The view among protestors was clear: drag queens are for nightclubs, not toddler groups
Henleaze, a suburb in the north of Bristol, is an unlikely place for a protest. This is a well-to-do area where the houses sit behind neatly-clipped hedges and cost over half-a-million pounds. But across the road from the local Waitrose yesterday* morning, Henleaze’s library was surrounded by at least a dozen police officers and two angry groups of demonstrators. A gaggle of toddlers and their mums had also gathered. Drag Queen Story Hour was about to begin.
Those protesting against the appearance of Sab Samuel, a drag queen who goes by the stage name Aida H Dee, were clear what they thought. ‘It’s wrong. This is aimed at toddlers and these kids don’t understand,’ a man in his 50s said.
In relative silence, a dozen or so woman huddled with their children. Three and four year-olds stood with eyes wide open looking at the astonishing scenes outside their library.
It was harder to engage with the other group. They were younger and angrier. Masks were almost ubiquitous; many were also hooded and hid their faces behind dark glasses. But their feelings were equally clear as they chanted: ‘Say it loud, say it clear, drag queens are welcome here.’
Supporting them three paces behind the front line, two teachers waving flags of the National Education Union did talk to me. ‘I think it’s shocking’, said one as she looked across the divide, ‘we have LGBTQ+ on the curriculum and kids as young as six know about transgenderism’. Eventually the library admitted those with tickets. Everyone else was kept outside, including a regular stream of library users. But this was a Thursday like no other.
Drag Queen Story Hour was eventually called off in Henleaze as a result of the ugly scenes outside the library. Instead, the children enjoyed a normal session of ‘Rhyme Time’ led by library staff. But outside, tensions were still rising. As the younger demonstrators chanted: ‘I’d rather be a drag queen than a fash’, their parents’ generation responded with the megaphone. This time a blast of the Jim’ll Fix It theme tune.
Aida H Dee is on a nationwide tour and the next gig was imminent: 1.00 p.m., across the city in Hillfields. Both groups headed for their vehicles and battled the lunchtime traffic to the next library where the drag performer was already holed up.
This part of the city is not so well off, but the ticket holders were a similar demographic: women with young children. Again library staff stood across the door: no ticket, no entry. A second battalion of police were on hand in the wings. But here, the inspector in charge let the two groups mingle, and some common ground was found. Being a very British protest, two women found an interest in each other’s dogs. There was also a shared concern for children. This, after all, was why everyone was here.
But their arguments were poles apart. Mark Nelson had come all the way from Cornwall, and he was worried. Nelson told me that he had seen Drag Queen Story Hour start up in America, ‘and now it’s come here,’ he added ominously.
Nelson probably spoke for many when he remembered his own school days: ‘When I was a child we had police officers and fire fighters come and speak to us; I grew up wanting to be a fireman.’ The parents’ and grandparents’ view was clear: drag queens are for nightclubs, not toddler groups.
Over at the front line, tensions were rising fast. One young protestor moaned about a hate crime: it seemed that someone had been misgendered, and she promptly reported it to police. Expect that she was a they. ‘I’m not a woman’, she asserted.
She didn’t need to look far for a police officer – the pavement was heaving with them – but neither did she get far when she refused to give her details. On one hand these were menacing youths – with masked faces and concealed identities – but at the same time they were little more than confused teenagers. When a flag waver hit me with a flag, an apology followed. Behind the bravado some of these protestors were naïve youngsters who have yet to learn the facts of life.
Suddenly a car containing Aida H Dee zipped out of the back entrance and signalled another dash – this time to Stockwood Library in the south of the city. More women with more children, more police. Another fee collected by the performer; another library closed to the public.
Inside, the drag queen performed to toddlers, with the ever expanding Pride flag hanging alongside them. Who thought that it might be a good idea to replace Rhyme Time with this? And why on earth did they think it?
Bristol City Council insist that Drag Queen Story Hour ‘offers children a rich experience in story telling in an interactive way as well as an understanding of different communities’.
‘Lessons like this are how we can create a more inclusive society, and educate children about tolerance and difference. Unfortunately it seems some adults need these lessons too,’ a spokesman for the council said.
Meanwhile, the Drag Queen Story Hour tour continues: today Aida H Dee is back in Bristol. It won’t be long before the protestors gather.
Debbie Hayton is a teacher and journalist.