Libraries, Literacy, and Lip-Syncing: Drag Queen Story Hour and Free Speech

First Amendment, GLBTQ, Programming

By: Tommy Vinh Bui

I’m stacking books around me at the reference desk in a meager attempt to build some kind of decibel-proof fortification so that I might be able to focus and finish cobbling together this paragraph. My library is alive with the sounds of patrons. From the children pitter-pattering back and forth across the carpet to the teens embroiled in an intense debate about pumpkin spice and its applicability to all aspects of better-living. The library, during any given afternoon, is a surging and vibrant zocalo that beats to the medley of a cacophonous tarantella spiraling with wild abandon. And that’s just plum peachy by me.

Long banished are the images of the library as a stuffy and sedate place where any utterance above a whisper was met with swift opprobrium. Shushes and scowls from curmudgeon librarians ready to revoke your borrowing privileges. Very much far from that staid stereotype, libraries have become fortresses of acceptance and forthright with welcoming upright and raucous revelry within their aisles. And nothing encapsulates this veering toward the vivacious than the wildly successful Drag Queen Story Hours

This popular program consists of drag performers engaging with and entertaining children with stories, sing-alongs, and art crafts. These programs have found supportive audiences at museums, schools, and myriad other community spaces all over the country and overseas. The events feature costumes, music, and boisterous theatricality which have long been a staple of library programs. Along with the high-energy nature and zeal of the performances, the books that are read are carefully selected to include positive themes of inclusion, diversity, and acceptance. Books such as Julian Is a Mermaid by Jessica Love, Neither by Airlie Anderson and Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress by Christine Baldacchino. Another complementary literary pairing is Todd Parr’s It’s Okay to be Different. It’s a program that is successful in both providing wholesome engagement while also imparting important lessons about understanding and equity in representation.

Many communities have embraced such programming with open arms and the events are standing-room only. Unfortunately, conversely, there’s also been a growing backlash for the Drag Queen Story Hours. The opposition has ignited impassioned demonstrations protesting against the performers and the content of the books being regaled. As the success of the program grows and accumulates acceptance with communities, so does the outcry and condemnation against it woefully. The acrimony espoused to get the program banished from library calendars is a pretty brazen free speech violation. The First Amendment issue being infringed upon here has been fervently debated and has boiled over into several scheduled drag library events being cancelled due to legitimate threats and safety concerns.

The support from library systems to uphold the unbending mandate to provide programs that are welcoming and inclusive is spiriting. Smothering the harsh vocal criticism against it, library systems have reified its position by scheduling programs that truly reflect the richness and diversity of the communities in which they serve. And the underlying message of the Drag Queen Story Hours are to stoke the imagination and encourage patrons to express themselves creatively. Though this may not align with everyone’s personal values, it’s the library’s foremost responsibility to defend the tenets of free speech and First Amendment rights. And that’s the notion that is the very pulse of this program.

The noise level of my library continues to perforate my ear drums. The thrum of the hemmed-in humanity barely contained by the flimsy confines of these single-ply library walls. But the din of library dissonance is always welcome slaloming around these stacks. For what you hear is the very kerrang of curiosity. Inquisitiveness being induced. Intellectual mischief mustered. And that’s the sound a library can be glad to amplify.


Tommy Vinh Bui

Tommy Vinh Bui is a paragraph-peddler hailing from the bonnie barrios of Pacoima. He has an assortment of lugubrious-sounding degrees and was a Peace Corps volunteer in a dusty and distant land long ago. Tommy has an unswerving interest in intellectual freedom and his fingertips and keyboard reflect this. He may have impulse control problems.

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