Op-ed: What DQSH could have meant to my younger self

By Vic Mowschenson
©2022 Telegraph Publishing LLC

Drag Queen Story Hour is just what its name sounds like: Drag Queens reading books to children. Usually these events, which have been taking place since 2015, are held in libraries, bookshops and schools. Their mission is to promote open-mindedness by exposing children to gender presentations outside rigid social norms that are based on outdated gender stereotypes.

Since it began, DQSH has grown to almost 40 chapters across the United States, as well as five other countries. Emoji Nightmare and Nikki Champagne started the Vermont Chapter of DQSH in 2017. Nikki is the first transgender elected representative in the state and her first co-sponsored bill saw an end to the gay/trans panic defense here as well. Among their many accomplishments, Emoji is the lead organizer of the Pride Vermont Parade and Festival.

As the Drag Queen Story Hour’s main website states, “In spaces like this [libraries], 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.” Open mindedness and acceptance are important values that a community may want to share because LGBT children are still feeling isolated and alienated.

The Vermont Youth Risk Behavior Survey notes, “Adverse health outcomes and behaviors experienced by specific populations are not intrinsic to youth themselves and are often instead due to social, economic and environmental inequities.” In accompanying statistics, what was most notable to me were the higher rates of suicide ideation and completed suicides among LGBT youth, among other risk behaviors pertaining to tobacco, alcohol and drug use.

DQSH events are an important stepping stone to a more open minded society that does not harm children. They are not just about teaching empathy to people who are not like the Drag Queens; they are about showing LGBT adults and children that they are not alone, and more importantly that we have support within our community.

As with Chester, we need to examine the history behind calls for “better vetting” of gender non-conformists and LGBT people, based on the premise of child protection. It should be noted that as of late, there has been a particularly nasty trend in other states of targeting trans rights and other LGBT protections. This comes on top of decades of using “child safety” as a rallying cry against LGBT people. Vermont has been making great strides to accept trans people and their families fleeing these states.

In 2019 at the Kellogg-Hubbard Library in Montpelier, a DQSH event drew the ire of a conservative Facebook commentator, which encouraged a 700,000 person, right-wing protest against the program to call the library to “express disgust.” Not only were there complaints pertaining to child safety, there was outright targeted hate speech. Thankfully,  there was no reported local threat.

The American Psychological Association states that “many transgender people do not experience their gender as distressing or disabling, which implies that identifying as transgender does not constitute a mental disorder. … the significant problem is finding affordable resources, such as counseling, hormone therapy, medical procedures and the social support necessary to freely express their gender identity and minimize discrimination.”

Vermont’s LGBT children and teens deserve the opportunity to be represented in local events. They should be allowed to have a moment of safety and peace. We can argue forever about an adult selling adult content that is clearly labeled with a warning that the shop is for mature adults, but shutting down the event entirely out of fear of backlash or that there was somehow no vetting was just not the thoughtful reaction.

I was initially hurt by this news — and I imagine I am not the only one. But I have hope for the future of Chester given the reasonable response and consequences for those involved. It is a sign of a healthy community that we are allowed to freely and appropriately criticize a use of power that resulted in censorship and the loss of our librarian.

What I do not believe is appropriate is to frame the response and results as a reflection of intolerance by members of the community who were critical of DQSH being censored. This distracts from the importance of the event and illustrates why we need it.

I linger on this question: What kind of town do you want to live in? Drag Queen Story Hour will happen in other towns, and sometimes be met with controversy. So what is the best way to repair community trust and restore common goals? I want a town where a child can go to the library for story time and come home with a broader lesson in empathy.

Chester has often been rated as one of the best small towns, but that doesn’t mean there is no room for evolution.  There is so much here that is good that we should not be ashamed to speak up, not when something might threaten the town’s image but when something eliminates that goodness within our town’s soul.

You will find kindness, empathy and acceptance here; hence the event being rescheduled at The Pizza Stone. If there is a kernel of hope in all of this, it is that the journey to a better society at large is happening.

I’m a local artist, almost 30 years old. Though I’m struggling, I am happy that my artwork brings people joy. All I’m trying to do is live my life in peace with my soon-to-be-husband, even though decisions made by local leaders have been disruptive.

I am non-binary and bisexual. But like you, I shop at Smitty’s, I hike on our town’s lovely trails and I vote. I didn’t come out as non-binary or bisexual until I was at college, and the journey since has been mostly worry-free. Save for a few F words thrown my way, and perhaps some parental misunderstanding, I have been relatively unscathed.

The only time that I was severely bullied was as a young teen, and it revolved around my sexuality. Added with other issues at home, that prevented me from coming out until much later.

As fortunate as I’ve been, I don’t want any child to be in that position — or worse, under the threat of homelessness and violence. I don’t know if understanding “non-binary” would have helped. But having no one visible who looked or felt like me certainly did not help. I believe that an event like DQSH would have helped. What I am trying to do now is be the adult that the child like me needed then.

Vic Mowschenson is an artist and Chester resident.

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  1. Marni Willms says:

    Thank you for this eloquent op-ed, Vic. Like you, I was initially hurt by this news. My wife and I have always felt supported by and warmly accepted into this community. The censorship of the DQSH felt like a slap in the face. However, the way our neighbors came together to support the re-direction of the programming restored my faith in our community.

    Darlene didn’t hesitate to say, “Hell, yes! We’re doing this at The Pizza Stone.” Smitty’s and Heritage Deli contributed to food and drinks for the kids. One of Chester’s own pre-teens created an amazing poster and organized the parade that started on the Common and proceeded to The Pizza Stone. As we gathered on the Common and made our way to the restaurant, many folks honked and waved and offered words of encouragement while driving by the entourage. The mood at The Pizza Stone–which was packed with kids from ages 0 to 90 plus–was one of happiness, joy, love, support, and acceptance. It was an absolutely beautiful event.

    Like you, had something like this been offered when I was a floundering young person in my small midwestern hometown, I wouldn’t have felt so outcast and alone. The last line of your column totally sums up how I feel. Everyone deserves to be fully who they are, and to have the unwavering support of their community.