By Daniel Tozier
The air inside Vroman’s Bookstore flutters with excitement as children race and shout and giggle throughout. It’s an unusual scene amid the typically quiet aisles of biographies and novels, but today is Drag Queen Story Hour. Described by its organization’s website as “just what it sounds like,” DQSH sends drag queens to libraries and bookstores in California and New York to read stories and sing songs with children to give this generation more LGBTQ role models and to foster an environment of audacious inclusivity. Today’s host, Valora Von Tease, is taking the stage with gem-encrusted high heels, sweeping eyelashes, and a foot-tall beehive hairdo. But behind that boisterous persona and sparkling dress is a soft-spoken 23-year-old named Harrison Fortner.
Fortner’s foray into drag was, as he tells it, a long time coming. At 10 years old, he was sneaking into his sister’s bedroom to wear her skirts and try on her old Halloween costume, a flowing, black witch’s dress. There was a strange sense of comfort in this clothing.
By the time he was in his early teens, he knew he was different, but a sheltered upbringing made it difficult for him to understand why. Years later, he finally found a word for it, when his uncle came out as gay. For his parents, it was a shameful family secret. To 15-year-old Fortner, it was a revelation.
“I grew up in a very fundamentalist, Christian household so I didn’t even know what gay meant. … It was like, ‘Oh I’m not the only person on the planet who feels the way I feel?’”
Even with this new knowledge, it would be another five years before Fortner came out. At the time he was attending a Christian university in Southern California, going to church, and even had a girlfriend. He jokes that pretending to be straight was more of an illusion than the makeup and wigs he wears on stage today. But that illusion was holding together everything he cared about.
“I was so scared of losing my family,” he says of coming out. “I was going to lose, not so much my brother and my sister, but both my mom and my dad. And I was going to lose this life and that was all that I knew.”
The air inside Vroman’s begins to settle as children find places to sit and Valora begins to read. The first book is titled A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo, in which a boy bunny falls in love with another boy bunny and together they fight for their right to be together. The children listen intently, their necks crane upward as Valora rotates the book so everyone can see the colorful illustrations. They laugh at the jokes and boo the stinkbug who insists that boys are only allowed to marry girls.
Each story is chosen carefully. Fortner and DQSH founder Michelle Tea work closely to find books that talk openly about gender and racial equality and the truth that families come in all shapes, sizes, and variations.
Growing up, Fortner’s exposure to drag culture was confined to tragic figures on television—drug addicts and sex workers on Law & Order. It was grim to see facets of himself depicted so hopelessly. He participates in DQSH in the hope that young children who identify differently and feel more comfortable dressing outside of society’s norms will have better role models than he did. “When I was growing up it would have been really cool to see someone doing drag that was like, ‘I’m proud of who I am and I’m happy doing this.’”
The weeks following Fortner’s coming out were painful. Text messages and calls flashed on his phone as the word spread—friends and family members telling him he could no longer be a part of their lives. When his parents found out he was sneaking out to perform in drag shows in L.A. and Hollywood, it was the last straw. They told him he was no longer welcome in their home and would need to find somewhere else to live.
He worked in Alaska for a few months before moving down to Pasadena. Here, he put together a new sort of family, not of a shared last name, but a shared story about struggling and fighting for a place in the world.
Fortner found a great place to call home in our city, as did DQSH. Local reception has been positive, which is not always the case. Last year, a Republican congressional candidate retweeted a photo taken at a Long Beach event, denouncing a drag queen working with children as “demonic.” A galvanized anti-LGBTQ community from across the country sent slurs, hate speech, and death threats to the host’s social media accounts.
“I’m very proud of Pasadena,” he says. “To live here and do this for a community that seems to want me here, it’s been a very uplifting.”
Since coming back to California, Fortner has begun speaking to his mother again. He’s always had the support of his brother and sister—their creative fingerprints can be seen all over Valora’s outfit and makeup. He and his father have yet to reconcile.
As Valora wraps up her last story, parents and children begin lining up against the side of the room to meet her and take pictures. She leans down and talks with each one, asking their name and if they enjoyed the stories. One boy hesitantly touches the hem of her dress. “Go on, you can touch my dress,” Valora proclaims. The boy giggles and looks up at his parents.
For Fortner, Drag Queen Story Hour isn’t about changing anyone’s mind or even giving LGBTQ culture more visibility, though it might accomplish both. When he talks about the meaning of DQSH, he talks about a beacon for those who, like a young boy in his sister’s witch costume, know who they are, but don’t yet have a word for it. It’s a place where they can dress how they want, feel safe and included, and be a part of something good.