Joy, Self-Expression, and Celebration at Camp Drag

At the Ames (IA) Public Library, a successful summer workshop gave young patrons interested in drag performance an education and an outlet.

At a recent Saturday workshop, an 11-year-old boy bounced between costumes and wigs while his mother stood nearby. They had driven an hour to the Ames (IA) Public Library (APL) to attend a session of Camp Drag, and he briefly broke focus from the items on display to talk to me. His community was generally accepting, he said, but they don’t do anything to show it. His words spoke to something many librarians grapple with—how do we practice inclusion? How do we truly welcome patrons into their community libraries? How do we do this, not just say it?

At APL, one of the ways is Camp Drag, a four-session workshop on various aspects of drag performance. This new summer offering for kids is the evolution of a year and a half of programming.

 In April 2017, APL invited the community to a family-friendly evening of performances by professional and amateur drag kings and queens. Would people  come? I had no idea—especially after an event for teens to perform in drag several months earlier was a programming flop. I knew at that time that we had  local teens interested in drag. But, it turned out, they weren’t ready to hit the stage themselves.

 Still, that failed program, and the feedback from it, revealed that community members of all ages wanted to experience the energy and glamour of live performances by professional drag kings and queens. Parents were excited to share something they enjoyed with their toddlers and   preschoolers in a family-friendly setting, and older community members wanted to demonstrate their support for LGBTQ+ youth.

 With that information, I partnered with Renegade Arts Collective—a central Iowa group of drag and burlesque performers and producers—and planned an All-Ages Drag Show, which would be followed by a performer Q&A and another show for only teens. That April night, we unlocked the doors and   within five minutes, the room was full. Hundreds of people crammed into the space for our standing-room-only event. Infants in strollers sat alongside clumps of teenagers who sat beside senior citizens. Toddlers and preschoolers bounced in their parents’ laps or danced in the aisle.

 Most people were from Ames, but some traveled from elsewhere in the state to watch performers in sequined dresses, towering heels, painted beards, and impeccably styled wigs dance to Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, Leslie Gore, Billy Joel, and more. One queen sewed her own Ms. Frizzle-inspired dress. The youngest performer came from outside of Ames to make their performance debut, and after the number, ran into their proud mom’s arms to deafening applause. Both sobbed. So did I. So did my director. There were a lot of tears that night.

 After that success, we did what library programmers do when they realize they’ve hit on something community members want: We organized more. I started planning a second drag show. Meanwhile, other library staff partnered with Planned Parenthood, and APL began to offer programs geared specifically to LGBTQ+ teens on sexual health and healthy relationships. Then, partnering with Ames Pride, APL hosted our community’s first Pridefest last fall. After a drag storytime during Pridefest, a parent mentioned that her young children watch drag makeup tutorials on YouTube and suggested the library offer classes in the activity.

The idea aligned well with our official programming goals—to promote the acquisition of skills, present information on issues of interest, foster cultural awareness, facilitate the sharing of local talent and expertise—as well as with our strategic plan goal of developing services for underserved groups. I also knew that to many Ames youth and families, a drag workshop would also offer a space in their community to feel safe and visible.

As the library representative on the board of Ames Pride, I had access to people who knew much more about drag than me. In February 2018, I met with fellow board members who also work with Renegade Arts Collective. We outlined the program’s goals and specific topics we wanted to include. We decided to offer four sessions spread across four weekends, developed a budget that included the cost of hiring presenters and allowed for purchasing materials, and created an online application to locate and vet professional performers to lead each week. 

The first session focused on drag history. The second centered on makeup and included discussion of why and how certain products are used, the diversity of looks among different types of performers, and a makeup demonstration. Next came a session on costume design and creation, as well as wigs. The workshop wraps with a fourth session on the art of performance, where one drag queen shares how she developed her performer persona and puts together song selection, and creates a performance. She closes with a show just for Camp Drag attendees. Attendance varied each week, but we had about a dozen youth ages eight to 16 for each session.

We have amazing community support for inclusive programming, but unsurprisingly, these events also attract some critics, mostly from outside of Ames. Word about Camp Drag spread quickly, with people commenting on the Facebook event page and elsewhere online. 

Library director Lynne Carey quickly developed a strategy to handle critical comments—keep the message simple and consistent, respond to comments directed specifically to the library by thanking the people for sharing their thoughts, reminding them that the library offers a wide array of programming that represents the many diverse voices in our community. The responses also emphasize that we hope everyone can find something to enjoy at APL and point to the program proposal form on our website that all are welcome to complete and submit.

On Facebook, staff didn’t need to defend the library or our programs. Community members rose to the occasion. The support expressed by patrons, which far exceeded the complaints, had the added benefit of demonstrating to those who would argue otherwise that there is, in fact, a real desire in Ames for Camp Drag and similar programming. With threats of protests or library boycotts, we made sure staff and volunteers were familiar with relevant library policies. But our programs have gone off without issue.

As we hoped, some of our Camp Drag attendees are preparing to perform in the next All-Ages Drag Show in September—but even if none did, we fulfilled the workshop’s true goals: to promote self-exploration, help youth develop self-expression and self-confidence, and demonstrate to traditionally marginalized youth and families that their community library sees, supports, and welcomes them.

Plus, we’ve got the most joyful drag show around.

Tanvi Rastogi is the Ames (IA) Public Library teen librarian .

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