"Why would you disrupt joy?" posits Frankie Dascola in this interview.
To Queens-based educator Frankie Dascola, drag story hours — bright, glittery events at schools and libraries in which drag performers dress up and read storytime for kids — offer clear positives for child development. Created as a literacy and arts program, DSH’s mission is to celebrate reading through “the glamorous art of drag” and invite families to a program “where kids can express their authentic selves.”
Stated simply, it’s just fun. As Dascola puts it, “Why would you disrupt joy?”
Not everyone shares this view. In the past two months, protesters have shown up to drag story hours in Staten Island, Chelsea, and Jackson Heights, stirred by “groomer” rhetoric and the surging moral panic over gender nonconformity. Dascola was among over 300 counter-protesters in Jackson Heights in December who turned the defense of DSH NYC into a colorful, joyous dance party in the streets.
Not only are we defending the ability of non-gender-conforming people to occupy public space, but we are fighting to protect drag and drag story hours (DSH) as a form of social infrastructure.
Dascola is a teacher at IS93 in Ridgewood, which has a social-emotional learning curriculum. Dascola is an advisor for their school’s Gender & Sexuality Alliance (GSA) and a board member at the DSH NYC nonprofit organization. “I see my role as a board member as helping to educate a populace,” says Dascola, who predominantly presents feminine at work. “I go by Mx. as my prefix to bring awareness to the non-binary and the gender-nonconforming in general,” they say. “I am a non-presenting transmasculine individual. What does that mean? Well, I do feel like a dude trapped in a chick’s body. I do feel like I have the wrong parts, my dysphoria is unreal.”
“I have no pronoun preference, it’s whatever keeps the conversation going or just my name,” Dascola told The Indypendent.
This interview has been edited for length clarity.
The Indypendent: Why are drag story hours important?
Frankie Dascola: It allows the kids to see so many different types of possibilities of who they could be and who can be in front of them. For example, Bella Noche is one of the readers from Long Island. She’s our mermaid-in-residence. She’s also part of the dual language program that DSH NYC runs. Thirty percent of my school is English as a new language. We make sure to incorporate the dual language aspect, to show brown people being queer and being successful.
Part of DSH NYC is teaching those social-emotional skills, interactive skills, how to just be part of society. Self love, self expression, decision making. So often we have to decide: when are we coming out? What is safe, what isn’t safe? How do we work as a community to elevate those who need to be elevated?
I’ll never forget the way kids react. “Oh my God, I didn’t know that you could do that! Oh, that’s me!” I say it every time other staff come into the room. You may get to see a child in a space you’ve never gotten to see before. Their joy, their happiness might happen for the first time now.
What about your experience as a young person led you to be so involved in DSH NYC?
Growing up in public schools in Chicago, I never saw or heard anything about queerness until high school and never once saw a teacher stand up for us. That hit me pretty hard in college, when I was learning about my own queerness and woeful lack of queer support. For all the amazing and wonderful people I had growing up, you think someone would’ve realized “Oh, Frankie needs some help.”
Knowing what I know now, I can’t help but be brought to where I am now, in NYC, willing to put my career on the line when I go protest so these students can have a safe place. I want all my students to know someone does fight for them, even if they don’t understand or know what’s happening.
Talk more about the programs DSH NYC offers.
We offer programs for senior citizens. We have a program for audience members with autism. So we understand that audience members might be up, more vocal, might not be able to sit still. We do readings in Cantonese, Spanish and French. We’re looking to expand to more languages and to do programs specifically with homeless queer youth.
What sorts of things have you had to deal with as an advocate and board member?
It is a surreal experience waking up to an email from Homeland Security saying, “Your organization needs to be on high alert. And for board members of DSH NYC it’s a good idea to run a threat assessment.” I’ve had to have conversations with my partners and roommates where I say, “Don’t ever let someone in for my apartment number.” Look at what happened to Chelsea City Councilmember Erik Bottcher. His neighbor was assaulted by protesters of DSH NYC. A month later City Councilmember Shekar Krishnan’s home was vandalized near Jackson Heights.
The threat level has increased tenfold. I’ve had parents and colleagues opt out of DSH NYC readings or participating in a protest out of fear of losing a job. There’s fear that some of my storytellers have. We’re going to be doing de-escalation workshops with the Anti-Violence Project. I am willing to take a bullet for this organization, but why should I have to?
I also got harassed by the New York Post. They called my school twice.
How do you feel when people target you and this work?
I get so disheartened and irritated. It weighs on me. There’s an effect that rhetoric has on me. I’m a strong individual. I got pretty thick skin. But that doesn’t mean I’m not scared, not concerned for those who don’t have as thick a skin as I do, right?
Why do you think drag is being criminalized?
Because it gives people an outlet to be different. It gives people a way to show dissent about the way things are. Is drag a form of protest? I firmly think it is.
We have such an opportunity to influence queer curriculum and queer education. When we center the non-white experience, when we center the non-queen voice, bringing in drag kings and non-binary individuals, we’re allowing everyone to be who they are. That’s where the protesters and the alt-right have the real problem. Drag is for everyone. We don’t exclude anyone. We look to elevate those who haven’t had a chance to be elevated. When the criminalization happens, the othering happens, it’s a tool of fracturing. And what drag does is bring us together.
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