When Harmonica Sunbeam comes to the Port Jefferson Library to read to children on Sept. 22, she’ll lead the first Drag Queen Story Hour on Long Island.
Drag Queen Story Hour is just what it sounds like — a drag queen spends 45 minutes reading picture books. The organizers say they choose books with themes of acceptance, tolerance and embracing who you are. The drag queen also sings kid-friendly songs with the kids such as “The Wheels on the Bus” or “Itsy Bitsy Spider” and helps them make a craft such as a magic wand, paper-plate fans or a crown. The activity is geared to kids ages 4 to 8.
While such events have been held at New York City libraries since 2016, this is the first time the nonprofit group is sending a representative to a Long Island library, says Jonathan Hamilt, co-founder of the New York City chapter. The organization was founded in San Francisco in 2015 and currently has chapters in more than 40 states, Sweden, Toronto and Vancouver, Canada, Hamilt says.
“We don’t think of ourselves as cutting edge, but we are a little bit ahead of the curve when it comes to something like this,” says Tom Donlon, director of the Port Jefferson Library. The library was approached by a patron requesting the program, and the library staff felt the event would help open a dialogue about gender fluidity, Donlon says. “We think a good swath of our community will be interested in it,” he says.
Harmonica Sunbeam is a 45-year-old male piano teacher who lives in New Jersey and goes by the professional name she uses for her onstage personality. “You get a lot of diva, a lot of glamorousness, shiny, sparkly colorful things that are fun for the drag queen and the children,” Sunbeam says of how she dresses, adding that drag queens are a part of LGBTQ culture.
If parents and children wish to ask questions, she’ll answer them, she says. “Sometimes the kids just see you as this fabulous storyteller and they don’t see anything beyond that, and that’s fine,” Sunbeam says. But some kids will ask whether she’s a man or a woman. “I tell them that I am a fabulous drag queen, that I am a man and in my drag form I’m a woman.”
Todd Pittinsky of Port Jefferson, 48, a professor of technology and society at Stony Brook University, has signed up to attend the story hour with his son, Alexandru, 5. "I'm bringing Alex because I want him to understand he lives in a country with lots of different people and lots of different ways of being," Pittinsky says.
The Drag Queen Story Hour leadership understands that their program may not appeal to all library patrons, Hamilt says. Most of the pushback the program has gotten has been voiced online, he says.
Drag Queen Story Hour is free to library patrons, but they must register in advance. One week before the event date, any open seats will be made available to the public. The library is at 100 Thompson St., Port Jefferson. For more information on drag queen story hour, visit dragqueenstoryhour.org. To register for the program, call 631-473-0022 or visit portjefflibrary.org.