the voice and vision of a new generation
Photo credit: Ben Seagren

What having a drag queen visit a middle school really means

October 30, 2018

A Colorado middle school has come under fire from some parents after inviting a drag queen to read to students at a literary event. The school and many others are supporting the choice.

Zachary Sullivan, frequently known by his stage name Jessica L’Whor, is a drag performer and dancer from the Denver, Colorado area. Sullivan was invited by the Rocky Top Middle School faculty to participate in the “Rocky Top READS!” event on Oct. 19 at the school in Thornton, Colorado. Sullivan even altered his stage name to “Miss Jessica” for the event, but some parents remain upset.

A parent identified as Heather Rogers said, “This person is an adult entertainer and is talking to 12-year-old students about something that’s adult nature,” according to KDVR in Denver.

However, it has been documented that the art of drag has helped many young people with strength in terms of identity acceptance and understanding of gender.

Sullivan was asked to come to the event because a student at the school is a fan and made a suggestion to the school’s administration.

School principal Chelsea Behanna sent a letter to all of the school parents to clarify the purpose of the event and defend the message made by Sullivan. Many news outlets have erroneously reported this as a “career day” but that is not actually the case.

“The focus of the event was a celebration of literacy and was reflected in the incredibly positive experiences of staff, students and guests throughout the day,” Behanna said in the letter.

Sullivan shared about his background in performing arts during middle and high school and talked about his journey to earning a business administration and management degree at Colorado State University.

“I talked about how my education, my writing and reading skills that I’ve learned, assisted the career that I am in,” Sullivan said. “Yes, I did talk about what job I have very briefly but it was not the premise of it.”

After speaking about how education has helped further his career, Sullivan took questions from the students -- allowing them to direct the conversation.

“The conversation was guided based off of what the students wanted to learn… so they started asking questions like, ‘Do I want to transition?’ ‘How did I come out to my family?’ ‘How much do things cost?’ and ‘How do I go out in public the way I do? How do I have the confidence to do that?’”

I can’t help but think back to my own middle school experience and think about what having this experience would have meant to me as a middle school student. Between 6th-8th grade I largely felt alone, confused and also curious about how my sexuality was different from “everyone else’s.” Having someone like Miss Jessica show up would have opened my eyes to a lot of understanding at a much earlier age.

Sullivan shared those same sentiments about his own middle school experience.

“I think it would have completely opened my eyes to a different area of my sexuality that I was starting to think about, but thought I was wrong for feeling,” he said. “I was too scared to come out to my family until just two years ago, because i didn’t understand it as a kid. I grew up thinking it was wrong and that it wasn’t ok. There are so many people who go through those same feelings and feel alienated because they don’t have anyone to relate to.”

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Jessica L'Whor (@the_l.whor) on

In each of the classrooms that Sullivan visited that day, he had the opportunity to read to the students. The book he read from was Horrible Harry in Room 2B which happens to deal with the subject of bullying.

“In each classroom, the kids asked me how to deal with bullies and negativity and stuff  like that, so it was kind of a coincidence how that worked out,” he said.

Principal Behanna said in the letter that this book was a good fit for the message that Miss Jessica was able to share with the students.

“She used the text to illustrate the damage bullies can do, the need to always put kindness and acceptance at the forefront, and the shortsightedness of judging a book by its cover. Students were completely engaged and asked lots of great questions,” Behanna said.

While there has been some backlash, Sullivan has received messages of support both within his area and from across the country.

Venus Envy, a Florida educator that also happens to perform as a drag queen, is no stranger to this type of controversy. In light of some recent conflicts, Venus is no longer allowed to use her legal name in conjunction with her drag persona. But, she says that as an educator, she recognizes the importance of providing children with as many possible experiences that they can possibly have.

“Teaching diversity, self acceptance and the importance of living in harmony with other people regardless if their lifestyle is different from your own, I think there is so much value in that,” she said.

Sullivan thinks there is some irony in the outrage from the parents saying they provide a great example of what bullying actually looks like.

“I think it’s ironic that these parents are saying I’m ‘so wrong’ for going in to talk about anti-bullying yet they’re the first ones to send me messages and threats. It’s just completely against what I was there to talk about,” he said. “How does that represent what they’re teaching their kids?”

The opportunity to speak at the middle school’s literacy event and the commentary that has followed has inspired Sullivan to find more places for Jessica’s voice to be heard.

“Overall, it’s only given me a kick in the butt to find larger outlets and continue to go to schools and do stuff like this,” Sullivan said.

The bottom line is that it is important for kids to understand acceptance and equality.

A drag queen is just one example of a person that is not readily welcomed into most public spaces. While privilege allows many of us an “immediate acceptance” into environments like schools, churches, restaurants and other public spaces, many identities are still consistently rejected.

Educating the generation ahead of us is the best way to ensure an equitable future. If that means having a drag queen in every classroom, I say, “Let the music play!”

Tim Harris is a GLAAD Campus Ambassador and junior at University of New Mexico studying communication and journalism. He is a freelance writer and digital marketing professional who aims to inspire progress towards equity with his words for all underrepresented and oppressed groups of people.

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