Lil Miss Hot Mess, an NYU Steinhardt media, culture, and communication PhD student and founding board member of Drag Queen Story Hour—the popular program that brings drag performers into schools, public libraries, and bookstores to read, sing, and lead crafts and other creative activities for kids—likes to joke that, as audiences go, drunk 20-somethings at a nightclub and the average classroom of sugar-hyped five-year-olds aren’t as different as you might expect. “The excited, frenetic energy can kind of feel similar,” she says.
With glittery charisma and book selections that feature queer or trans characters, gender-transgressive themes, and narratives about finding one’s voice or not fitting in, DQSH’s performers are adept at capturing the attention of both the kids who love dress-up and the many parents and educators who attend. Since its launch in San Francisco by the writers Michelle Tea, Juli Delgado Lopera, and Virgie Tovar and the arts non-profit Radar Productions in 2015, the organization has grown to include dozens of independent chapters in New York, across the country, and overseas, and has been praised by experts such as Judy Zuckerman, Brooklyn Public Library’s director of youth and family services, and Bix Warden, children’s librarian at the San Francisco Public Library, for celebrating gender fluidity, encouraging children to look beyond stereotypes, fostering empathy, and teaching about LGBTQ+ role models past and present.
But Lil Miss Hot Mess, the author of the DQSH-inspired children’s books The Hips on the Drag Queen Go Swish Swish Swish (March 2020) and the forthcoming If You’re a Drag Queen and You Know It, thinks these story hours can do even more. In a new academic paper, “Drag pedagogy: The playful practice of queer imagination in early childhood,” co-authored with University of British Columbia education scholar Harper Keenan, she argues that at its best, the program goes beyond the goal of “exposing children to ‘diverse’ stories or easily digestible morsels of LGBT history and culture” to change the teacher-student dynamic on a deeper level.
There is value, the authors write, in imaginative play that “functions as an irregularized broadening of children’s own interests, abilities, and eccentricities on their own terms,” without being directed toward “a predetermined endpoint of growing up.” The traditional role of the teacher, “transformed into a loud and sparkling queen, becomes delightfully excessive. She is less interested in focus, discipline, achievement, or objectives than playful self-expression.” And with its “premium on standing out, on artfully desecrating the sacred,” they suggest, drag can be a model for teaching “strategic defiance,” where children are encouraged to “talk back, rather than suppressing dissent,” and learn how and when to question authority.
Identifying five themes—play as praxis, aesthetic transformation, strategic defiance, camp and its relationship to stigma, and embodied kinship—at work in a typical Drag Queen Story Hour, Lil Miss Hot Mess and Keenan suggest that “drag pedagogy offers one model for learning not simply about queer lives, but how to live queerly,” concluding that the program “creates a pathway into the imaginative, messy, and rule-breaking aspects of drag for children without necessarily watering down queer cultures.”
Ahead of her virtual performance as part of the NYU LGBTQ+ Center’s annual Pride Week, NYU News talked with Lil Miss Hot Mess about Drag Queen Story Hour’s pedagogical framework, the resistance the program has faced in some communities, and her observations about how children make sense of ambiguity.
In your “drag pedagogy” article, you write that Drag Queen Story Hour aspires to a model of teaching and learning that “extends beyond traditional approaches to LGBT curricular inclusion.” What does that look like in practice?
Drag in some ways might seem like a superficial art form, because it’s about adding things onto the surface and making them shiny, and going over the top. But really the way that drag works culturally is by reading between the lines—through subtle innuendo, inside jokes, and building a sense of community through shared references and aesthetics. This is an improvisational, exploratory, playful kind of process. And thinking about how that could impact teaching more broadly, you don’t always need a drag queen at the front of a classroom. There are things we could all learn and apply. As an educator myself at NYU, this is something I think about a lot. How do I bring humor into the classroom? How do I disarm students by doing things that might seem a little bit silly, but then circle back around to something important?
The concept of “strategic defiance” seems timely at a moment when so many injustices and issues in American life are being reexamined. What does the drag tradition have to teach kids about creating change?
