By Julianne Mosher
Bella Noche, a New York City and Long Island-based drag queen, walked up to the stage inside the LGBT Network at Hauppauge in her 4-inch stiletto heels carrying a stack of children’s books. She sat in her chair, while dozens of kids and their families watched in awe as a real-life mermaid read to them “The GayBCs.”
Enamored by the queen — dressed in glitter, a purple wig and starfish accessories — the kids didn’t realize that Bella was in drag.
“The only question I usually get from them is, ‘Is your hair real?’” she said with a laugh.
Bella is the Long Island chapter president of Drag Story Hour – a worldwide nonprofit that introduces storytellers using the art of drag to read books to children in libraries, schools and bookstores.
According to Drag Story Hour’s mission statement, the organization “captures the imagination and play of the gender fluidity of childhood and gives kids glamorous, positive and unabashedly queer role models. In spaces like this, kids are able to see people who defy rigid gender restrictions and imagine a world where everyone can be their authentic selves.”
Founded in San Francisco in 2015, Drag Story Hour has made its way internationally, having chapters across the U.S., as well as in the U.K., Japan, Germany, Sweden and Denmark.
The self-proclaimed “mermaid of New York” said that traveling from Manhattan to eastern Long Island to read to kids is a great experience. Not only does it entertain, but it teaches kids about diversity and shows them they can be creative, too.
“We inspire creativity, we inspire uniqueness, we inspire kids to think outside the box,” she said. “At its core, it’s a pure organization — we can look at things differently, but just adding that different perspective is really important to instill in kids, especially today.”
But while the turnout is usually positive, Bella said she has hosted several story hours that caused large and hate-filled protests — some in Nassau County and some in Manhattan.
In December, while hosting a Drag Story Hour in Jackson Heights, Queens, members of the far-right group Proud Boys drew attention with their signs and Proud Boys-emblemed flags lining the sidewalk.
According to The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, protest visits from Proud Boys had averaged just one or two anti-LGBTQ protests per month for most of 2022. It picked up speed by the end of the year, with 13 anti-LGBTQ protests in December, more than in any other month last year.
“It’s interesting that since last summer there’s just been a lot of hate from these people,” Bella said. “It’s mostly from them not understanding why we’re doing what we’re doing, spreading rumors and creating vicious lies.”
But Drag Story Hour has been criticized locally since before she became involved with the Long Island chapter of the group. In September 2018, people protested the Port Jefferson Free Library for hosting a drag queen who reads. At the time, the library promoted the event on its online calendar as “a program that raises awareness of gender diversity, promotes self-acceptance and builds empathy through an enjoyable literary experience.” At the event, several protesters stood outside the library holding signs and verbalizing their opposition to exposing children to the message promoted by the event.
“It’s insane to think about, but [the protesters] are here and they’re causing calamity,” Bella said. “But the other thing is that there has been such an amazing turn of support from that. So, I try to find the silver linings, and the support that we’ve gotten not just from our own community, but from other families and educators has been amazing.”
LGBT Families Day
Bella Noche’s Drag Story Hour was one part of the Hauppauge-based LGBT Network Families Day event on Sunday, Feb. 12.
There, hundreds of LGBTQ families were able to meet, mingle and enjoy a fun weekend in a safe, accepting space.
Robert Vitelli, LGBT Network’s COO, said this event was the nonprofit’s third year hosting, and it keeps getting bigger and better.
“Families Day is all about celebrating families and all the different ways that LGBT people start and grow their families,” he said. “It’s a chance for LGBT people to come together and feel free.’
Vitelli said that even in 2023, LGBTQ families still face a lot of stigma, discrimination and harassment. But events like this can “allow them to take a breath of fresh air and connect with other families like their own.”
Tables with information for families looking to adopt, foster and seek legal advice were available for the grown-ups, while their kids got to enjoy an indoor bounce house, cotton candy, a s’mores station and games.
“We have been working hand in hand and organizing with families to create safer spaces — safer schools, safer and more inclusive libraries, and safer and more inclusive communities,” Vitelli said. “When people really want to come together and build community, here at the LGBT network, that’s what we’re all about, and it’s our pleasure to be able to bring an event like this to everyone here.”