Once upon a time at the Seattle Children’s Festival, drag queen Aleksa Manila read books to children. Perched regally atop a cozy nest of blankets and wrapped in a glamorous fuchsia kimono, Manila inspired awe in each child who toddled into the room. Coco, age 4, was moonstruck by Manila’s hot-pink hair adorned with magenta flowers.
“Are those flowers real?” said Coco skeptically.
“Fake,” whispered Manila, with a heavy-lashed wink and a smile. “Now who wants to pick our first story?” A field of tiny hands sprouted up and story time began with a reading of Manila’s favorite children’s book, "My Princess Boy."
Written by Seattle author Cheryl Kilodavis to help explain her son Dyson’s fondness for “pretty things” to teachers and classmates, the book inspired a movement of acceptance for children who feel misunderstood. “I love my Princess Boy. When we go shopping, he is the happiest when looking at girls’ clothes. But when he says he wants to buy a pink bag or a sparkly dress, people stare at him,” Kilodavis writes.
“The Princess Boy’s story is very close to my own story,” says Manila, who began to question her gender identity while attending Catholic elementary school in the Philippines. “I remember being in the boys section and staring at the girls section, wondering, ‘Should I be there?’”
For the past five years, Manila has hosted Drag Queen Story Hour for families all over Seattle. Check the website for upcoming events and appearances.
“I often challenge the organizers to call the event Drag Queen story time, not for sensationalism, but to normalize it,” says Manila. She chooses books that are either authored by or about queer families, such as "And Tango Makes Three" and "Bob is a Unicorn." “I don’t just perform for the kids, I do this for their families, too,” says Manila. “I want to open hearts and minds.”
Kirkland mom Jen Guzewich says she brought her sons Zachary, 2, and Alex, 5, to Drag Queen Story Hour to broaden their horizons. “I want my sons to be exposed to a diverse population and to know that everyone deserves love,” says Guzewich.
Manila’s readings at public libraries, festivals and Pride events are an extension of her social justice activism. Offstage, “Alex” works as the program supervisor of addiction services at Seattle Counseling Service and runs Pride ASIA, an organization founded in 2012 to empower “LGBTQ communities through the Asian Pacific Islander lens.” Mayor Jenny Durkan honored Manila with the 2018 Outstanding Leader Pride Award for challenging prejudice and elevating awareness around the issue of addiction in the LGBTQ community.
Manila credits her mother for raising her to be brave in the face of adversity.
“I grew up with a really strong, empowered female presence,” says Manila. “My mom survived the Japanese occupation of the Philippines. She raised four children in the ’60s, when it was uncommon for a single parent to be working. She really exemplifies strength and resilience.”
Manila is not alone in her pursuit of queer acceptance through story time. Drag Queen Story Hour events are now happening in community spaces all over the world. “DQSH captures the imagination and play of the gender fluidity of childhood and gives kids glamorous, positive, and unabashedly queer role models,” states the DQSH website. “In spaces like this, kids are able to see people who defy rigid gender restrictions and imagine a world where people can present as they wish, where dress-up is real.”
Not everyone views the movement in such a positive light. A Drag Queen Story Hour event at a public library in Lafayette, Louisiana, was recently postponed when large protests were planned by religious organizations and the library determined it was unequipped to handle the crowds.
“Seattle is very lucky that we are so progressive,” says Manila. She points to the multidisciplinary Gender Clinic at Seattle Children’s hospital as an example of the city’s forward thinking. Only five children’s hospitals in the United States have clinics offering similar care for young people who are transgender or gender non-conforming.
Regardless of national attitudes, Manila plans to continue her story hour activism.
“Sometimes parents become hesitant when they realize they’re walking into story time with a drag queen. But they always stay,” says Manila. “It’s just story time.”