Friday briefing: Our new US-style culture war battlefield? Drag Queen Story Hour

·13-min read
<span>Photograph: Guy Smallman/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Guy Smallman/Getty Images

Good morning.

In recent weeks, libraries have become the latest frontier in the culture wars. In scenes similar to those seen in the US, every week picketers gather angrily as Drag Queen Story Hour events happen across the country. Inside the buildings, children, aged between three and 11, listen attentively with parents (Tim Jonze wrote beautifully yesterday about taking his daughter to one such event a few years ago). Yet, outside there are police, protesters and placards reading: “Welcome groomers” and “This is child abuse”. There have been arrests, scuffles and tears.

Last week, protesters in Brighton blocked Aida H Dee, the drag queen behind the events, from driving out of a car park with their SUVs while calling him a paedophile. On Monday, Rochdale Borough Council cancelled one of Dee’s events altogether (they did not say whether it was in direct response to the protests, though they said they had carried out a “risk assessment”, and that they would explore “alternative options” with Dee).

So how did family-friendly drag events become such a hot button issue? I spoke to Cas Mudde, a political scientist who focuses on political extremism, and Sab Samuel, AKA Aida H Dee, to find out. All that, right after the headlines.

Five big stories

  1. Politics | Labour have asked if the Conservatives will return a £500,000 donation from a company linked to a Venezuelan-Italian banker charged with conspiracy, bribery and wire fraud in the US.

  2. Human rights | The number of human trafficking referrals in the UK has reached a record high, increasing by a third in the last year, according to Home Office data. Nine out of 10 of suspected cases are accepted to be victims.

  3. Energy | Ministers have been warned by the TUC that energy bills will cost two months’ wages next year if nothing is done to curb rising prices.

  4. Donald Trump | Among the materials that the FBI were looking for when they searched Donald Trump’s home were classified documents about nuclear weapons.

  5. Criminal Justice | Home Office figures show that almost 1.5 million people who have been victims of crime in England and Wales chose to not pursue their cases further.

In depth: How libraries got dragged into controversy

Drag Queen Story Hour was launched in 2015 in San Francisco by author and activist Michelle Tea. The goal of the event was to inspire a love of reading in young people, and simultaneously teach lessons in “diversity, self-love and an appreciation of others”. The UK tour of the programme began last month, and the protests that have grown around the US, soon followed the event across the Atlantic.

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Once upon a time

Sab Samuel knew from the age of five that he was different from his peers, but he lacked role models he could relate to. “I remember being told in school that Alan Turing was the father of modern day computing,” says Samuel, who went on to study a degree in maths. “I am absolutely livid that I was never told that Alan Turing was a gay man. I feel robbed of a role model.” After doing a reading in drag for the first time, Samuel realised he could be one for other children who felt like him. “The kids clearly love it,” he says. “It’s really, really necessary.”

Wielding signs that say “Keep Drag Away From Children”, the central message from the protesters is that Drag Queen Story Hour is akin to sexualised, adult entertainment. But, as all parents who attend can attest, the story hour is just that: a person sitting at the front of the room, reading a children’s book, putting on silly voices to entertain the children and teach them why it’s important to be kind and accepting – more panto dame than bawdy nightclub act. For Samuel, being in drag is an important part of that lesson. As a temporary performance, drag is by no means the same thing as having a trans identity – but if seeing the former helps kids make sense of the latter, Samuel is delighted.

He knew putting a month-long summer tour on wouldn’t be easy. Beyond the logistical difficulties of organising and funding the project, Samuel was aware of the increasingly hostile political and social climate that he was about to step into, not least because of the current arguments around trans rights: “Things are getting worse, I feel like we’re kind of heading into, if not are already in, a second section 28.”

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The deep, dark woods

Problems arose almost instantaneously, Samuel explains. Within the first six hours of their release, 2,000 tickets were reserved by people using fake emails that had words like “groomer” and “paedophile” in them. Samuel had to strategise: no more online sales – if parents wanted to attend, they had to register in person at their local library with their library card. The online harassment and threats were also escalating, and the organisers prepared accordingly. They notified their hosts, police and councils to make sure that the attendees were safe. However, this still wasn’t enough to prepare them for the scale of the aggression.

