Drag Queens Turn Pages — and Heads — in Tiny Cambridge | Culture | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Drag Queens Turn Pages — and Heads — in Tiny Cambridge


Drag Queen Story Hour at Varnum Memorial Library - COURTESY OF VARNUM MEMORIAL LIBRARY
  • Courtesy Of Varnum Memorial Library
  • Drag Queen Story Hour at Varnum Memorial Library

It's not every day that two drag queens sashay up to the door of the Varnum Memorial Library in Jeffersonville, a village within the small Lamoille County town of Cambridge, for story hour.

On a Saturday afternoon last month, the flamboyantly dressed Justin Marsh, aka "Emoji Nightmare," and "Nikki Champagne" — real name Taylor Small — read to a crowd of 70 adults and children ranging in age from infant to octogenarian.

Marsh had pitched Drag Queen Story Hour to the small-town library, hoping he and Small would open some eyes about diversity and inclusiveness.

But the library's event announcement on Front Porch Forum days before the September 23 program enraged some community members, highlighting an apparent cultural divide in the 3,800-person town nestled below Smugglers' Notch.

"You have got to be kidding me!" vented Ray Saloomey on the online neighborhood forum, two days after the announcement. "Sexuality — be it straight, gay or anything else — does not need to be force fed to children that couldn't even define it! It looks like the national insanity has finally hit Jeffersonville!"

A San Francisco nonprofit dreamed up the gender-bending initiative two years ago. The concept is simple: Drag queens read books to children in a school, library or bookstore.

"DQSH captures the imagination and play of the gender fluidity of childhood and gives kids glamorous, positive and unabashedly queer role models," RADAR Productions writes about the program on its 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."

Dozens of drag queens across the country stepped up to hostess events in Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York City, most of which have gone smoothly. One exception was an October 14 occasion at the Michelle Obama Public Library in Long Beach, Calif. Detractors, including a conservative political candidate, publicly objected in advance of the story hour. After it, they criticized the queen for showing up in a demon outfit that they claimed scared the children.

Friends encouraged Marsh, a 28-year-old who started dressing in drag nearly three years ago, to bring the program to Vermont. He and Small decided to approach libraries in smaller communities "to reach folks that it might not normally reach," before reading in cities such as Burlington, he said.

There's also the fact that Marsh grew up in Cambridge and has served on local community boards. He ran for the Vermont House in 2012 and, in March, campaigned unsuccessfully for a seat on the Cambridge Selectboard. Emoji Nightmare has marched in the town's Fourth of July parade.

Varnum director Christy Liddy welcomed the duo. "We're a library," she told Seven Days last week. "We're in support of inclusive programming."

Established in 1938, the Varnum serves Cambridge and the surrounding small towns of Belvidere, Waterville and Fletcher. Cambridge supports it with about $55,000 in funding each year. The nonprofit Crescendo Club Library Association, which oversees Varnum operations with its own board of trustees, pays the remaining portion of the budget. The Varnum is part of the HomeCard Library system, which allows cardholders to check out materials from more than 20 libraries in and around Chittenden County.

Liddy posted the library's Drag Queen Story Hour notice on the Cambridge Front Porch Forum, where it appeared along with notices about a bear sighting, snowshoes for sale and a plea for help stacking hay. Almost immediately, Saloomey weighed in. A woman who has since asked for anonymity called the event an "atrocity" and "nothing short of child abuse" for the way it "confuses" kids. Liddy heard from other detractors directly.

On Front Porch Forum, a different group of community members expressed its support. One woman wrote that she'd be bringing her 13-month-old daughter. Another made donations to two Vermont gay rights organizations spurred by those speaking ill of the event. Others sent encouraging messages to Marsh and the library staff.

Emoji Nightmare (left) and Nikki Champagne - COURTESY OF TYNE BECHTOLDT
  • Courtesy Of Tyne Bechtoldt
  • Emoji Nightmare (left) and Nikki Champagne

"How great is it that we live in a town that shows by example and 'lives acceptance,' so no one has to 'learn acceptance,'" Karen Smith wrote. "Dressing up is fun, reading is fun and the library is fun — this is just plain fun!"

