Imaginative Magic

From left: Mrs. Kasha Davis, Belle Bottoms, Arabella LaDessé, Tempest DuJour.

These Drag Queens Are Parents & They Know Exactly Why Kids Love Drag

Four performers with children on the “imaginative magic” of drag — and the ways drag has shaped their own parenting.

Originally Published: 

Fran Benjamin, who performs as Belle Bottoms, was in drag at a wedding not too long ago when they noticed a young child nearby quietly gazing at them in awe. One of the kid’s parents mentioned that it had been his birthday recently, so Benjamin struck up a conversation with him about it. “He was very quiet and reserved, and then all of a sudden he started talking — about the slide that he went to at the waterpark, how many friends he had come to his birthday party,” says Benjamin. “It just started rolling out of him.” Benjamin, who has two young children, is married to a rabbi and has performed in drag at all-ages events at synagogues, so they know first hand how a drag queen's larger-than-life glamor and mission of positivity can light up a kid's day: “Leading with care and empathy helps kids feel like they have a place.”

And at a time when drag (and LGBTQ+ rights at large) are under political fire, Benjamin says, “there’s sometimes this dark veil about what happens behind the closed doors of a library doing drag story hour, but there’s not much going on other than children laughing and using goofy voices.” Below, Benjamin and three other drag queens — Mrs. Kasha Davis, Tempest DuJour, and Arabella LaDessé — who are all parents or parents-to-be open up about the “imaginative magic” drag can provide them and how performing has helped them build the families they always dreamed of.

“When we watch something in an exaggerated form, it allows us to explore.”

Mrs. Kasha Davis, aka Ed Popil, is based in Rochester, New York, and is best known for appearing on RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 7 and RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars Season 8.

We’ve been doing drag story hour at the Blackfriars Theatre here for six years now, and it’s been one of the most life-changing performing experiences I’ve had. The first time we did it, we got a couple of protesters. They said, “You have an agenda.” And the program director said, “Yes, we do: If you see someone different in the world, treat them with kindness.” That sparked the excitement for me.

With kids, I keep it very simple — less words, more movement — with a very specific message about kindness and following our dreams. I ask the kids to stand up and reach for the stars and hold it in their heart. And then we go into a dance party by the end, so they get the energy out and can listen to the book. But I always say I perform for “children of all ages” because I look up from the kids’ faces to the parents and grandparents in the audience, and they’re listening attentively, too. Sometimes as we age, we forget to dream. We get stuck in a job or a relationship or a situation. We think we can’t love the things we love because we have to pay the bills. But we can.

Mrs. Kasha Davis during Drag Story Hour in Rochester New York.Courtesy of Mrs. Kasha Davis

The first time we did story hour, we had somebody from a local news station who said, “Why didn’t you tell the kids why you were in drag?” And I answered, “Because they never asked.” Pee-wee Herman doesn’t have to explain why he’s dressed the way he’s dressed! The experience of a character being who they are is very powerful. When we watch something that’s in such an exaggerated form, it allows us to explore in other ways. Even at DragCon, the majority of youth that I’ve seen there are young women. They see things in fashion magazines that they don’t necessarily like or want to emulate. But they see drag queens expressing themselves in every shape and form, and they get to say, “You know what? I’m going to have pink hair; I’m going to be me.”

Once at a show, I had a little boy come up to me and say, “I know you’re not a girl” as if it were a secret. I said, “Of course — you figured it out!” And then he became my best helper. It reminded me of when I was a little and had sisters and brothers who were younger. I went to my mom and dad and said, “Tell me the truth about Santa.” And once I knew the truth, Christmas became more magical, because I got to be part of making it special for others.

The next step is grandkids — and I can’t wait for it.

Because the theater was closed during the pandemic, we created a children’s television show, Imagination Station, that we’re working to get the right streaming platform to pick up. Picture Mrs. Doubtfire hosting Pee-wee’s Playhouse in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.

When I was a little boy growing up in Scranton, Pennsylvania, there was nothing that celebrated being exactly who you are. From 1988 to 1998, I was married to my wife and then got divorced after I came out of the closet. After that I met “Mr. Davis,” and we began to date. One day he said, “I have something to tell you: I have two daughters.” I was over the moon! All I ever wanted was to have that Christmas morning, to participate in those life events — like going to the boring flute concert — and to help these young minds be better adults than I could have ever been.