Such backlash to men entertaining children while dressed as women seems to be a relatively new phenomenon in the UK, a country with a longstanding tradition of pantomime dames, drag in theatre and Lily Savage on primetime TV. So where are these objections coming from?

In the US, where Drag Queen Story Hour originated, objections like the ones we have been seeing here in the UK have been a problem since its conception. In June alone, protests popped up outside libraries in New York, San Francisco and Chicago. “Usually, with issues like this, whatever happens in the US directly resonates in those areas connected to the US – which of course includes Britain,” explains Cas Mudde, a Dutch academic who specialises in political extremism and populism.

However, despite the inclination to imagine a shady, sophisticated network the reality of how this has manifested in the UK seems to be a lot more fragmented. A seemingly coincidental, and fraught, alliance has arisen between far right groups like Patriotic Alternative, and conspiracy theorist networks that previously focused their attention on 5G, Covid-19 lockdowns and vaccines.

All of these groups are alighting on a climate of heightened tension over gender and trans issues in the UK. Why gender politics has become such a lightning rod issue across the world varies vary from place to place – “There are trigger events, like gender-neutral bathrooms here in the US, which could have been a completely minor issue or more recently, trans athletes,” Mudde says – in the UK that trigger seems to have been the push for “self-ID” reform in legislation. It seems that fascist organisations like Patriotic Alternative have picked up on this cultural flashpoint and are using these protests as a way to cut through to the public more generally.

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Is there a happy ever after?

Mudde thinks that gender politics and trans rights are going to continue to be at the centre of political discourse for years to come. “It brings together the far right, the mainstream right and goes deep into liberal parties too, particularly centrists because it’s supposedly about protecting the children and women. So this is a winner,” Mudde says.

And the cultural dominance of the US allows American culture war issues to dominate globally. One need only look at the appearance of Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán, who during his election campaign said his country needs “less drag queens”, at last week’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Texas for more evidence of the contagion spreading.

However, local differences cannot be airbrushed out of this story. Almost every UK protest against Drag Queen Story Hour has had an even larger counter protest. Parents and children are continuing to attend and enjoy the events. “We do have to be careful when we try to come up with sweeping societal explanations of why a small number of people are doing something,” Mudde says. Many polls have suggested that the public are largely in favour of trans rights, and as yet the backlash here against drag queens, while troubling, is fairly isolated and small scale.

Despite being at the centre of this storm, Samuel has refused to let it dampen his enthusiasm for entertaining young people. “I did not plan to be an activist,” he says. “I do not think that me reading children’s books is activism really, but I will absolutely stand up against this.”

What else we’ve been reading

  • 75 years on from partition, this fascinating feature talks to three survivors of the bloody end to colonial rule of India. It’s a heartbreaking testimony to a shameful episode in Britain’s recent history. Toby Moses, head of newsletters

  • Janet Cunliffe’s blind son was convicted of a joint enterprise murder in 2008, despite the fact that two others had already pleaded guilty to murder and manslaughter. Cunliffe explains the injustice of this arcane policy, asking: “I must ask you, the readers, to look at a child you know and love, your own child maybe, being told he will never go home to the mother he needs, for almost as long as he has been alive.” Nimo

  • Rafael Behr reflects on the unsuitability of Gen Xers like Liz Truss (and himself) to lead the country: “We should be observing our unreadiness for the 21st century with slacker detachment, chipping in unhelpful commentary from the sidelines”. Toby

  • Kelis’ new album is set to come out very soon, so to get us hyped Alexis Petridis has very kindly ranked her 20 best songs. (You won’t be surprised at what’s number one). Nimo

  • BeReal – the app that forces you to take a picture at a random moment each day and share it with friends – is my idea of hell, so much so that I deleted it after two days. More sociable people may, however, benefit from this foolproof guide to snapping candid photos. Hannah J Davies, deputy editor, newsletters

Sport

Tennis | After both continuing their winning ways, Britain’s Jack Draper and Dan Evans set up a possible last-four meeting at the National Bank Open in Montreal.

Football | Nottingham Forest reached an agreement with Atalanta to sign Swiss midfielder Remo Freuler for €9m, taking the club’s spending to £78m this transfer window.

