Chula Vista is changing, and these hometown drag queens are helping one page at a time.
In drag terms, reading is something you do when you want to playfully tear someone down. But events such as the upcoming Drag Queen Storytime in Chula Vista reading is about encouragement, engaging kids to enjoy real books away from their iPads with a pinch of diversity and acceptance thrown in. These are good things unless of course you are a part of a growing handful of South Bay parents and protestors who think storytellers in drag reading to kids is a form of child abuse.
Drag queens and real-life couple Barbie-Q (top left) and Raquelita (middle left) have a scary job ahead of them in just over a week, it shouldn't be so frightening, but it is. They are the artists who were hired to read to kids at the Civic Center Library for Drag Queen Storytime.
When you think of library storytelling, it usually conjures up pictures of kids on high-tread beige carpeting, listening to a narrator sitting at toddler-level reading from a book filled with vibrant illustrations. You don't think of protestors and angry parents forming a rally, filling in the empty spaces elbow-to-elbow with palpable disapproval.
But that is what is expected to happen in Chula Vista on September 10 when Barbie-Q and Raquelita will get into costume, feminize their faces with makeup, put on wigs then head out onto the carpet and into a lion's den of controversy and judgment.
And yes, they are afraid.
The two, who wish to go by their stage names for this interview to protect their safety, talked to San Diego Gay and Lesbian News about how they got involved with the event, the controversy surrounding it and how they feel about performance day.
Both performers who were born in San Diego and lived in Chula Vista in their youth, are now educators and work in an environment filled with kids. They understand how kids think, how they interact with the public and how diversity may be foreign to them. However storytime is not a politically motivated event for the LGBT community. It is simply a fun literacy teaching moment in which kids can get lost in their imaginations without having to plug into anything. Any discourse or hate-speech is truly the construct of adults who themselves accuse the artists of having their own "gay agenda," when it seems they are the ones with an ax to grind.
Raquelita, who wishes to use feminine pronouns when it comes to her drag character, says she wasn't expecting the notoriety of the event and it wasn't until recently she got word of any negativity.
"As the date was approaching, like two weeks ago, we checked in with the organizers and they told us that they had already started to receive some negative feedback from one person who wasn’t even from the City of Chula Vista," she says. "And then as the date approached it seemed like it was getting more attention especially after it went on social media this last week."
And attention it got. Parents began to speak to the media about their disapproval, feeling like using a public space infringed upon their choices, and homophobic "pro-family" religious groups such as Mass Resistance interjected their opinions with flyers filled with unsubstantiated rhetoric and hate speech:
"'Drag queens' - men dressed as flamboyant women -- are mostly practicing homosexuals," one handout reads. "They also suffer from 'gender identity' confusion, but they celebrate this insanity." The flyer adds: "Homosexuality, transgenderism and other paraphilias (sexual deviance)" are harmful and destructive both physically and mentally, especially to kids."
It goes on to say the LGBT population suffers from a high rate of suicide. To that Raquelita somewhat agrees.
"It’s interesting because a lot of the facts and information that was shown inside of the flyers that were used in protest, I think those are correct, right? I mean our community has a high suicide rate, and other challenges, but I think it’s because there’s a lack of our community feeling affirmed or there’s a lack of visibility that allows our community to feel like we are meant to be."
She recalls her time as a kid and her experience coming out which wasn't a pleasant one. Growing up in a culturally Catholic environment was tough enough, but then her parents pivoted toward Christianity which resulted in them being more distant she says. "They started to kind of look into the Bible and feel a need to have their beliefs supported by that."
She explains that in the Latino culture there is something called machismo-ness which is an old-school way of thinking and not in tune with who gay people are or ultimately their real identities.
"Sexuality and drag are two different things," Barbie-Q adds, "Drag is art -- an art that is not necessarily done by somebody who belongs to the LGBT community. I think misinformation is in regards to that; not being able to separate art from sexuality."
When asked if Barbie-Q expected the backlash being in such a progressive state as California, she surprisingly said yes. She believes it's a part of a culture that is still prevalent in a community she grew up in.
"In reflection, I grew up not being able to embrace those feminine parts or you know, ‘different’ non-gender-based parts of who I was," she says. "I actually had to move, go to school, and through that, I was then able to come out and embrace myself."
She agrees with Raquelita's assessment of machismo, "Even though we are in California I feel like there are certain areas in the state that have these traditional and normative views. I would say there is a movement, there a shift that’s beginning to happen in a lot of the South Bay communities moving towards progressive thinking and if you look at this event; it’s sponsored by the Chula Vista Library, but it’s also sponsored by the City of Chula Vista which actually has declared the first LGBT Pride Day. And the mayor has spoken in favor of this movement in support of our community, so I think there is a shift and you can sort of see it in these sort of events, not just this particular one but also South Bay Pride. It’s really exciting for us to be a part of it."
