Drag Story Time organizers denounce anonymous transphobic letter

L-R: Zak Keith and Jorge Guillen, participate in drag story time at Raíces y Cariño in Watsonville.
From left: Zak Keith, who goes by Rogue Roulette, and Jorge Guillen, who goes by Xinistra, participate in drag story time at Raíces y Cariño in Watsonville.
(Via Lesley-Reid Harrison / Pajaro Valley Pride)

The organizers of a drag story time event in Watsonville say they are disappointed that a local newspaper published a transphobic anonymous letter suggesting the event harmed children. Good Times published an apology Tuesday, saying it would establish more stringent review processes and reach out to the LGBTQIA+ community. The letter comes as drag story time events are coming under increasing attack across the country.

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The organizers of a drag story time event in Watsonville say they’re disappointed that a local newspaper would publish an anonymous transphobic letter about the event, especially at a time when attacks against LGBTQIA+ people are rising across the country.

The anonymous letter, written by someone claiming to be a mother of five and published May 17 in Good Times, described events like Sunday’s drag story time as contributing to the “destruction of the innocence of childhood in an attempt to validate insecure and mentally ill adults.”

It called on businesses that host events like it to think about the “moral and societal implications of exposing vulnerable children to the use of pronouns, the idea that you can choose your gender, and cross-dressing giant overgrown makeup-covered men.”

LGBTQIA+ community members Zak Keith and Jorge Guillen performed the drag story hour at Raíces y Cariño — a recently opened family center in Watsonville. They found out about the anonymous letter on the morning of the event.

Keith felt a lot of anger and frustration when first reading the letter, “but also a lot of frustration that this was a rich amount of ignorance. I think even going as far as to say that [drag performers] are just ‘oversized men in wigs and too much makeup’ is really offensive,” said Keith, who uses they/them pronouns. “I don’t even identify as a man. I’m a nonbinary artist.”

On Tuesday, Good Times published an apology on social media, saying the free weekly newspaper would be reviewing future editions to ensure a similar mistake doesn’t happen again. The newspaper also removed the letter from its website.

“It was an error to publish this letter, and was contrary to our long-held publication standards and tradition of supporting LGBTQ+ rights,” the statement reads. “We will be following up with LGBTQIA+ community members and leaders to discuss how Good Times can support a safer and more inclusive community.”

Reached by email late Tuesday afternoon, Good Times publisher Dan Pulcrano provided Lookout with a copy of the paper’s statement and apology. “This was an isolated event, not a pattern, quickly addressed,” he wrote. “We plan to speak with and listen to representatives of the LGBTQIA+ community and develop more stringent review processes for contributed opinion.”

Good Times has been helmed by an interim editor since former editor-in-chief Steve Palopoli left the paper late last year. It is currently hiring for a permanent editor.

During drag story time events, drag performers read children’s books as a way to introduce gender concepts in an age-appropriate way and to give children positive queer role models. The events have come under increasing attack across the country and internationally, drawing threats, protests and attempts by state legislatures to ban them.

Keith and Guillen told Lookout they’re disappointed in both the anonymous letter writer and in Good Times for publishing it. They demanded more than the letter’s redaction and an apology. “What are they prepared to do to ensure the safety of the community?” asked Guillen. “How are they going to support the Raíces y Cariño center?”

However, the performers and organizers also emphasized the outpouring of support they’ve received, the joy of the drag story time event they held Sunday, and their intention to keep doing the events.

Guillen said he initially felt panic and a concern for his safety after reading the letter. “But as the morning progressed, people in our community, in Watsonville and Santa Cruz, started rallying,” he said. “It just made me feel really grateful for how united this community is.”

Nora Yerena, founder and co-director of Raíces y Cariño, said she was proud to host what many consider Watsonville’s first drag story hour. Jen Salinas-Holz, an active advocate for queer and trans youth, spearheaded the event and reached out to Yerena, Keith and Guillen to put it together.

Yerena said the organizers were fearful of how people would respond to the event because of the national rise in anti-LGBTQIA+ attacks.

“We purposely chose not to promote it too much — we didn’t notify the news outlets on purpose,” she said. “That was a choice because we were concerned about negative attention.”

She said organizers prepared a safety plan — including coordinating a safe room — in case something violent were to happen during the event.

When the Good Times letter came out, Yerena said she felt some anxiety. “My heart sank,” she said. “I felt nauseous and angry.”

As a result of the letter, she said she also enhanced that plan with a safe exit route for the performers and asked for volunteers to stand outside with supportive flags and signs.

The photo that was used with the letter included an image of Yerena and her kids on the opening day of Raíces y Cariño. “So then it suddenly puts into the public eye, for those who do have hatred toward this type of event or these types of community members, the invitation to hate everybody in that photo,” she said.

Despite the letter and its impact, Yerena, Guillen and Keith said they were overjoyed at how the event went.

Guillen has performed in drag events as Xinistra for the past five years and met Keith, also known as Rogue Roulette, through those events. The two performers spent Sunday morning getting ready in a room where the kids and their parents could watch them put on their makeup and learn more about drag.

“Jorge and I went from being Zak and Jorge to Rogue and Xinistra,” Keith said. “And during that time we talked about what it means to be a queer person and engage in the art of drag.”

Families asked them questions and watched them transform. About 70 people attended the event, including kids of all ages, and both families who speak only English and bilingual families.

“We got into drag, we walked out and it was just like a flood of love,” Keith said.

Keith and Guillen then switched off reading books. Keith read two in English: “Julian is a Mermaid,” and “Pride: The Story of Harvey Milk and the Rainbow Flag.” Guillen read two in Spanish: “Cuando Amamos, Cantamos” (“When We Love Someone, We Sing to Them”) and “Cómo Aidan Llegó a Ser un Hermano” (“When Aidan Became a Brother”).

For both Guillen and Keith, this was also their first time performing in a drag story hour. Both said they wish they had experienced drag story hour as children growing up in communities that didn’t have an understanding of the diversity of gender.

“[We read] books about inclusion, there were books about being able to find the words to communicate to parents and that’s something that I never had as a kid,” said Guillen. “But of course, as kids, especially, like really young kids, we don’t really know how to vocalize things that are going on inside of us, because we don’t yet have the vocabulary or the experience to do so.”

Despite the anonymous letter, Keith said they are looking forward to participating in more drag story time events in Santa Cruz County in the future: “This is probably one of the most enriching drag experiences I’ve ever had.”


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