When a kid asks a question like “Are you a boy or a girl?” I might respond with, “Why does it matter?” or “I’m both!” Sometimes responding with a question forces them to think about something in a different way. Kids often want to know “why, why, why, why,” and learning that clear answers don’t always exist is an important part of an education. Drag traditionally is disruptive. It’s a form of resistance in that it exposes contradictions and flaws in society, so that’s one of the ways in which I think drag queens can be role models for kids. I want kids to see someone who is incredibly imaginative and who, by dressing up and putting on a show, stands up for what they believe in. That often means directly confronting authority, whether through performance or protest. That’s not to say that drag is a substitute for political organizing, but there’s an important lesson for kids in seeing that you don’t have to accept something because that’s the way it's always been, or because someone tells you that’s the best way to do it. And actually, that’s a very common theme in children’s literature, too.
What do you do if you’re leading a story hour and a kid becomes disruptive?
Traditional teacher education training is often all about classroom management, and how to develop and hold authority in a very hierarchical way. We’re writing against that, and thinking about how to do things differently. At a drag show, there are often hecklers that insert themselves in ways that are not fully welcome, but also not fully malicious. There’s definitely a parallel there to the way kids engage. They might act out because they’re curious or they feel like they’re not being heard, or they’re just so excited that they can’t contain an idea. We want to encourage that. We can break down the hierarchy by inviting humor and—for lack of a better word—sass into the classroom, to build camaraderie and the sense that we’re all on the same side.
Drag Queen Story Hour events have drawn protests in communities across the country—including here in New York City. Some conservative politicians have even made opposing the program their signature issue. What do you make of the intensity of this backlash?
In one sense I think the resistance is ridiculous and irrelevant and probably a sign that we’re doing something right. At the same time, it’s hard. Our events are free and public and completely optional, so the answer is pretty simple—if you don’t like them, don’t come. But I feel like then you’re missing out. There are queer and trans people and probably even drag queens in almost every library and almost every school in almost every community. We might not be out, and we might not be visible, but we’re there, and so we deserve a place in the culture and in the programming of these institutions and public spaces. There are also people who say things like, “I’m not homophobic and I’m not transphobic, and I love drag but I think it’s an adult art form, not for kids.” The answer to that is simple, too. As we’ve built out our organization and our chapter network, we’ve created an experience for children. We conduct background checks, do trainings on how to work with children, and develop curricula to make sure that this is a safe, accessible, and age-appropriate program. It would be nice for folks to be able to see drag not as scandalous and lascivious, but as a traditional art form that is expansive enough that different people can try it on. There are different elements of cross-gender performance and play in so many cultures and contexts throughout history.
At the same time, you write that some in the LGBTQ+ community fear that DQSH “sanitizes risqué nature of drag in order to make it ‘family friendly.’” How do you address that critique?
That’s a genuine concern that I have, coming from a kind of leftist queer politics that doesn’t want to assimilate into mainstream culture. We want to hold on to a sense of difference and uniqueness and really think about what queer culture is and can be. Part of the responsibility of a program like Drag Queen Story Hour to the queer community is to find a way of not watering things down. We want to make sure we’re sharing values that we care about, such as questioning authority, and teaching about queer and trans history. We also need to make sure that we have space for LGBTQ+ families to participate in meaningful ways, so they’re not feeling pushed out by an influx of straight families who want to consume this culture. It’s definitely an ongoing process, and I think a generative tension for our organization.
Despite the challenges, what about performing in the childhood education setting is personally rewarding for you?
Without being too dramatic, I’ll say that it’s part of a healing process for me to see kids getting to have a different version of a childhood than what I had and to get to express themselves more. I can only imagine what my life would have been like if I had gotten to go to drag queen story hours as a kid myself. And one of the joys of working with kids is that they’re fairly open. Bias, bigotry, and so many forms of oppression are structural and they’re learned—not necessarily things kids are born with. So I’m able to say “I’m both a boy and a girl,” or, “I’m a boy one day and I’m a girl the next day,” and that often doesn’t faze kids that much because they haven’t been fully indoctrinated.
Why did you choose to author this research about DQSH as Lil Miss Hot Mess, rather than the name you have used for other academic publications?
Lil Miss Hot Mess is my public drag persona and everything I do for DQSH is under that identity, so it just seemed logical to write under that name. I also think that, even as much as drag has been celebrated in the past decade and pushed into the mainstream by things like RuPaul’s Drag Race, there are still a lot of stereotypes about who drag queens are. They’re thought to be fabulous and fierce, but also catty and maybe a little ditsy. I want to show that you can be a drag queen and a professor, or a drag queen and a teacher, or a drag queen and a city council member.