience that they felt like they once again had a community,” Boyles said.

Boyles characterizes DSH’s “focus on stories relevant to the LGBTQ+ community and other marginalized groups” as a key component of the program because, more so than other literacy programs, DSH can “serve children and families who are often overlooked in more traditional early childhood literacy programs.”

a person sits in an empty home
Tara "Lipsyncki" Lenae told the SPLC they have been personally targeted through online harassment and death threats.
“This year has nearly broken me,” they said. But “I would not change a single thing that I have done with Drag Story Hour.”

A Violent Response: Legal and extra-legal attacks on drag

Sixty-eight of the nearly 200 anti-drag incidents the SPLC documented in 2023 specifically targeted events organized by Drag Story Hour. Based on available data, on average, the anti-drag demonstrations were attended by about three dozen people. In more than one-third of the cases where information is available, at least one hate or antigovernment group
was involved.

Proud Boys — the hate group infamous for being represented at the deadly 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, and for attempting to prevent the peaceful transition of power on Jan. 6, 2021 — are the most common group in the dataset of incidents targeting DSH. At one event in Tempe, Arizona, in February 2023, a coffee shop was forced to end a story event early after a bomb threat was made against the business — with patrons, including children, in attendance. According to local reporting, “Police confirmed Proud Boys were ‘in the area’ when the incident happened but could not [get] inside the business.”

Both private and public venues are targeted by anti-drag extremists. In Arizona in 2023, DSH board president David Boyles was followed and harassed by two members of the far-right Turning Point USA for his work with DSH. The incident occurred on the campus of Arizona State University, the state’s largest public university, where Boyles teaches English. “Safety and security has been a major focus of my time and energy,” Boyles told the SPLC. That focus, Boyles says, can divert attention away from one of his primary goals for the organization, “expanding LGBTQ+ inclusive educational programs, which are still so lacking in most places,” he said.

A bomb threat also targeted a DSH event in Utah in September featuring Tara Lipsyncki. Lipsyncki also told the SPLC they have been targeted personally through online harassment and death threats. “This year has nearly broken me,” they said. Still, they said, “I would not change a single thing that I have done with Drag Story Hour.”

Among other hate groups that participated in anti-drag demonstrations targeting DSH in 2023 are the white nationalist National Justice Party, which targeted an event at First Lutheran Church in Nashville, Tennessee, on July 22; the antisemitic group Goyim Defense League, who hurled antisemitic slurs outside an event at Temple Beth Israel in Macon, Georgia, on June 23; and the anti-LGBTQ+ hate group Gays Against Groomers (GAG), a Wisconsin-based organization with chapters across the country that made amplifying anti-trans and anti-drag messaging key to its online and in-person activity. GAG’s North Carolina chapter claims to hold anti-drag protests targeting the same Monroe, North Carolina, restaurant every two weeks. GAG’s other chapters have participated in rallies with hate or antigovernment groups, including Proud Boys and members of the neo-Nazi group Blood Tribe.

According to Kammerer, this activity fits a pattern of “conservative resistance to visible signs of a pluralistic and accepting society,” noting that similar protests and violence came in the wake of other civil rights victories such as school desegregation, voting rights, women’s advancement in the workplace. In addition to reusing intimidation tactics from previous decades, the far right is recycling old tropes – including the “groomer” myth – to target contemporary LGBTQ+ inclusion. In February 2023, Maryland Proud Boys reportedly protested the children’s literacy event with a sign that read: “Proud Boys love children. Proud Boys hate pedophiles.”

“Abstain if you object to Drag Story Hour,” Lopez-deVictoria said, “but if you think rhinestones or finger puppets or platform Crocs are innately sexual, that’s a bigger issue than a simple literacy program can address.”

a person stands in an empty home
Tara “Lipsyncki” Lenae poses in their empty home in the Salt Lake Valley. After being doxxed they moved out and put the home up for sale. This is also Tara’s childhood home.

Looking to the future

In addition to hate and antigovernment attacks against drag, far-right state and local governments have enacted new legislation to restrict such core democratic freedoms as expression and assembly in the name of stopping drag. Tennessee enacted the first such strict legislation in 2023. The law, signed by Gov. Bill Lee, assumes that all drag is sexually explicit and classifies drag in public as a form of “adult entertainment.” The law threatened to shutter Pride events featuring drag artists and drag story hours in the state until federal courts stopped the state from enforcing it. Florida passed a similar law in 2023, and some Pride celebrations planned in the state did not happen for fear of the legal consequences.

Despite the hate and violence, DSH is a successful and effective literacy program that helps build bridges and reinforce pluralistic and democratic values. “Parents are overjoyed to have a place to bring their kids that is not only educational but deeply impactful for their capacity to empathize and express themselves,” Pickle reflected. Boyles adds that he participates in DSH because “it combined two of my great passions: creating spaces for LGBTQ+ people, especially young people and their families, to feel safe and accepted; and promoting a love of reading.”

Lipsyncki says participating in DSH is also about carrying these values into the future. They participate “because children need to have their futures protected from those trying to take away their rights,” they said. “The entire library profession, arm-in-arm with parents, pediatricians, and early childhood educators, should be speaking out against the hostile debasing of this most-beloved of literacy programs,” Lopez-de Victoria says.

In the meantime, Pickle said, “I love it and will never stop!”

Jeff Tischauser and Emerson Hodges contributed to this report.

Image at top: Tara “Lipsyncki” Lenae with thier book at Mosaics Community Bookstore and Venue in Provo, Utah.