Drag Queen Story Hour

Drag Queen Story Hour

  Illustrated by  Olivia M. Healy

Illustrated by Olivia M. Healy

We spoke with Drag Queen Story Hour queens Honey Mahogany of San Francisco, Tony Soto of Los Angeles, and Lil Miss Hot Mess of New York.

Please introduce yourself, what you do and how you identify.

Honey Mahogany: I’m a social worker, drag queen, and singer/song-writer. I was on Season 5 of RuPaul’s Drag Race, I’m currently the Lead Organizer for the Compton’s Transgender District in San Francisco, Co-owner of the legendary Stud Bar of San Francisco, and Promoter for the P.O.C. centered events Mahogany Mondays & Black Fridays.

Tony Soto: Hi, I’m Tony Soto and I’m a public figure. You can see me on YouTube, hear me on The Tony Soto Show and The Gay Power Half Hour Podcast, and fall in love with me when I am my drag personality, the Silverlake icon, Tony Soto.

Lil Miss Hot Mess: By day I’m a PhD student, by night I’m a drag queen, and in my “spare time” I’m also a visual artist and occasional organizer.  As a queen, I’ve had the pleasure of performing everywhere from The Stud (shout-out to Honey and crew!) to SFMOMA, Stanford to OccupySF, and most recently as a backup for Katy Perry on SNL.  I also helped launch the #MyNameIs Campaign in 2014 to challenge Facebook’s “real names” policy. 

How did you become involved in Drag Queen Story Hour?

Honey Mahogany: I believe I was one of the first queens recruited for DQSH by Juliana Delgado Lopera of Radar Productions along with Mutha Chucka and Yves Saint Croissant. I love children and have definitely been feeling my biological clock ticking, so I jumped at the chance. I also believe it is important to destigmatize the relationship between queers and babies. Not only can queers have children, but I think it’s important that all children grow up knowing openly queer and trans people and having openly queer/trans role models.

Tony Soto: The way DQSH originated for me when I heard my good friend Pickle was doing it in LA. It was super cute to me and when I found out the gig paid I was even more interested. So after reaching out to her, she put me in contact with the appropriate parties and the rest is herstory.

How did Drag Queen Story Hour originate?

LMHM: As Honey mentioned, DQSH was started in San Francisco as the brainchild of by Radar Productions’ outgoing founder and queer author Michelle Tea.  Michelle recently had a kid of her own and was looking for queer-positive family activities, so she had this brilliant idea of bringing together kids and queens.  It seems so simple and yet so subversive at the same time!  Michelle also has a queer imprint at Feminist Press, so they organized the first events in Brooklyn and Manhattan; and Michelle moved to Los Angeles and started up a series there. 

In what cities is the program actively running? Are there plans to expand the program?

LMHM: They’re regularly being organized in SF, NYC, and LA.  But the best part is that people are now organizing them in other US cities too, like Houston, Portland, Cincinnati, Modesto, Cherry Hill, and also in other countries: Canada, UK, New Zealand, Australia, and Taiwan.  And those are just the ones we’ve heard from!  That makes me so happy because, while it’s great to have these events for kids and families who live in big cities, the real work is being done in places that may not be as safe culturally or politically for queer and trans people. 

Tony Soto: I hope that the program does expand and goes past the progressive cities. I am from rural Illinois originally, and I know there are all kinds of kids and adults that could benefit from seeing this brilliant event!

What's your favorite part of reading to kids?

Honey: I really enjoy how honest and expressive children are… They don’t hesitate to tell you what they think or ask you questions.  They question everything and take things at face value. They are generally much quicker than adults at figuring out preferred pronouns, and they’re also usually really complimentary.

LMHM: Exactly, they totally bring this openness and enthusiasm that’s really quite contagious. And they don’t know what lipsyncing is, so they don’t mind my voice when we sing songs. Overall, I think it’s a wonderful way to teach basic ideas about acceptance and difference, while also exposing kids to queer aesthetics of camp and fabulousness!

Do you have a favorite DQSH memory?

Tony: My fondest memory was getting the best hug from a fabulous child in red kitten heels after reading. She rocked her heels better than I did.

LMHM: I love that at one event I took a photo with a six-week old baby (who the parents wanted me to hold, but I was too scared, especially in heels!) and then later gave an eleven year tips on how to make glitter stick to your face and where to buy sequin appliques.

Honey: I remember being really touched by a young girl who kept giving me gifts. She had made me a necklace earlier, and she kept trying to give me more things like a bracelet, a flower, it was so incredibly sweet. She was a little angel.

What are some of your favorite children's books to read aloud?

Tony Soto: Where The Wild things Are. Miss Nelson is Missing. Ramona Quimby, Age 8. To name a few...

LMHM: I love 10,000 Dresses by Marcus Ewert, which addresses gender and imagination in kids. Also, You’re Wearing That to School?! By Lynn Plourde, which deals with being yourself and not being afraid to stand out from your peers, but with a hippo who wears a tutu!  And Everyone Poops by Taro Gomi has also been a crowd-pleaser.

How do children typically react to seeing you in drag?

Tony Soto: I’m very tall. Almost 7 feet tall. So their first reaction is typically one of wonder.

LMHM: I’ve had kids think I’m really royalty, or a superhero, or a movie star.  Some just want to touch the hair or sparkles.

