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Drag queens performed to their toughest audience yet at Parson Street Primary School for World Book Day.

Photos: Tommy Chavannes

Video: Tommy Chavannes, Phil Clarke Hill and Hannah Vickers

“Do you want to know why I think it it’s alright to wear a dress? Because dresses are made for people’s bodies. They’re not designed for boys or for girls, they’re just an item of clothing. If you want to wear an item of clothing that makes you happy, please do it.”

Bristol Drag Queen Sally Savage is used to rowdy audiences, but the children sat in rows on the floor in front of the stage were particularly demanding. Stories, dance-offs and noisy competitions to see who could get a biscuit from their forehead to their mouth the fastest were all crammed into the hour-long performance.

Drag Queen Story Time performed in a Bristol school for the first time on 1 March for World Book Day. Two drag queens read to 540 pupils over three hours.

“We always try to think of activities that are fun and engaging, we booked it based on that recommendation and we thought it’d be a really exciting activity,” said Headteacher, Jamie Barry. The day included pupils and teachers bringing in stories to share and lots of dressing up.

Tom Canham founded Bristol project Drag Queen Story Time last year. It went from being just an idea to the organisation being on the front pages within weeks and all performances have been sold out.

“It was odd because obviously it started as me and my mate on Twitter saying ‘this is a great idea’ and suddenly we were exploding onto front page news and people knew exactly who we were, in the space of two months.”

Parson Street Primary School has a reputation for promoting inclusion and equality. The school has open plan, gender neutral toilets and last year, it brought in a gender neutral uniform policy. This and other measures – putting equality and diversity into the curriculum and making sure that all the protective characteristics of the Equality Act are adhered to – made Parson Street the first school in Bristol to have been awarded Gold Practice Status from LGBT charity Educate & Celebrate for promoting equality and diversity.

Headteacher, Jamie Barry says that the school’s focus on promoting equality and diversity is to prepare the pupils for the diverse world they’re growing up in. “We have to provide them with a safe space to discuss and debate different ideas and different viewpoints and that’s what we do at Parson Street”. However, he’s keen to point out that inviting Drag Queen Story Time to the school for World Book Day was more about having a fun, engaging day for the children than their Educate & Celebrate work.

“They are just characters, they’re not there to make a point around gender,” he said. “We know that they’ll cause a conversation around gender and gender identity, but that is not the purpose of it, the primary purpose is to have characters to bring a story to life”.

Progress: only three death threats this time

When the school announced that this year’s World Book Day would include performances from Drag Queen Story Time, some of the parents complained about adult performers playing to children and said they were concerned about the books that would be read.

“Drag is a performance art and just like every performance that exists, be it magician, or a clown, you are able to tailor the performance to the audience that you perform for,” Canham told the Bristol Cable, adding that the books they read are specifically written for children. I get the impression that he’s tired of having to explain that the drag queens are capable of tailoring their show to suit their audience.

“We’ve performed 34 shows over eight months for around 2,500 children. If any of our performances were inappropriate for children someone would have mentioned it,” he said, adding that apprehensive parents are welcome to come to one of the other story times and check it out.

“It’s almost like a throwback to the gay panic of the 80s”

“We’ve never received a single negative review from someone who’s actually been to a performance.”

When they made the front page of the Sun and the Daily Mail in November, Canham started receiving a steady torrent of abuse online.

“We were receiving around two death threats an hour for about a week, so it’s died down a lot. I think people are getting bored. I hope they’re getting bored.”

“We’ve had parents post pictures of themselves with their kid at the show and they’ve received hundreds of horrible comments within an hour,” he said, adding that he’s been messaged by parents saying that ‘just living in your shoes for a day’ is an eye-opening experience and to keep doing the work they’re doing.

He told the Bristol Cable they ‘only’ received three death threats when they announced they’d be performing for Parson Street’s World Book Day, which is “progress”.

“If you read through some of the responses that we receive it’s almost like a throwback to the gay panic of the 80s where it’s like [people are saying] gay people shouldn’t be around children”.

But, he says that if they’re targeting him, it means they’re not targeting a child trying to work out who they are.

“I’m a fully grown man, I’m used to it. I’m able to take it. It kind of just highlights why we’re doing what we’re doing”.

“[The trolls] may think that they’re trying to stop it – I don’t know what they think they’re trying to do – but as far as I can tell, all they’re really doing is garnering support for what we’re doing.”

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