The “Creating and Implementing Successful LGBTQIA Youth Programs” education session at Children’s Institute in New Orleans last month provided advice to booksellers seeking to make their stores places where LGBTQIA (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning, intersex, asexual) youth can express their voices and be themselves freely.
At the Thursday, June 21, education session, panelists who have implemented programming and modeled their stores as inclusive places of refuge for LGBTQIA youth shared how they did so, why creating these programs is important, the impact their efforts have had on their community, and how other bookstores can do the same. The session, moderated by Lynn Mooney of Chicago’s Women & Children First, featured sweet pea Flaherty of King’s Books in Tacoma, Washington; Joy Preble, the children’s specialist at Brazos Bookstore in Houston, Texas; Jonathan Hamilt, a drag performer and one of the founders of Drag Queen Story Hour (DQSH), a program featuring drag queens reading picture books to kids that now spans numerous U.S. cities; Rachel Aimee, the director of the New York City chapter of Drag Queen Story Hour; and Candice Huber, owner of Tubby & Coo’s Mid-City Book Shop in New Orleans.
Flaherty kicked off the session by telling booksellers about the experience of launching the “Queerest Book Club Ever” at King’s Books this January, a reading group geared toward trans, non-binary, queer youth ages 10 to 16.
“When you look at the statistics for trans queer youth with homelessness and suicide, it’s just disheartening. To provide a space for kids where they can just be kids — full stop — and not have to deal with being misgendered or with people judging their appearance is a really edifying experience,” said Flaherty.
All 13 of King’s Books’ book clubs are run by community members, though Flaherty coordinates the entire program; this club is different from the others in that Flaherty has a part in suggesting relevant books that all participants within the club’s age range will enjoy.
“It was a process to create this safe space,” said Flaherty, “but it was definitely something that has been really significant for the bookstore.”
Preble, who has been at Brazos for two years, said the store was scheduled to host its second annual Drag Queen Story Hour the following weekend, and the community was quite excited. Their first Drag Queen Story Hour event, she said, was met with enormous positivity from the community and drew enough kids and parents to pack the store.
“We are kind of the newbies at integrating our children’s programming into our longstanding, very diverse adult programming. Houston is an enormously diverse community, and Brazos has always had openly gay, lesbian, bisexual booksellers as well as booksellers who are racially diverse, so the basis of our programming is a reflection of our staff,” said Preble. “The store has always been this enormously safe, welcoming space, and the programming comes organically from that. I think that’s why we haven’t had any pushback.”
Drag Queen Story Hour, which originated in San Francisco, first came to New York two years ago with help from Hamilt, whose drag name is Ona Louise. The New York chapter’s first event, at Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn, brought a super positive reaction, Hamilt said, and since then, DQSH has partnered with the city’s library systems for extensive story time training and special events.
“As a child, I was shamed by my peers and my parents for expressing my femininity,” said Hamilt, “so creating programming where kids can experience a positive queer role model like a drag queen who is powerful in expressing their femininity is so important.”
There are now 15 drag queens who do events in the city, said Hamilt, and all have been taught how to read to kids as well as different strategies to answer their questions about gender. At the moment, DQSH is working on developing programming specifically geared toward trans and gender nonconforming children in addition to expanding its bilingual programming.
Aimee told booksellers she got involved with the DQSH program because as a parent she was frustrated by the limiting binary gender roles kids are often forced into when they are taught to believe things like the color pink is only for girls and blue is only for boys. The response typical of Second Wave feminism was to tell kids that the opposite was true, but to Aimee, this tactic seemed just as lacking in nuance.
Since getting involved with the program, Aimee has discovered that parents in New York have a great need for this kind of programming. Many, she said, felt as if they didn’t have the language to teach their kids about gender in a progressive way while remaining age-appropriate.
“Even though drag is just a small part of the much broader conversation about gender, we do find that it is a great opportunity to bring up teachable moments. Kids will say things like, ‘Why do you have a man’s voice but you look like a girl?’” said Aimee. “It’s really been embraced by the community in New York City.”
Huber, who is a non-binary person, has been running a transgender kids playgroup at Tubby & Coo’s for the last six months as well as partnering with the local LGBT community center on various projects. Huber has also been referring people who attend these events to contact the local chapter of PFLAG, a national advocacy organization for allies of LGBTQIA people.
The idea to offer up this sort of programming came about when a transgender teen came into the store asking to put up flyers for a local theater program. Bursting into tears, she told Huber that Tubby & Coo’s was the first place she had gone where no one was mean or kicked her out.
“I thought, what I can I do to give these kids a place to go?” said Huber. “Now, some of these kids come to the store after school just to use the bathroom.”
Huber also advised booksellers who want to offer programming for LGBTQIA youth to reach out to their local community centers and churches to create more intersectional events that are welcoming to children of different races, religions, and economic backgrounds as well as gender identities.
“One of the reasons I opened the bookstore to begin with was to give people a space to be themselves,” said Huber. “Building the group to be for everyone has been really important because I want everyone to find a place there, not just one type of kid.”
Although none of the other booksellers on the panel said they experienced pushback from the community, Huber had. But Mooney advised that when it comes to pushback, “expect it, be prepared for it, but you will survive it. Don’t make that the reason you don’t do it.”
Women & Children First requires mandatory staff sensitivity training on LGBTQIA topics and has a code of conduct for uncomfortable staff/customer interactions, Mooney told booksellers; attention to these topics has long been part of the store’s mission. But other booksellers should not feel overwhelmed getting started, she said; after all, Drag Queen Story Hour does not have to be your store’s first project.
“You really can get started in small ways,” Mooney said. “Test the waters and I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.”