Honey: It varies but I would say that there is almost always a sense of awe or wonder. Drag queens are usually dressed in clothing and hair that is over the top, so I imagine they think they are seeing someone playing dress up with a really fancy dress up closet… and they're pretty much right! They seem to always comment on the biggest, brightest, boldest part of my ensemble.

What advice would you give to a child struggling with their identity?

Honey: I think the most important advice I can give them is that they are not alone, and that ultimately they will grow up and be able to choose their own destinies. It may be trite, but I would tell them to follow their dreams because they have the power to make them come true.

LMHM: I second that!  And encourage them to find the folks who will support them, whether that’s a close friend, a teacher, an aunt/uncle, or whomever.  We all know that facing the world alone can be tough, and sometimes all you need is someone else to have your back.

How would you describe your drag persona?

Tony Soto: I’m like a real housewife, only nicer, and with less money.

LMHM: I don’t really see myself as having a persona.  In everyday life, I’m more quiet and shy, and in drag, it’s just a more outgoing side of myself. That said, I do sometimes joke that my aesthetic is “teenage girl at a talent show” -- I revel in the awkward enthusiasm of being a bit of a hot mess.

When did you discover your love of drag? Were those around you supportive?

Tony Soto: I’ve been doing drag for 15 years. I was lucky to start in Chicago with a very accepting community. I don’t think I really discovered my LOVE for it till I moved to LA over 2 years ago, because here strangers like me.

LMHM: I always wanted to be a drag queen, even when I didn’t know what to call it.  As a kid, I’d wear my best friend’s ballet tutus and was into theater and performing.  When I moved to San Francisco after college, I started going to drag shows and finally got up the courage to ask to get on stage.  That was almost ten years ago, and I can’t imagine what my life would’ve looked like otherwise.

How do you respond to negative feedback?

Honey: That depends. I think it’s important to be able to hear feedback, understand where it’s coming from, and learn from it if you determine it is helpful. However, as someone who has been on a reality tv show, I know how mean comments and harassment can really tear someone down. I find with things like online criticism, it is often, in the end, unhelpful to pay attention to it or take it in. Everyone has an opinion, and in the end, yours is the only one that should really matter to you. You can never make everyone else happy. When deciding on whether or not to pay attention to negative feedback, make sure you are being true to yourself first and foremost.

Tony Soto: I use it. I think that if it is constructive it can be used to better you. If it’s not constructive, then I turn it around to expose their insecurities.

What's your more typical (not for kids!) drag routine like?

Tony Soto: I try to always be a happy mascot, but I probably curse way more.

LMHM: I err on the side of camp, but I like my numbers to have a concept. I’ve done performances about the BP oil spill, It Gets Better campaign, and as Hillary Clinton.

How has the success of RuPaul's Drag Race affected your work? Are there downsides to drag culture entering the mainstream?

Honey: Drag Race has done amazing things for the LGBT community and drag in general. It has brought drag out of the clubs and into the international spotlight. When I started doing drag, “drag queen” had become a dirty word in an LGBT community that was trying really hard to be Post-Gay. The fact that now even the most heteronormative butch gays will fangirl over meeting his favorite Drag Race queen is a truly incredible thing. That being said, I do think that one of the unfortunate side-effects of Drag Race’s international popularity is that it has taken what was once a very diverse and regionally specific artform (with many micro-cultures and expressions) and homogenized it. Some say that it has watered down the artform to make it more palatable, to translate it to a more general audience; that it holds queens to a specific standard of glamour drag that tempers creative expression or prioritizes looks over content. On the other side of the argument, people say that the TV show has heightened the profile of drag and raised the bar; pushing queens to work harder at being polished and creating a brand. I think what is inarguable about RPDR is the fact that it has had a major impact on drag everywhere.

Tony Soto: It has made me realize that I’m terribly underpaid. The downside to RPDR is that people do not support local queens. People think that the only drag queens that exist are the ones that have been put through that franchise.

How can people, throughout the country, best be allies to LGBTQ+ individuals?

Honey: Basic things. Really basic things: Don’t use LGBT identities as derogatory words; vote to support legislation that protects LGBT people from harassment and discrimination; don’t vote for politicians who openly oppose LGBT rights; don’t stay quiet when you see someone being homo/transphobic. Donate to LGBT charities and organizations. Attend a Gay Pride Parade especially if it’s in a small town and wave a rainbow flag and bring your kids! Expose your children to LGBT people, heroes, history. There is so much you can do, and it doesn’t have to be hard!

LMHM: Yes! And I’d add that, as much as possible, we need to listen to the voices of those who experience homophobia and transphobia in the worst ways: trans women of color, youth, working-class and poor people. The LGBTQ+ community is really quite diverse, and while some folks have married and made off quite well, many are still struggling just to work and live, so we still have a long way to go.

What's some queer media you've been enjoying? Any recent representation that feels particularly important?

Honey: I Am Not Your Negro is a must see for everyone; The HBO film Bessie, Moonlight… I think it’s really important in today’s world to be telling stories of intersectionality.

  Drag Queen Story Hour  (DQSH) is just what it sounds like—drag queens reading stories to children in libraries, schools, and bookstores. DQSH captures the imagination and play of the gender fluidity of childhood and gives kids glamorous, positive, and unabashedly queer role models. In spaces like this, 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.

Drag Queen Story Hour (DQSH) is just what it sounds like—drag queens reading stories to children in libraries, schools, and bookstores. DQSH captures the imagination and play of the gender fluidity of childhood and gives kids glamorous, positive, and unabashedly queer role models. In spaces like this, 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.

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