These drag performers say protests, threats won't stop them from reading to kids at storytime events

Drag performers who read stories to children at libraries across Canada have faced an increase in protests calling the events destructive for kids, and in some cases, even threats of violence. But the king and queens say they won't let that stop them, because storytimes are about joy and literacy.

Protesters at drag storytimes across Canada call performances 'destructive,' say they sexualize children

Two drag artists Fluffy Soufflé and Fay Slift stand together in front of a colourful bookshelf for their show -- The Fabulous Show
Toronto performers Kaleb Robertson, left, and JP Kane in their drag personas Fluffy Soufflé and Fay Slift on the set of The Fabulous Show on Family Jr. Canada. The award-winning performers say they won't stop reading to kids despite protests condemning drag storytime events. (submitted by JP Kane and Kaleb Robertson )

Adorned in fake lashes and colourful, blown out wigs, Fay and Fluffy walked out in front of cheering children at an outdoor amphitheatre in Mississauga, where they sang songs and read stories. 

Before opening their books to read, Fay and Fluffy greeted the crowd enthusiastically, shouting "All are welcome here!" The Aug. 16 event seemed light and playful, with children laughing at stories full of monkeys and elephants. 

But then, more than a dozen protesters appeared, surrounding the audience of about 50 people. A sign that read, "stop sexualization of children," was hoisted high by protesters wearing T-shirts emblazoned with phrases like, "Groom dogs not children," and "there are only two genders." One protester appeared to be livestreaming the event.

Two drag queens colourful wigs, makeup and costumes sit on outdoor chairs reading. A crowd of protesters holding posters and banners stand nearby as a man with a video camera records them all.
Protesters surrounded the Fay and Fluffy storytime event in Mississauga, Ont., on Aug. 16. (Mia Sheldon/CBC)

Police and security watched attentively nearby, while a few parents told protesters to be quiet. When the show ended, Fay and Fluffy were quickly escorted off stage. Protesters followed them out, chanting, "Leave our kids alone."

Fluffy was in tears.

"I've never felt like that before," she said as Fay consoled her.  

The last year has been marked by similar protests — and in some cases, threats of violence — at drag storytimes across the country. 

Last summer, protests formed outside an Edmonton library over a drag storytime. The same has happened in Manitoba and Saskatchewan. In Quebec, one storytime event was moved to a secret location for safety reasons.

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Often, the signs protesters carry have similar themes, including slogans that compare drag to pedophelia, sexual exploitation and grooming.

"A lot of those are kind of tied into the idea that educating kids about queerness is inherently grooming them and going to turn them gay and trans, which is their worst fear," said 19-year-old Isaac Maker, who reads at the library in Peterborough, Ont., every month while in the drag persona of "Betty Baker."

Pastor calls drag storytime 'destructive'

Hill City Baptist Church pastor Ben Inglis organized the first protest at a Betty Baker drag story hour in Peterborough last fall. He believes these events normalize being transgender. 

"I would love to see drag story hours dry up and be erased from public memory," Inglis said. "We believe this is a destructive thing for kids and a destructive thing for families and for our nation."

For Maker, drag is about supporting kids. 

"The whole point is drag is so playful and so colourful and so creative, and being able to bring that to storytime just gives kids another reason to want to play," said Maker. 

A drag performer wearing a glamourous black outfit and makeup smiles widely at the camera while holding a black fan.
Isaac Maker, who performs in drag as Betty Baker, reads and sings to kids during storytime events at the library in Peterborough, Ont., every month. (Mia Sheldon/CBC)

At the latest event in August, Maker sang a song about resilience. Protesters have shown up at several storytimes, but they're typically outnumbered by counter-protesters there in support of the event.

Maker has no plans to stop performing, but said, "It's hard to be a public figure when you're getting death threats and people call you a groomer and a pedophile."

Confrontation in Calgary

Out West, similar confrontations are taking place. 

On Feb. 25, Calgary preacher Derek Reimer — a man with a history of violence — stormed a drag storytime event called Reading with Royalty hosted by the Calgary Public Library. Reimer allegedly pushed parents out of the way and shouted transphobic and homophobic epithets at children in attendance. 

He was later arrested and has since appeared at subsequent drag storytimes and been charged with hate-motivated crimes. 

It was the first time something like that had happened in the nearly six years the Calgary Public Library has hosted Reading with Royalty, spokesperson Mary Kapusta told CBC's The National. 

"The level of intimidation and harassment that we felt and observed in that space, it did not feel at that moment that it was a safe space for children."

Kapusta says the library's Reading with Royalty events are geared toward small children, and are "really beautiful, fun and joyful." But she said the library has had to adjust how events are organized so staff, performers and families feel safe. Kapusta says this can include staff check-ins, having families pre-register for events and having police on site during drag storytimes.

A man in a baseball hat that says 'Jesus' on it walks on a sidewalk while carrying a placard decrying drag queens reading to children.
Protesters at a recent drag storytime in Calgary had to gather 100 metres away from where the event was being held after city council brought in a new safety bylaw that prohibits demonstrations from taking place near the entrances of libraries or recreation centres. (Mia Sheldon/CBC )

The city itself acted fast following the incident. In March, Calgary council members voted 10-5 in favour of a new safety bylaw that prohibits protests from taking place within 100 metres of a public library or recreation centre entrance. 

