In a place ‘where dress up is real,’ drag queens read to Raleigh kids

The two tall drag queens walked from the back of a small Raleigh store into a crowd of children, parents and supporters that spilled out the front door.

Satine Allure wore a knee-length dress with blue flowers and a tall sparkling crown. Amazing Grace wore a long, golden dress with a shorter crown.

“We didn’t plan a speech for you but we are very happy you’re here,” said Amazing Grace, whose real name is Travis Lewis, 26, of Raleigh.

“Did everyone make a crown?” said Satine Allure, whose real name is Jonathan Sanderson, 26 of Durham. “Did a lot of you make a crown?”

Typically the drag queens perform at such clubs as Legends and Flex, but on Saturday morning they stood in a small business and read children’s books in an effort to promote acceptance and inclusion for boys, girls, men and women who are different.

Sitting on a yellow loveseat, Satine Allure pulled a book from a basket: “The story that I chose is actually one of my very favorites; it’s called ‘The Skin You Live In.’”

“Hey, look at your skin,” Satine Allure read. “The wonderful skin you live in.”

More than 100 people packed into Medicine Mama’s Farmacy, which sells hemp and CBD products at 4701 Atlantic Avenue, to attend what appears to be Raleigh’s first “Drag Queen Story Hour.” The event was so successful, organizers said they are considering holding the story hour once a month at the store that sells products made from hemp, a cannabis plant and variant of marijuana that doesn’t get users high.

Organizers were expecting protests after backlash followed their announcement of the 10 a.m. Saturday show in which drag queens read books to children and then posed for pictures.

About 25 people gathered outside the store praying, according to a security guard.

Nina McElwee, 72, of Wake Forest was one of them. McElwee, who was holding a rosary, said she and the others gathered outside weren’t protesting but praying for the event that they believe is exposing children to inappropriate and sexual material.

“To foist this on young children so they are preoccupied with sex from the time they are toddlers, I think is child abuse,” she said.

Inside, however, no one was talking about sex. They were watching the drag queens read books that included “Pink Is For Boys,” which talks about how colors don’t have genders, “The Wonky Donkey,” who only had three legs, and Dr. Seuss’s “One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish.”

The children, from newborns and older, listened, squirmed, and had an occasion breakdown.

“I am crying on the inside too,” Amazing Grace said to one little person as the tears started flowing.

Parents and organizers at the show said it is a fun opportunity to share different perspectives with kids along with messages about self-acceptance.

“I think it shows diversity and exposes children to something that is not the social norm,” said Brittany Kennedy, 29, of Pittsboro.

Savannah Marett said she brought her 7-year-old daughter Sophia Lilley to emphasize the lesson “that we love everyone.”

“That there are people who are different, and we don’t judge,” said Marett, 28, of Durham.

Drag Queen Story Hour was first held in 2015 in a San Francisco library and has been emulated in libraries, book shops and other venues in cities across the U.S.

Some of those events have faced online and in-person protests who say the content isn’t appropriate for children.

“DGSH captures the imagination and play of the gender fluidity of childhood and gives kids glamorous, positive and unabashedly queer role models,” states the website of the the national nonprofit that helped create the story hour. “In spaces like this, kids are able to see people who defy rigid restrictions and imagine a world where people can present as they wish, where dress up is real.”

Jimmie Terry, who owns the Raleigh store with his wife, said they decided to host the event after Mary Elise Chenoweth approached them.

Chenoweth, 36 of Clayton, wanted to be able to take her child to one of these, Terry said, and the closest one in the state was Greensboro.

“We started out with the idea that it would be a small event,” Terry said. “We didn’t think it would turn into this. It never crossed my mind that there would be a protest or anything.”

Organizers said they have seen online criticism of the event and received phone calls at the store. The company who leases the space to Medicine Mama’s Farmacy has received hundreds of phone calls, Terry said, but the company has stood behind them and hired a security guard.

“Every parent is entitled to raise their child the way they see fit. If for any reason you believe it is inappropriate, then guess what...DON’T bring your child,” Medicine Mama’s Farmacy posted on its Facebook page Wednesday.

Growing up “in the Southern Baptist region of southeast Missouri,” Amazing Grace said: “They kind of made you choose whether you could be gay or have faith in God. And I said, ‘I am going to be both.”

Amazing Grace spoke of being grateful to be able to influence children and parents to be loving and accepting.

“The core message behind this is that you can like the color pink,” Amazing Grace said. “Those things that we were told were bad about ourselves, are in fact the best things about yourself.”

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Virginia Bridges covers criminal justice in Orange and Durham counties for The Herald-Sun and The News & Observer. She has worked for newspapers for more than 15 years. In 2017, the N.C. Press Association awarded her first place for beat feature reporting. The N.C. State Bar Association awarded her the 2018 Media & Law Award for Best Series.