Sohrab Ahmari’s back-and-forth with David French began when Ahmari objected to a Sacramento public library hosting an event called “Drag Queen Story Hour.” “This is demonic,” he tweeted. “To hell with liberal order.”
Most scoffed at Ahmari's concerns. “Ahmari flipped out over Americans engaging in—GASP—free speech and association,” tweeted Mark Joseph Stern of Slate. “It blows my mind that the fuse that lit the current right-wing intellectual civil war is the existence of drag queen story hour, a nice public event series,” New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg marveled. Robby Soave of Reason was similarly baffled: “The First Thingsers believe conservatives should…form some sort of theocratic street squad that terrorizes librarians who invite drag queens to read to kids? (I'm not kidding: This is the apparently unthinkable horror that kicked off the French fight.)”
Even David French dismissed Ahmari's worries—because of the relatively small size of these events. “I’m having a hard time believing we’re having a conversation around some sort of library event that like 20 people might go to,” he said on a recent episode of the Ordered Liberty podcast, adding sarcastically, “That’s the threat right there. That’s going to destroy the liberal order. I just don’t get it.”
Contra French, drag queen story hours are not all that small. The nonprofit DQSH, started in 2015 in San Francisco by Michelle Tea and the queer literary arts organization Radar Productions, is a “global phenomenon” with chapters around the world. In the United States, its 35 chapters hold events regularly at public libraries in thirteen states and Washington, D.C. And they draw large crowds—127 signed up for the Sacramento public library's last story hour in August; 275 attended a story hour in Evansville, Indiana, in February; 500 turned up for one in Brentwood, California; 200 showed up for one in Albany last August.
Moreover, the group has expansive aims. “We are trying to groom the next generation,” one participating drag queen stated. Events involve drag queens asking children, “Who wants to be a drag queen when they grow up?” Featured books include Red: A Crayon's Story, about a blue crayon who's been labeled as red. According to its website, DQSH “captures the imagination and play of the gender fluidity of childhood and gives kids glamorous, positive, and unabashedly queer role models…kids are able to see people who defy rigid gender restrictions and imagine a world where people can present as they wish, where dress up is real.”
“This is not a drag performance, there's no agenda attached to this. It's actually very sweet,” librarian Brooke Converse, of Contra Costa County Library, argues. But videos of past story hours reveal pornographic adult entertainment: provocative outfits, sexual dancing, and twerking. Some drag queens even wear clothing used for BDSM, such as dog collars. It’s hard to interpret this adult entertainment as “sweet,” especially when the librarians hosting these events sometimes fail to do proper background checks: Two of the “queens” featured in story hours in Houston—William Travis Dees and Albert Garza—were later exposed as convicted sex offenders and pedophiles.
“It’s like a sex show for little kids, a sexist minstrel show,” Anna Bohach, a mother of four from Spokane, told First Things. “It’s hatred of women.” Bohach has organized a group called “500 Moms Strong” to stage a sit-in to protest an upcoming story hour at the Spokane public library. Her opposition is rooted in her Catholic faith, but also in her dislike for the inherent misogyny of drag queen culture, which reduces femininity to crude stereotypes. The answer, she says, is to fight—not to simply stay away from the library on the day of the story hour: “Would that be a sufficient response if a racist was donning black face to read Uncle Tom at a library?” she asked. “We should not allow women to be mocked in the same fashion.”
Bohach is hardly the only parent fighting drag queen storytimes. Fifteen thousand supporters have signed a petition to cancel a DQSH scheduled in Haverford Township, Pennsylvania, later this month. “Exposing young children to unnatural behavior and brazen pro-transgender activism is immoral, harmful, and confusing,” the statement reads. “The American College of Pediatricians warns: ‘Conditioning children into believing a lifetime of chemical and surgical impersonation of the opposite sex is normal and healthful is child abuse.’” In May, a backlash of parent protest succeeded in getting a story time canceled in Leander, Texas. “I don't hate these people,” one man explained at a Detroit protest. “I love them, just as I love everybody, but I disagree with what they're doing to the innocent.”
And what they’re doing is grave. The studies of public health professor Lisa Littmann suggest that gender dysphoria in adolescents spreads through social contagion: Peer pressure and exposure to cross-dressers or trans people manipulate young people into desiring to cross-dress, or believing they are “trapped” in the wrong gender. Imagine the effects of indoctrinating and grooming toddlers; those attending story hours have been as young as ten months old.
“Maybe if we all use the term ‘demonic’ to describe drag queens...that will solve the problem?” David French asked skeptically of Ahmari’s initial tweet on Ordered Liberty. It’s certainly not all that is needed—but it is a good start. The effort to ban Drag Queen Story Hour starts when we have the courage to clarify the moral stakes. This requires casting off the civility creeds of the woke liberal left—codes that dictate we merely shrug our shoulders, or resort to euphemisms. That so many liberals and libertarians have expressed surprise at Ahmari’s concerns suggests that we have failed thus far to speak out loudly and boldly enough.
Ramona V. Tausz is assistant editor at First Things.