Dressed in a red velvet gown, sparkly jewelry and white painted fingernails, Divinity Masters said she decided to read “Red: A Crayon Story” at the Wichita Public Library because of its message.
“I picked this book because I think it has a lot to tell us about what it’s like to sometimes feel like you don’t fit in,” she said. “Or that it doesn’t quite make sense to be who other people tell you to be.
“But once you find your way, it feels really good.”
Masters — the drag queen persona of Brad Thomison — is one of three drag queens who participated in “Say YAAAS to Reading,” a story hour that drew a standing-room-only crowd to the downtown branch library Tuesday evening.
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Library officials said they scheduled the event to diversify program offerings and appeal to groups who may not be active users of the library.
“The public library has always been a free space that welcomes everyone,” said Sara Dixon, director of adult programs for the library. “In that spirit, we are interested in providing programming that remains inclusive and welcoming.”
Families and people of all ages packed into the library conference room — so many that library employees had to bring in extra chairs before the event began.
The event was promoted for adult audiences and held in a private conference room, but participants noted ahead of time that it would be family-friendly and designed for all ages. It was similar to “Drag Queen Story Hour,” which began in San Francisco in 2015 and has been replicated in libraries and bookstores across the country.
Similar events have sparked protests in parts of the country, with opponents arguing that drag queens — men who dress in elaborate female makeup and clothing for entertainment — aren’t appropriate for children.
About a half-dozen people stood outside the library, at Second and McLean in downtown Wichita, with signs protesting the event. One sign said, “God won’t change your chromosomes.” Another said, “Free will is a satanic lie.”
Wichita mom Holly Byers brought her 4-year-old daughter, Quinn, to the story time because she said it encouraged tolerance and acceptance.
“I just thought this was a wonderful opportunity to expose my daughter to a wider community,” she said.
“It’s great for people to realize that this isn’t sensational,” she said. “It’s fabulous, but it’s not sensational. It’s not abnormal, and it’s just another opportunity to help children learn more about the world.”
Juju Noir began the story time by reading “And Tango Makes Three,” a picture book about two male penguins at the Central Park Zoo.
During the story a child near the front of the room exclaimed, “I like your top” — an animal-print cape that Noir wore over a matching mermaid-style skirt.
“I love your top!” another child added.
Noir gleefully added sound effects to the story, describing a hatching penguin egg with a quiet, “Peep-peep-peep,” followed by a loud, “CRAAAACK!”
“Yeah, my voice can get kinda deep,” she said, prompting giggles from children and adults.
Starla Nyte read “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” because, she said, “The hungry caterpillar eats his way through everything — like children should eat their way through books.
“Knowledge is power. I just want you guys to know that,” she said. “Through knowledge and through reading, you get to blossom into something else.”
Masters shared the story of a crayon that tries to be red because that’s what his wrapper says — but eventually discovers that he is blue.
“Sometimes the person on the inside doesn’t feel like it matches the person on the outside,” Masters said. “And you just gotta keep coloring until you figure it out.”
After the stories, the drag queens posed for photographs and chatted with participants.
“Is Starla a boy or a girl?” 5-year-old Dimitri Mork asked his mother.
“He’s a boy who likes to dress as a girl,” his mother, Nakisha, answered with a smile.
“I thought the stories were beautiful and great,” Dimitri said.
Masters said she felt “a feeling of being part of something important” at the library.
“This was the first time something like this has happened in Wichita,” she said. “And we believe these opportunities show in big, loud ways that we are together, a community.
“These things, one at a time, bring us closer and closer together.”