When you think about drag queens, you would probably imagine them in a club or on a certain TV show.
But one group of queens are getting together for a rather different cause: teaching children.
PinkNews spoke to Thomas Canham, who set up Drag Queen Storytime this summer after seeing the success a similar programme has had in the United States.
The idea behind Drag Queen Storytime is simple – local drag queens visit schools and libraries to read to children, providing a look at the diversity of the world along with the story of The Tiger Who Came to Tea.
But it’s also effective. So far, more than 2,000 children between the ages of three and 11 have benefited from the project.
Canham explained the aim of his endeavour, saying: “Our stories focus on fairy tales that feature LGBT+ characters in them, and fairy tales that include transgender issues.
“We also read conventional fairy tales, such as The Very Hungry Caterpillar.”
Canham’s inspiration for Drag Queen Storytime came from two particular sources: literacy and tolerance.
“Reading is one of the most fundamental things we can teach our children,” he explained.
“It’s extremely important that they learn and know how to read and learn to appreciate the written word.
“Considering the amount of libraries that are closing down all across the country, and the declining educational attainment, I believe now more than ever we should be pushing to increase the reading ability of our youths.”
The most sensational part of the project is the performers themselves – naturally.
The programme has around 15 drag queens and kings involved across three cities, and hopes to expand further next year.
So, why drag queens?
“Growing up as a gay man, throughout my entire educational experience, I never encountered a single book, author, or lesson which acknowledged homosexuality,” Canham said.
“I’ve never been in a classroom in which transgender issues are discussed, and I think that’s damaging to young people.
“If you don’t see yourself represented within society, how are you supposed to come to terms with who you are as an individual within it?”
Canham and the Drag Queen Storytime project has a clear end goal: in creating a more welcoming environment to discuss gender, the project hopes to decrease anti-LGBT bullying by introducing children to ‘difference.’
“People can argue that we make up a very small percentage of society so why should we focus on them?” Canham said.
“My response would be yes, we are a small percentage of society, but we are there. We have a voice, and our stories deserve to be told, especially by someone who is transgender.”
Last month brought a flood of negative media attention to the project, with several news outlets running scathing pieces about it which at times verged on transphobia.
Coverage from The Sun prompted more than 100 complaints due to a front page dubbing Drag Queen Storytime ‘trans classes for kids.’
When asked why he thought his creation had been targeted in this way, Canham replied: “Literally, all we do is read stories which happen to include LGBT characters.
“We’re just reading stories.
“I would argue that with the normalisation of homosexuality, a lot of the right-wing leaning organisations have essentially been looking for a new demographic to demonise and blame what they deem as social ills on.”
Sadly, attacks on transgender and gender non-conforming people – or even anyone who defies traditional gender norms – are far from rare.
This was prominently seen in the recent media attacks on transgender teen Lily Madigan, who has faced extensive harassment following her election as women’s officer of her local Labour Party.
However, Canham remains optimistic in the face of the criticism that Drag Queen Storytime has faced.
“Unfortunately, the transgender community has been suffering at the hands of various institutions for years now,” he said.
“If it takes something like this for the rest of the country to wake up and pay attention to what is a genuine issue, then I hope it’s a good thing that we can take the debate into the right direction.
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“We shouldn’t still be debating whether someone has the right to exist.”
Something else that is certainly not up for debate is the impact that the drag queens have had on the children and parents they have worked with.
Despite only starting the project this summer, Canham has already seen a difference.
“The children themselves – we’ve had only three say ‘the man in the dress’ out of the 2,000 we’ve read to.
“The parents who come to the events believe in this idea of equality and that there are other people in society who don’t fit this heteronormative worldview which is pushed from pretty much every institution that exists.
“They want to introduce their child to ideas in a way that is accessible and friendly, with the hope that things will change for the better.”
He continued: “We act as a resource for them to begin the conversation, and if they need further assistance or have any more questions, they can turn to someone from the community that they’re trying to teach their child about.
“It can only be a positive thing.”
Drag Queen Storytime is running in London, Bristol and Manchester, and hopes to expand into more cities across the UK in 2018.