Football | On moving from Manchester City to Chelsea, Raheem Sterling has said that he was not deterred by the racial abuse that he faced in 2018, by Chelsea fans, from joining the club. “I never want to look back and see a rise then a decline,” Sterling explains, “so my feeling was a fresh challenge was needed.”

The front pages

This morning’s Guardian leads with “Drought alert: new rules on way as climate crisis bites” while the i has “Heatwave UK: drought may last months”. “Flaming hot” – that’s the Metro’s text overlaying its picture of vegetation on fire in Leytonstone. Its lead story though is “PM turns up for meeting” as what’s-his-name holds talks with energy bosses. The Telegraph says “Truss: No windfall tax on energy companies”. “Clueless” – the Mirror says “Tories & energy fatcats have NO PLAN” to help consumers. Leading the Financial Times today: “BoE warns Truss and Sunak not to interfere with City regulation”. “Shocking new warning energy bills to hit £5,000” gasps the Express while assuring readers that “Liz Truss promises ‘I have a plan’”. The Times offers “Sunak plan to cancel out energy price rises” – he explains in an article inside the paper. “Where is all our extra NHS money going?” – the Daily Mail says waiting lists are growing despite the national insurance hike. “Giggs cheated with 12 women not 8” – the Sun continues to cover court proceedings in Manchester.

Something for the weekend

Our critics’ roundup of the best things to watch, read and listen to right now

TV
A League of Their Own (Amazon Prime Video)
I hold such affection for Penny Marshall’s 1992 baseball film A League of Their Own that, for years, I felt a strong flash of disappointment whenever its name appeared in the TV guide and I ended up flicking over to a quizshow about sport. Such a terrible wrong will be righted at last by this new version, which is gorgeous, warm and expansive. – Rebecca Nicholson

Music
Hudson Mohawke – Cry Sugar

Glasgow-born Ross Birchard has never really got away from his love of hardcore, and its influence is everywhere in his first album in six years. The beatless tracks arrive teeming with sound, too busy to be described as chilled: the mood of Lonely Days swings dramatically from a kind of frenzied joy to something much darker, as on the grinding, sickly noise of KPIPE. – Alexis Petridis

Film
Blind Ambition

It’s impossible not to smile along with this feelgood documentary about four Zimbabwean refugees in South Africa who discovered in themselves a brilliant talent for wine-tasting and made it to the World Blind Wine Tasting Championships in France. It’s almost too perfectly contoured as a Hollywood narrative – but the comedy in their story comes when they hire a difficult, eccentric French expert as their coach. – Peter Bradshaw

Podcast
My Moment in History: Expelled from Uganda
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown and Chandni Mistry are among those who talk about how their families were forced to flee when Idi Amin expelled Asians from Uganda in 1972. Rupal Rajani’s podcast shows that hostility towards refugees from some quarters of the UK is nothing new, but it’s inspiring to discover how people rebuilt their lives. – Hannah Verdier

Today in Focus

Tinder app on a mobile phone
Tinder app on a mobile phone

Tinder turns 10: what have we learned from a decade of dating apps?

Dating apps have opened up opportunities to meet more people, but what have they done to our psyche? Emily Witt looks at how they have shifted the way we understand modern love, sex and relationships

Cartoon of the day | Ben Jennings

The Upside

A bit of good news to remind you that the world’s not all bad

20 years after Troi Lee was denied entry for a club for being deaf, he’s now taking centre stage at the deaf rave at the Edinburgh deaf festival. “People do ask me what’s the difference – our deaf community is inside the place, the music is loud as fuck and we do turn up the bass a bit more. It’s a rave with everybody happy, high as a kite without taking drugs,” he says.

It’s all part of a shift in attitudes to the deaf community – with everything from the Oscars to Love Island celebrating deaf stars. As Philip Gerrard, the chief executive of Deaf Action, says 2022 has been “an incredibly exciting year for deaf culture”.

Sign up here for a weekly roundup of The Upside, sent to you every Sunday

Bored at work?

And finally, the Guardian’s crosswords to keep you entertained throughout the day – with plenty more on the Guardian’s Puzzles app for iOS and Android. Until Monday.