I was working a full-time job when I started drag, and I would perform a couple nights a week. I was like, “I’m sneaking out of the house at night. The girls don’t know where I’m going. This isn’t right. We need to talk to them.” But they couldn’t have cared less! They were more like, “Wait a minute — you had all these costumes in the house and you never told us?” So they started getting into those and putting on their own shows for us. What I’m most proud of is that we worked so hard to all become this new family unit. I am close with their mom. Our youngest daughter got married in October, and we have a great new son-in-law. Our oldest daughter recently got her master’s degree, and we had a big ol’ family dinner: two dads, a mom, her boyfriend, all the kids. So the next step is grandkids — and I can’t wait for it.

“What a fabulous chance for make-believe and imagination!”

Tempest DuJour is the stage name of Patrick Holt, who competed on Season 7 of RuPaul’s Drag Race and is an associate professor at the school of theater, film, and television at the University of Arizona’s College of Fine Arts.

Drag for me came long before parenthood. But when I decided I wanted to be a parent, nothing was legal at the time — no marriage equality, no possibility of gay couples adopting children together in Arizona, where I live. Different counties have specific agencies that handle adoptions, and at that time, ours was a Catholic charity organization. So as you can imagine, they weren’t likely to give a child away to a gay couple or a gay single person. The woman who represented me at the agency ended up quitting in protest over my case because she said there was no reason after three years that they shouldn’t be placing a child with this stable home. After all my adoption certification and licensing, I ended up going the foster route and became an emergency foster placement. That’s how I ended up getting children placed with me. My daughter is about to turn 17, and we got her when she was 1, so it was like 2007, 2008 — that’s what we were dealing with back then.

There was never a time when I sat down and said to my kids, “Papa puts on a dress at 10 o’clock at night and goes out and gets tips.” My circle of friends were drag performers, burlesque performers, and actors because I work in theater professionally, so that’s always been their world. It was never a big deal for them. And they understood that Tempest was a character I played, it wasn’t me. It’s funny: My son, who’s 13 now, when he was very little, we had a Little Mermaid book. Whenever he opened the page to Ursula [whose appearance was modeled after drag legend Divine], he would go, “Papa!” He made the connection right away.

I’ve done drag performances that were family-specific, like at festivals or Pride events. What a fabulous chance for make-believe and imagination! I was an artsy drama kid in high school, and that was my escape. Queer kids find something, usually in the arts, that allows us to think freely. Children are very smart. They know right away I'm a man in a dress with makeup and wig. But what they learn from that is that: “Oh, this is make believe, this is play. We get to be characters and be magic.”

Kids see us and think “Oh, I can be silly. I can dance and sing and perform and not be afraid to be around people, just like this character.”

In the theater, we do mask work a lot. There’s been papers written about how putting someone in a mask changes their demeanor and opens their minds and allows them to be vulnerable. It releases you. And that’s what drag is. In my life pre-drag, I was this overweight, kind of closeted Mormon kid that didn’t know what to do or where I belonged. I could go to a gay bar and stand in the dark corner the whole time and never be noticed. But when I put my mask on, suddenly people want pictures with that guy. They want to talk to you; they’ll buy you drinks. Drag is a mask that frees you and the people around you.

We’re not fooling kids into thinking we’re women. But they see us and think, “Oh, I can be silly. I can dance and sing and perform and not be afraid to be around people, just like this character.” Any kid I know is going to ask the questions they want to know the answers to. It’s just a shame that more adults don’t ask. Kids are like, “I know you’re a boy,” and I’m like, “Yeah! I am a boy!” Or they’ll ask, “Is that your real hair?” “No, it’s a big wig!” They ask innocent questions, and it just opens a dialogue. There’s no hiding.

“We are visible permission to be exactly who they want to be.”

Arabella LaDessé is a model, drag performer, and makeup artist from Portland, Maine, currently based in Boston.

I came out at 15. I had this idea of what it meant to be a gay man and was very self-hating. I was worried about being perceived as feminine. I was worried about what the world would put onto me as a man, and as a Black man growing up in a white community in New Hampshire. But when a friend introduced me to drag, it felt like a way to explore the things that made me scared about myself — beauty, softness. It was a classic tale of drag helping me find my identity, and now I stand before you as a queer, femme nonbinary person.

I’ve always known I was going to be a parent. I am fortunate to have found a partner who wants one and is able to have a child. We’re having a boy and recently did a gender reveal, not because we care so much about the gender — I’m a nonbinary person, and my fiancé is a trans binary man — but because I want them to have a gender to start with. If my child grows up and gets to a point where they’re like “I don’t feel like this has been me,” they’ll be with two people who have also felt that and can help them through it. But the world is not going to be easy, so I want them to be sure. And that means I’ll have questions. We’re going through names, and most of them sound like boy names. Right now we’re thinking Basil. He’s due Nov. 1 — a Scorpio is gonna ruin me!