Aside from all the talk about acceptance and diversity within the community and its allies, there is another reality, more than just the thought of men in drag reading to kids. Hate-fueled violence is an uptrend and a very real possibility. Both artists have thought of this and are frightened of the prospect.
"Those are real, scary thoughts that could happen especially since we recognize that there’s been violence towards LGBT people--especially our trans women of color," said Raquelita. "We recognize there’s a reality to that or the possibility. But for me, what’s kind of allowed me to remain hopeful and empowered is being told there’s a lot of support and a lot of love from my friends and family and strangers. So that’s what allows me to stay focused and be empowered. Hopefully it sets a precedent for other events or other folks to be involved in the community and to be visible so that other folks can feel like they’re not alone."
"Yes, yes," Barbie-Q adds. "To be honest, it is a scary thought going into an event where you know there’s opposition. I feel my fear is overcome by the idea of thinking of myself as a little kid and having to wait until I was almost 21 to have somebody who was LGBTQ--to see them happy -- and what that meant to me, and how that changed my life. Maybe I could have been that little kid to see somebody be themselves and be happy. Beyond drag and beyond the LGBT community, I feel it's more about making sure our youth are inspired and grow up to be kind and accepting."
As for claims that kids being near drag queens makes them gay or has some sort of adverse effect on their mental state, Raquelita says that's not been her reality as an educator and she works with kids from as young as five. She says her experience has been that kids are naturally curious about things, but they ask questions, get an answer and move on.
"It’s not a big deal to them," she says. "It becomes normalized for them to understand that it’s just a person, it’s just a human being. I kinda see that with kids around drag queens. For them to see a diverse group of people it’s allowing them to just open their minds and ideas of being able to be in solidarity with different kinds of people, it creates unity within diversity. I think that’s what it does."
A person out of makeup can read to a child, they have been doing it for years, why a drag queen?
"Because with a drag queen," Barbie-Q explains, "Not only are you getting a regular person, you're getting a person who is bringing in art. Like, Raquelita is a counselor and I am a teacher, but that's part of who we are as well. We bond with students."
"Drag queens bring a little bit more too," she continues. "The art behind drag isn't just putting on makeup, it's making costumes, it's coming up with choreography, it's memorizing songs. It's all these skills; it's about recognizing the abilities a drag queen can bring."
She says people shouldn't just think about drag as adult entertainment only, "it shouldn't be defined by that. As we are going into Drag Queen Storytime, we are thinking of our audience, we are coming up with a performance that's appropriate and engaging or the audience that we're going to be serving and performing for. It's our talent, we are versatile and flexible like that."
For parents who are wondering about explaining to their kids who a drag queen is and why they are reading to them, Raquelita says it's all about art, much like how Disney uses its medium to get through to kids.
"We are creating a character," she says. "And we are using that as an instrument to educate and to provide an experience for the children for them to see, to hear, to experience a new type of learning environment kinda like the classroom. We are just using our body, our costumes our makeup our art overall to kind of send the message. It’s the art that speaks and delivers that message."
'It's almost like when kids dress up for Halloween," Barbie-Q adds. "Drag queens dress up for Halloween almost every day. If they want to understand drag in those terms I feel like it could be explained in that way."
There is one message kids are definitely going to see and that’s conflict. The Drag Queen Storytime event is planned for September 10. Protestors, media and allies are already expected to show up en masse, in fact, the event had to be moved to a bigger venue.
For the performers, there is a main priority; the safety of the children and they are assured that there are plenty of measures in place to keep everyone out of harm's way.
"I feel like this whole emotion has kinda deviated the attention from the kids to these other conflicts that adults are holding together," says Barbie-Q. " We need to focus on the kids and how we can keep them safe but also have a fun, cool, interactive time."
For as many Drag Queen Storytime protestors and hate-groups, there are plenty more allies and advocates. There is an assumption that California is the cream that rose to the top of progressiveness, but for some places in the state change has come at a slower pace.
Forget politics and religion, Barbie-Q and Raquelita, for all their fears and apprehension, are driven to educate a new generation of kids in the very city they grew up in.
And they are both proud to be a part of a very important movement, "We get to redefine the way the community supports diversity."
Drag Queen Storytime with Barbie-Q and Raquelita will be held on Tuesday, September 10 from 4 pm to 5 pm at The Civic Center Library, 365 F Street, Chula Vista, 91910.