At a crowded story session at the East Meadow Public Library last Saturday, the special guest began by reading a book called “Julian is a Mermaid,” about a boy who dresses up as a mermaid, using his grandmother’s drapes and other furnishings he finds around her house.
“He’s using his imagination,” said the reader, who goes by the moniker Bella Noche. “With your imagination, you could do anything.”
Noche wore a glittery blue dress and a pair of teal high heels with a texture that resembled a fish’s scales. Around her neck was a pearl-style necklace, and on her wrists were matching bracelets. Adorning a head of wavy, teal hair was a plastic crab.
Bella Noche is Isaiah Cruz, a 27-year-old Manhattan native who studied creative writing and journalism at Hunter College before working at the Queens-based youth LGBT center Generation Q. Noche performs at nightclubs in the West Village, but recently began appearing with Drag Queen Story Hour.
Founded in 2015 in San Francisco, the organization enlists drag queens to read stories to children that have themes of diversity, tolerance and inclusivity — specifically as they pertain to gender roles. Since 2016, story hours have been held at libraries around New York City, including Supermoon Art Space in Brooklyn, where Noche gave her first reading a year ago. Recent readings have taken place across the country, as well as in Canada, Sweden and Japan.
Children’s librarian Donnamarie Hock brought the idea to East Meadow after seeing a demonstration reading at a Public Librarians Association Conference in Philadelphia in November. “I was very impressed,” Hock said, “but I immediately thought in my head that this would never happen here.”
Drag Queen Story Hour made its debut on Long Island in September, at the Port Jefferson Public Library — where roughly 30 protesters stood outside with signs reading “Stop Promoting Gender Confusion” and “Where is Bible Story Hour?”
East Meadow attendees did not have to walk through demonstrators to attend last weekend’s program. A small group of observers, however, gathered to express their opposition to the reading, with one man repeating, “You’re perverting the minds of these children.”
“This is the first time we had people here who didn’t like it,” Noche said of the Long Island events. “In New York, we didn’t have any of that.”
Asked how she responds to the criticism, Noche said, “We understand that certain people have ideologies that don’t mix [with ours]. We try to educate them — to show them that we’re not trying to recruit, we’re not trying to indoctrinate anybody. We’re just trying to read to kids.”
Jude Schanzer, the library’s director of programming, said that the support for the program outweighed the opposition. “Inclusion is important,” she said. “Inclusion of all. And I think the community understands that.”
Andrea Costan, of East Meadow, said that she and her husband, Tony, brought their son, Everett, to the event to teach him about inclusivity and diversity. “We want him to be exposed to this at an early age,” Andrea said.
Jonathan Hamilt, the co-founder of the New York City chapter of Drag Queen Story Hour, plans to launch a Long Island chapter this spring, and Noche will be its premiere reader. At the East Meadow event, Hamilt noted that four librarians had approached him there to inquire about scheduling a session.
“We’ll have our own pool of drag queens out here,” Hamilt said, adding that he was the first queen to read when the project was brought to New York. “Since then it just exploded,” he said, and with a laugh and a shrug, added, “People have been calling it a movement.”
Carol Probeyahn, the East Meadow library’s director, said that this wasn’t the first event the facility hosted that drew criticism. “Libraries, by their very definition, are going to offer a program or provide some material that is going to be controversial to someone,” she said.
The library offers an array of cultural programs on a daily basis, ranging from Indian dance classes to classical concerts and its own anime and arts convention, called EMCon. It is currently in the process of expanding its programming room to double its occupancy from 120 seats to 240. “The community sees value in the programs we have,” Probeyahn said.