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Nina West: I'm Scared, But I Won't Stop Drag Story Hour

Nina West

RuPaul's Drag Race star Nina West writes an open letter to the LGBTQ+ community and its allies.

Friends, what I'm about to share with you is important. There are outside forces that are shaping a dangerous narrative about us, and we need to be united in the face of violent fascism.

I'm currently in the midst of a nationwide tour of Hairspray, the musical. I play Edna Turnblad, a role originated in 1988 by Baltimore-based drag queen Divine, in the original film by John Waters. Divine, maybe the most recognizable drag queen of all time, epitomized the subversive, shocking nature of drag. She literally--literally--ate dog poop on camera in the film Pink Flamingos. She was big and wickedly funny, and definitely not appropriate for children.

Divine and John Waters evolved as artists for Hairspray, which was rated PG. Divine as Edna Turnblad was more "family-friendly," but it was still very much Divine. Likewise, Hairspray was Waters' most mass-consumed film. It doesn't change his acerbic wit and his biting, filthy sense of humor. But it does allow John Waters to tell a story that reaches a different audience. Artists continuously evolve as the world around them changes. And while drag may be considered by some to be one of the lowest forms of art, drag queens are artists who should not be boxed in by any narrow ideas of what drag is, or what drag should be.

When I competed on RuPaul's Drag Race, I was cognizant of the fact that it has many young fans, many of whom watch with their family. My goal throughout the competition was to show that drag is not defined by adult content; drag is magic. Since then, I have focused on producing content for family-friendly audiences. In 2018, I started to do story times for children in public libraries, in the city of Westerville, close to my hometown of Columbus, Ohio. Quite simply, I started to do story times because my queer friends began having children and they wanted to see themselves reflected. Toxic masculinity is so baked into our culture, and there was--and still is--a desire by many to teach kids at an early age that gender is not defined by what you wear. I saw a need and desire for teaching acceptance of others, and I wanted to fill that gap.

The response was nothing short of amazing. Kids asking questions. Kids dancing. Kids being expressive. I got to serve as a conduit for acceptance. Parents were grateful and often emotional about the experience. It was powerful stuff; I knew how important this was from the very first storytime.

Through the pandemic, I continued to host story times, 120 recorded episodes from my home, broadcast live on Instagram. This continued until I became a target of an ill-informed and hateful group of people. My Live feed was inundated by internet trolls posting horrific comments like "die faggot." There were families watching. I was horrified. I was scared. But it got worse. My address and legal name were shared all over the dark web. During broadcasts, I would be interrupted by shouting and car horns in front of my house. One day, someone blew an air horn, right outside my window, which was very, very scary. Signs were left on my lawn: "a pedophile lives here." It was humiliating and devastating, which reminded me viscerally of what it used to be like to be gay in America, before gay pride was celebrated. I had to leave my home and go into hiding. Once the Hairspray tour ends, I don't know where I will be able to live safely.

Of course, all this sounds trivial in the wake of the massacre during a drag show at Club Q in Colorado Springs. Two weeks later, armed members of the recognized hate group Proud Boys--terrorists--effectively shut down a drag show in Columbus, Ohio, through intimidation. A far-right wing faction has been successfully targeting and harassing drag queens and labeling us as "groomers," which I fear will lead to more bloodshed. I had forgotten what it was like to be afraid for my life because of my sexuality, and that is exactly what these bigots want. They want to scare us back into the closet.

I have come to accept that there is nothing we can do about people who lie about us for political gain, which is why this letter is not addressed to these folks, it's addressed to my community. Allies and friends, we must be united in our fight for queer representation. We must fight for queer families. But what I've heard from some drag peers, including some of the biggest names in drag, is that I'm "Disneyfying," and making drag "too accessible" to families. Some have said even worse. We no longer have the luxury of such infighting. If you don't like my drag, then maybe it's not for you. There are members of our community who want to be married, who want to have children, and who are raising families in a world with very few family-friendly queer role models. There are people who want to expose their children to the kind of entertainment and the kind of culture that they wish to celebrate, that's distinctly queer. And what's more distinctly queer than drag?

To those of you who think a drag queen should not be performing for kids, I ask that you reconsider what it means to be a drag queen. My drag is inspired by the kindness of Dolly Parton; by the friendship and individuality expressed in the Muppets; and by the adventure of storytelling so inherent in Disney. I'm here to promote love, inclusivity, and acceptance of self. That's the greater purpose of my artistic expression as a drag queen. I have spent the past ten years producing content for children and families, and I have been blessed to work on projects with Dolly, Disney, and the Muppets!

Last month I released my first children's book: The You Kind of Kind. It has been years in the making and I in no way imagined the world in 2022 would be so dangerous for a drag queen to publish a book. There have been protests, but there have also been happy families. I am grateful to booksellers, who are the most progressive people I meet in any town, hands down. Protesters who target bookstores and libraries want to control the dissemination of information; how fruitless it is to ban books when Wi-Fi is readily available. Surely these book banners are aware of this hypocrisy, but their efforts are only in the pursuit of fearmongering, in the hopes LGBTQ voices will self-censor and go back into hiding. That's not going to happen. I have faith that I'm doing the right thing. I'm here for a purpose.

Community, I'm not asking you to sacrifice your Pride parade. I'm not asking you to give up anything that defines queerness to you. I'm asking you to make room for more. Buy banned books, and support Drag Story Hour by checking out Get yourself a library card and find out about the story times in your own local libraries. Vote in Every. Single. Election. Have conversations, and be willing to push back--with love--against friends who want to relegate drag to the adult section. Make room at the table. There's room for all of us. We're drag queens; we can wear many wigs.

With all my love,

Andrew Levitt a.k.a. Nina West

30 Years of Out100Out / Advocate Magazine - Jonathan Groff and Wayne Brady

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