New Brunswick

Literacy queens: Saint John's drag performers host reading event for kids

Books about love, tolerance and self-acceptance take on a whole new meaning when they are being read by drag queens and kings.

Performers read stories about love and self-acceptance to children at the library in Market Square

From left to right, Elyse McWilliams, Shawn Craft and Alex Saunders read to children in the outfits they typically perform in. (Joseph Tunney/CBC)

Books about love, tolerance and self-acceptance take on a whole new meaning when they are being read by drag queens and kings.

​Shawn Craft, Elyse McWilliams and Alex Saunders were in full performance attire as they read to children in Saint John at Drag Queen and King Storytime, part of Pride Week in southwestern New Brunswick.

"I am always happy to answer kids' questions because they are so basic," said Saunders, who performs as drag king Justin 2D.  

"The reason I do this is to broaden 'normal,'" said Craft, dressed as drag queen Dia Monde. "There is no normal."

Elyse McWilliams, dressed as hyper queen Vanity Plates, paints the face of a young girl during the storytime event. (Joseph Tunney/CBC)

Drag queens and kings are individuals who present as one gender during their everyday life, but dress up and perform as another for entertainment and self-expression.

Hyper queens are people who typically present as women but take on the exaggerated features of a drag queen when they perform.

This was McWilliams's hyper queen persona.

"I really just didn't want people to label me. Once you get a label, that becomes the defining thing about you."

Mick McNeil said he is glad he brought his four-year-old daughter, Rosalie, to the event at the library in Saint John's Market Square. (Joseph Tunney/CBC)

The three performers read books with messages of love, self-acceptance and tolerance of others.

One story tells of a blue crayon mistakenly labelled as red, another of a young boy and his purse.

Mick MacNeil said he's glad he brought his four-year-old daughter.

Making children comfortable with who they are is the focus of Drag Queen and King Storytime, said Shawn Craft. (Joseph Tunney/CBC)

"Me and her mother got a divorce so we have a non-traditional family structure," he said. "So it's good for her to realize there's different kinds of pairings."

On top of that, he said it's simply a fun activity for his daughter, Rosalie.

Alex Saunders, a member of Saint John Pride, said she hopes to see more drag events at public venues soon. (Joseph Tunney/CBC)

All three readers did drag at different times in their lives and say they wish they'd been exposed to stories like this earlier.

Craft is also gay and only started doing drag recently.

"[During) most of my middle school, high school, I was just afraid to be who I was," he said. "I just pretended to be the typical ... as straight as I could be. So I'd fit in, not get teased."

"I was bullied extensively in elementary. I think if I had had these types of examples I maybe would have been more open to being just myself. I learned to go with the flow and be myself [but] I could have done it and been happier at a much earlier age."

The drag performers said children asked them questions and also pointed out it's not typical for a boy to carry a purse, but there was no hidden motive behind it.

"'My brain made up this question just now, please satisfy it. I need the answer,'" Saunders said, imitating the thought process of children.  

Asking questions is OK and in fact, encouraging curiosity is the whole point, the readers say.

"If we can reach one kid that maybe does have an interest in drag, or is confused about their gender, or think they might like boys or girls and they're a boy or a girl — it was worth it," said Craft.

"Hopefully, they can walk away and say, 'oh, there are people like me. I'm not alone.'"

About the Author

Joseph Tunney is a casual reporter for CBC News in Saint John. He can be reached at joe.tunney@cbc.ca