I’ve done all-ages drag shows at Teatotaller in New Hampshire, which hosts drag story hours as well as the largest teen drag show in the country. When I’m around kids ages 5 or 6, they don’t really ask questions; they just make observations. They want to tell me about my nails, my hair, and — especially being in New Hampshire — my skin, which makes every parent blush. What draws the kids to the shows is everything that draws them to the Wiggles and Barney — we’re these very big characters with a lot of colors.

A drag performer’s role is to advocate for freedom — to be intolerant of intolerance.

But when you get to an older crowd, like 12 or 13, they sometimes have more questions about gender and drag: “What does this mean for me? Am I allowed to perform too?” I am able to show the younger generation of my queer community that you can present in so many different ways, but I am also able to reach out to the cisgender child and tell him he’s able to paint his nails.

A drag performer’s role is to advocate for freedom — to be intolerant of intolerance. That’s important to children because we are visible and unspoken permission to be exactly who they want to be. And that doesn’t mean they want to be me. But you make sure that when you are standing in front of them, you are the most regal you have ever felt. Even if you’re in your crazy clown costume, you are standing the tallest you have ever been; you are showing them that you are the happiest you’ll ever be because you gave yourself permission to exist.

A lot of those messages come in very subconsciously. Sometimes it’s the number you pick — I’ll do “Black Girl Magic” from Empire. Sometimes it’s just as simple as standing in front of the window of protesters and not showing any kind of fear. In June, Teatotaller had a bunch of neo-Nazis that stood outside drag story hour and chanted their Nazi rhetoric. They can stand out there and do whatever they want, but the kids can see me as I am, smiling bright, taking up all the space, and know: We’re strong in here, and we’re strong together.

“There’s something powerful about just being seen.”

Belle Bottoms is the alter ego and pen name of Fran Benjamin, a Twin Cities-based professional coach, adult-development specialist, equity and diversity consultant, and artist.

I once was doing a Purim carnival — my husband is a rabbi, so I’ve done drag at a lot of events for kids at a synagogue — and was performing on stage as Elsa from Frozen. This little girl came up to me afterward like, “I didn’t know I was going to Disney today!” Disney, the Power Rangers, the clown that comes to your kid’s birthday party in the backyard — it’s kind of all the same thing. All those people are in the performing arts world and are showing up to provide and share in joy with kids.

Kids are drawn to the imaginative magic of drag. They’re drawn to something that isn’t everyday, something that helps them see joy and excitement in what would otherwise be mundane. The ability to get curious about someone else, the ability to show empathy and interest in someone else is an amazing skill for kids to develop. What we’re showing them is a version of the world that has much more possibility in it: Which “rules” are actually rules, and which rules are really valuable? Which rules are not doing us any favors? And it’s not just about gender presentation. It’s about pushing boundaries on all sorts of dimensions, whether it’s politically, at school, or in friendships and having high expectations of your friends as caring, loving people.

There’s something powerful about just being seen, which is something queerness has taught me throughout my life, in moments when I felt unseen. Taking the time to recognize the person before you, to recognize the child before you, and talk with them — I just feel like that’s something drag queens and queer folk can offer the world.

I notice as a parent I am instinctively pulled to stop something or say no, and then immediately following that, I’ll ask myself why. Sometimes there’s a good answer: “Don’t touch the stove!” But often what I'm coming up with is some social conditioning about what is acceptable for a kid to do. How might my daughter’s right and left brain develop in a generative way if I allow her to color outside the lines? As long as I’m keeping her emotionally secure and physically safe, there’s so much experimentation she can do — like, I don’t know, wear her hat on her feet! I’m having a hard time coming up with examples because she just does such fun, interesting stuff that I would never imagine.

Kids are drawn to something that isn’t everyday, something that helps them see joy and excitement in what would otherwise be mundane.

My husband and I got married in 2012. Instead of taking gifts at our wedding, we started a child fund, knowing that, as queer parents, it was going to take some resources that we didn’t have to bring a kid into the world. Our first child was born in 2020, so it took almost a decade to make it happen.

I wrote my book, My Daddy’s a Queen, before we became parents. It was a love letter to our future family. It’s written from the perspective of a young child who has unabashed pride in their super queerdo family but encounters an adult’s assumptions or confusion. It’s momentarily heartbreaking for the child, but the book demonstrates this inner resilience that young children have. My hope is that it inspires kids of any family amalgamation to lead with that sense of pride and joy.

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