Drag Pedagogy: Grooming by Any Other Name
Drag Queen Story Hour (DQSH) is one of the most contentious issues in the current debate surrounding gender ideology. Many throw accusations of “grooming” at these events, which involve drag queens reading children’s books to kids at libraries, schools, and other venues. Others brush it off as harmless entertainment and the accusations of grooming as far-right hysteria—even “stochastic terrorism.”
The truth is that DQSH is not harmless, and it is, in fact, steeped in a political and ideological agenda that targets children. Drag itself is adult entertainment full of sexually charged themes meant to be performed at nightclubs. It did not lose these elements when children became the audience.
This is all spelled out in a paper called “Drag Pedagogy: The Playful Practice of Queer Imagination in Early Childhood,” which Christopher Rufo called the “manifesto” of DQSH in his investigation into the movement.
The paper was co-written by Harper Keenan, an assistant professor who heads the SOGI (sexual orientation and gender identity) program at the University of British Columbia and Harris Kornstein, an assistant professor at the University of Arizona, a founder of DQSH, and a drag queen who goes by the stage name Lil Miss Hot Mess.
Keenan and Kornstein were also involved in a SOGI UBC panel discussion on drag pedagogy a few months after the paper was published.
Before we jump into the paper itself, let’s take a quick look at what grooming actually is. RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) defines grooming as: "manipulative behaviors that the abuser uses to gain access to a potential victim, coerce them to agree to the abuse, and reduce the risk of being caught."
Grooming involves tactics like victim selection, victim isolation, desensitization to sexual topics, the pushing of personal boundaries, and attempts to make the behavior seem normal.
These tactics bear more than an uncanny resemblance to the five elements of DQSH as described in Keenan and Kornstein’s paper: “play as praxis, aesthetic transformation, strategic defiance, destigmatization of shame, and embodied kinship.
No, not all drag queens and not all drag queens who read books to children are trying to groom them. In fact, most very likely are not. But the movement itself and particularly the “drag pedagogy” it is based on does employ an awful lot of the tactics of grooming once you take a closer look.
“Drag queens have historically been relegated to the realm of the night,” Keenan and Kornstein begin their paper. “In the past few years, however, drag performers have made their way from the dimly lit bars of gayborhoods and into the fluorescent lights of libraries and classrooms.”
Why? Why did drag queens move from the bars to the classrooms? Well, the paper continues, “DQSH seems to uniquely thread the needle between queer activism and broad cultural acceptance.”
The aim seems to be to create little queer activists, and DQSH is an effective vehicle with which to do it: “Many elements of DQSH are common to early childhood schooling: bright colours, music, art, and imaginative play.”
“The traditional role of the teacher, transformed into a loud and sparkling queen, becomes delightfully excessive,” Keenan and Kornstein write. “Her pedagogy is rooted in pleasure and creativity borne, in part, from letting go of control.”
“Pedagogy rooted in pleasure” and “letting go of control,” are interesting and deliberate choices of phrasing. Keenan and Kornstein also argue that DQST is about exploring “the boundaries of acceptability” and “children’s curiosities about social norms.”
“At many DQSH events,” they write, “children ask genuine questions like ‘are you a boy or a girl?’ or ‘why are you dressed like that?’ … In many cases, drag queens may not respond with answers, but with questions meant to complicate perceptions of gender and society.”
Why can’t the drag queens simply respond that they are men and that dressing up the way they do doesn’t change that? Why do they have to deliberately confuse children about sex and gender?
Well, the aim is not only to create queer activists but to encourage children to be “queer” themselves.
“Drag is an imaginative and creative process. It is grounded in building character,” Keenan and Kornstein explain. “This approach can support students in finding the unique or queer aspects of themselves.”
They continue: “Drag pedagogy might enact a mode of queer kinship that acknowledges that there is already queerness within the classroom.”
By uncovering the queerness that they claim is already there in the classroom, Keenan and Kornstein explain that DQSH seeks to drive a wedge between children and the supportive structures in their lives, like school and family. They say this quite plainly and outright:
“We suggest that DQSH offers a queer relationality with children that breaks from the reproductive futurity of the normative classroom and nuclear family.”
The “normative classroom” and the “nuclear family” are two main areas of child safeguarding. Why should anyone seek to “break” these relationships?
Because, once these relationships are broken, the child is free to be “queer.”
“As drag has moved further into the mainstream, some have questioned whether this queer art form has lost its edge,” Keenan and Kornstein lament. “In discussing the work of DQSH within our social circles, we have occasionally encountered critiques that DQSH is sanitizing the risqué nature of drag in order to make it ‘family friendly.’”
Not to worry, Keenan and Kornstein don’t agree that drag loses its risqué edge when performed in front of children.
“We do not share this pessimistic view,” they write. “Queer worldmaking, including political organizing, has long been a project driven by desire.”
The word “desire,” like “pleasure,” crops up repeatedly throughout the piece. Where this all points is to the final of the five elements of DQSH: embodied kinship.
DQSH and the drag pedagogy that underpins it is not an innocent program where grown men get dressed up as female caricatures and read stories to children—though that’s strange enough.
The ultimate goal, stated clearly at the end of the paper, is to connect kids to a new, “queer” family:
“It may be that DQSH is ‘family friendly,’ in the sense that it is accessible and inviting to families with children, but it is less a sanitizing force than it is a preparatory introduction to alternate modes of kinship. Here, DQSH is ‘family friendly’ in the sense of ‘family’ as an old-school queer code to identify and connect with other queers on the street.”
By using theatrics, bright colors, appealing stories, and a playful approach, drag pedagogy targets children, desensitizes them to a form of adult entertainment, and seeks to undermine protective elements like school and family.
Interestingly, Keenan and Kornstein never actually define pedagogy. While definitions vary, pedagogy, most simply put, is an approach to teaching knowledge or skills, usually to children. Drag Queen Story Hour doesn’t aim to teach, it aims to indoctrinate children into “queerness.” It isn’t pedagogy at all—it’s grooming.