On a Sunday at Stories Books in Echo Park, Michelle Tea takes the stage to introduce a room full of parents and kids to Pickle, their storyteller for the day.
“Drag queens wear very glamorous, pretty and fantastical dresses, sometimes fantastical pants," Tea explains. "They wear lots of beautiful makeup, sometimes they’re very glittery. They’re always feminists. They get to run around with their drag queen friends, and they get to sing and dance and tell stories. And we’re very lucky to have one here today.”
Pickle emerges in a pink gown with a slit, Rita Hayworth–style wig, tarantula eyelashes and lavender acrylic nails. Pickle may be the tallest person the children here have ever seen; she’s 6 foot 3 and even taller in her nude pumps, which her clutch purse perfectly matches.
“My fairy godmother gave me these really magical nails,” Pickle says. “So if you see one fly off of my hand, I want everyone to scream really loud, because she said she wasn’t gonna give me another set.”
And with that, the inaugural Drag Queen Story Hour is off and running. Pickle first reads Judy Sierra’s Wild About You!, a story about a kangaroo and a panda couple at the zoo; each adopts a baby, which the other animals help raise, because “to bring up a baby … it takes a whole zoo!” Next she reads Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell’s And Tango Makes Three, which is based on the real-life Roy and Silo, two male penguins at the Central Park Zoo in New York, who behaved like a couple and raised a girl penguin named Tango, “because it takes two to make a Tango.”
“I want everyone to shout a very special word,” Pickle instructs after she finishes reading. “Love!”
“Performing for gay men is exactly the same as performing for children,” says Pickle, who performs in drag at various local gay bars and clubs, and hosts a weekly trivia night at Bar Mattachine downtown. (She’s also starred in one-man shows, including Peg Bundy Has an Existential Crisis.) “They’re just in bigger bodies. I just employ the same tactics I use for hosting trivia, but without the swear words. Gay men have no attention span; the children are actually a little bit more engaged.”
Monica Deamer brought her 2-year-old son, Reed, to Drag Queen Story Hour. She told him they were going to a story time with a “fancy lady who’s gonna be very funny.”
“I find drag queens very inspiring,” Deamer says. “I’d like my son to grow up knowing that there’s lots of ways of expressing yourself, and to be whoever you are inside, because inside is what matters.”
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Tea conceived the first Drag Queen Story Hour in fall of 2015 in San Francisco, where she was director of RADAR Productions, a queer-centric literary nonprofit, which produces, among other events, the ongoing spoken-word tour Sister Spit. (Tea also has written several memoirs, novels and young-adult books, and co-authored Gossip singer Beth Ditto’s 2009 autobiography, Coal to Diamonds: A Memoir.) She wanted to create a kid-friendly gathering that would bridge the gap between gay and straight parents in the increasingly gentrified Castro district. Kids get to interact with fabulously dressed drag queens while listening to not only classic fairy tales involving princesses and princes but also stories that teach them about feminism, gender identity and adoptive and blended families. The monthly readings take place at libraries and have attracted as many as 135 people. Michael Roybal-Gonzales, who works in the children's fashion industry and helped Tea organize the first L.A. storytelling, says that most of the parents who attend are heterosexual “but like-minded thinkers.”
“I always thought that drag queens and kids would be a really great mix,” says Tea, who currently lives in Eagle Rock with her wife, Dashiell Lippman, and their 2-year-old son, Atticus. “Drag queens are performers, and when they go out they just want to interact. The books we choose are about social justice, not just Green Eggs and Ham. They’re about families being made by choice and love and community, and less about biology. They teach them that there’s a million different kinds of families. It’s as much about education as is it about joy and creativity.”
The series has since branched out to Brooklyn, where it’s hosted by Feminist Press, which published one of Tea’s books. One recent storyteller was Honey Mahogany, who was a contestant on RuPaul’s Drag Race. Upcoming events will take place in March at the Open Space Café & Theater in West Hollywood, and in April at the LAB in Eagle Rock, as well as RuPaul’s DragCon.
“They’re so open-minded,” Pickle says, referring to kids. “They don’t have that prejudice built into them yet. They’re like a blank slate. They don’t have boundaries. They take everything at face value. They just think of me as this big princess. And that’s why something like this is so important.”