At his day job at a marketing agency in Jeffersonville, the 5-foot-11 Marsh sports combed brown hair, pierced ears and long, painted nails. He's gay and uses the pronouns he and him. But when Marsh transformed into Emoji Nightmare for the library event, he donned a faux denim dress with tassels; a bolo tie; a belt; a big, red curly wig; long eyelashes; faux snakeskin boots with kitten heels; pantyhose; a corset; and plenty of makeup.

The persona is an act, said Marsh, who described drag performers as "female illusionists" and his "cowgirl" look as a mix of country singers Wynonna Judd and Reba McEntire.

"You can still tell it's me — but I look totally different," Marsh said.

Small, 23, a transgender woman and resident of Winooski, teetered along on six-inch heels and wore a sequined onesie with a tight top and feathery bottom. She topped off the look with "big, voluminous blond hair — like, think Dolly Parton."

The two had read earlier the same day to kids at the Richmond Free Library. Everything about that reading went without a hitch, Marsh said — including the community discussion in advance of it. Seven adults and six kids attended.

But Marsh said he was nervous about his hometown event, especially after seeing the comments from people such as Saloomey, the first to respond to the announcement.

A resident of nearby Bakersfield, Saloomey has owned Madonna Auto Repair, just down the road from the Varnum, for more than 25 years. He told Seven Days that he tries to keep his opinions to himself but couldn't hold back when he saw the event listing.

"It's not like I've got problems with adults and their preferences," Saloomey said. "My whole problem was that two o'clock on a Saturday afternoon targets children who don't even know what half of this is about. Do we really need to confuse their identity of things any more than they already are growing up? All of a sudden, somebody's daddy is wearing a dress."

Saloomey said he was heartened to receive several emails from other townspeople who thanked him for publicly opposing the event. He said some told him they were too afraid to speak out.

"I'm in a point in my life when I really don't give a shit," Saloomey said.

A number of those who used their names on Front Porch Forum have since changed their minds about being identified. One woman claimed she "received many hate emails from the LGBTQ community." A second, who suggested that the drag queens undergo background checks before mingling with children, said she was similarly bombarded. One emailer called her a "closed-minded bitch."

"It used to be the other way around," opined Saloomey. "No one talked about being gay 'cause they were afraid" of how the community would react. "Now, no one dare say anything that doesn't 100 percent agree, because they're afraid they'll look like social Luddites or whatever."

At the packed Varnum, Emoji Nightmare and Nikki Champagne read A Big Guy Took My Ball, I Have a Right to Be a Child and the gay-themed children's book, King & King. They led a glamorous version of "If You're Happy and You Know It" as well as songs about saying hello and goodbye that incorporate sign language. The craft activity? Paper crowns.

"Nothing that we did could have been perceived as anything but appropriate," Marsh said of the hourlong event. "For folks who have lived for 60 or 70 years identifying things as one thing or the other, it's more difficult for them to accept a drag queen," he reasoned. "But for a kid, who hasn't known necessarily that there's a 'right' or a 'wrong' to gender, we were just two storybook characters come to life to read to them."

The number of tween and teenage boys in attendance surprised Marsh. One boy was preparing to play a fairy godmother in a school play and came to ask the duo for advice.

"He was like, 'I'm expecting this role, and I want to do it justice. Should I do it like a drag queen and really vamp it up?'" Marsh recalled. "And we were like, 'Yeah!'"

One patron approached Liddy after the event to say he'd boycott the library until it issued a public apology for hosting Drag Queen Story Hour.

"We have nothing to apologize for," Liddy said defiantly.

"There was all the grumbling and complaining, but it really did the reverse of what those people wanted — it really united the community," Liddy said. "I think people who wouldn't normally have spoken out or wrote letters of support started saying, 'No, [the backlash is] not right.''

Liddy heard from other librarians, too.

"If even one child in your community left your Drag Queen Storytime with a better understanding or higher level of comfort with LGBTQ+ persons, then your library has done its job," wrote Megan Estey Butterfield, a children's librarian at the Fletcher Free Library in Burlington. "I urge you to continue programming with this part of your community in mind."

The duo's next Drag Queen Story Hour is scheduled at Fletcher Free on December 16.

Small said she didn't care if protesters showed up.

"Drag queens have always been on the front lines of creating social change. So if this is going to bring awareness that diversity is awesome and cool, and kids should be seeing diverse faces who are just going to read to them, like, great — bring on the picketers!" Small said. "I hope they come inside and listen to us read about a pig that found a ball."

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