On Aug. 4, Calgary's Seton Library hosted its first drag storytime since the February incident. About six protesters stood far from the entrance, in accordance with the new bylaw. 

"We are all part of the basic freedom movement of Canada," said one protester, who added that he believes drag performances are inherently sexual and encourage young people to be transgender.

Inside, local performers Aida Cupcake and King Neptune performed for a crowd of children. A large group of LGBTQ supporters, including Calgary's Rainbow Elders, a group of seniors in the LGBTQ community, sat outside the library, many decked out in rainbow colours. 

These supporters outnumbered the protesters, and several said they were there to make sure families and performers felt comfortable and supported. 

"Drag queens are not trying to groom your children for any sort of purpose," said Aida Cupcake, known as Steven Morton out of drag, in an interview with CBC the day before the performance. "They want to make sure queer kids stay alive."

Two performers wearing colourful drag costumes stand in front of a bright blue wall decorated with alphabet posters talking to a reporter who is holding a children's storybook.
Calgary's Aida Cupcake, left, and King Neptune, centre, chat about the books they plan to read during a drag storytime event. (Mia Sheldon/CBC)

Dramatic rise in hate crimes 

Since 2022, more than 160 drag events have been targeted in the U.S., according to LGBTQ advocacy group GLAAD

All this is coinciding with a dramatic rise in hate crimes targeting LGBTQ people across North America. Police-reported hate crimes related to sexual orientation in Canada rose 64 per cent between 2020 and 2021, according to Statistics Canada. 

A recent study from U.K.-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a think-tank specializing in hate, extremism and disinformation, found that around the world, far-right groups, religious activists, conspiracy theorists who gained momentum during the pandemic and mostly right-wing anti-LGBTQ influencers are driving anti-drag sentiment. 

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Nowhere is the trend worse than in the U.S., the study found. Indeed, anti-drag views have permeated U.S. politics, with several states, including Montana and Tennessee, attempting to ban drag entirely. 

"One of the scary trends I've seen is that it's — and I'm going to be careful not to over generalize — a community that seems to be fuelled by misinformation, by rage, but also by this sense of community," said University of Alberta law professor Timothy Caulfield, who specializes in misinformation. 

"COVID and the anti-vaxx movement sort of gave them cohesion: They had their social media groups, COVID starts to subside, and it's almost like they were looking for another topic to vent their rage, and they found, for example, drag events."

According to Caulfield, "protecting the children" rhetoric at anti-drag protests is effective.

"If you disagree with them or tell them they're wrong or say that this is misinformation or this is about hate, they immediately retreat to, 'Well, you don't want to protect our children,' " he said.

A woman wears a pin with an image of a drag queen and the progress pride flag with the words Betty Baker.
Though there have been protests at Betty Baker's Peterborough events, her fans, who wear buttons and pins with her face to show their support, frequently outnumber demonstrators. (Anya Zoledziowski/CBC)

Drag groups supportive, parent says

For Charlie, an all-ages drag troupe in Edmonton gave his LGBTQ son a purpose. CBC is not using Charlie's last name because he fears backlash. 

Charlie says he considers himself an understanding and accepting right winger, somebody who was willing to go check out drag shows to see what it was all about. 

"If I didn't like it, my kid wouldn't be in it," he told CBC.

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Charlie and his son first checked out Dragging Youth in Edmonton in December. They don't perform in drag but they've volunteered behind the scenes, selling merchandise and taking photographs at events. 

The sense of community fostered by such groups is a big deal for kids like Charlie's son.

Studies show that LGBTQ youth are more likely to suffer from mental health issues, including anxiety, depression and thoughts of suicide than their non-LGBTQ peers. 

Studies also show that when LGBTQ youth have support, such as a trusted adult, risk of suicide declines dramatically and mental health outcomes improve. 

"He can talk to anybody within Dragging Youth," Charlie said of his son. "Show up, and they'll find him the support."

A person with grey hair and a beard applies false eyelashes in front of a makeup mirror.
JP Kane, seen preparing to embody the Fay Slift drag persona, says the storytime events are about joy, literacy and acceptance and that, 'we want all kids to thrive.' (Anya Zoledziowski/CBC)

Drag performers vow to keep reading

That's partly why Fay Slift and Fluffy Soufflé do what they do. 

Out of character, the drag performers are known as JP Kane and Kaleb Robertson. Collectively, they have years of child-care experience. Kane is an elementary school teacher, while Robertson nannied and babysat. 

They've also won a Canadian Screen Award for their television show, The Fabulous Show with Fay and Fluffy, which airs on Family Jr. Canada.

To them, drag storytime is about literacy, joy and acceptance. 

"We want trans kids, we want queer kids, we want all kids to thrive," Kane said, adding they won't stop performing amid the protests and threats. 

"They ignore the beauty and the universe that is drag," Robertson said of the protesters. 

"If they want to come and hold out their signs, we can't stop that. We don't need to stop that. But don't stop us from doing what we're doing."

A drag performer wears a bright, blue wig, colourful clothing and jewelry and elaborate eye makeup.
Fluffy Soufflé says she's never experienced anything like the protest that took place at the Fay and Fluffy event in Mississauga last month, but she says it won't stop them from reading to kids. (Anya Zoledziowski/CBC)