LIKE most good things – and bad – it started in America. A mother was attending a storytime session with her son in San Francisco and thought: this would be a whole lot better if the story was read by a drag queen. Hence, Drag Story Hour. Hence, controversy. Hence, what just happened in London.

You may have seen the pictures. One group of angry people holding up signs reading, “No drag for kids!” and “Leave our kids alone!”, another group of angry people holding up different signs reading, “Don’t let the far-right divide us!” and “trans rights now!” These really are boom times for placards and exclamation marks aren’t they? Aren’t they!

The reason the protest was happening was that Tate Britain had decided to host a storytime session by the children’s author (and drag queen) Aida Dee. Since the first one in San Francisco in 2015, these drag storytimes have become a bit more common but also much more controversial. The accusation is that drag queens reading to children is inappropriate and sexualises what should be an innocent place.

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However, aren’t the critics misunderstanding what’s really going on here? For a start, surely everyone has noticed that drag has been central to children’s entertainment in Britain for hundreds of years. Go to any theatre any time in December and you will see men dressed up as ladies singing to children and doing jokes that are a wee wink to the grown-ups in the room. They’re called panto dames but they’re also drag queens.

It seems to me the parents who take their kids along to drag storytime are also trying to do something good. If I was a leftie radical, I might use the word heteronormative at this point but I’m not so I won’t. The point, though, is children can pick up negative attitudes early on but they can also be non-judgmental when they see something different for the first time.

What that means is there’s an opportunity, should a drag queen read a story to them once in a while, that children will be less likely to grow up with judgy attitudes about gender, sexuality, and what men and women are supposed to do, say, and wear. And that’s a good thing, isn’t it boys and girls?

The accusation that drag queens are sexualising storytimes is also off kilter. For a start, placards like “Leave our kids alone!” buy into the old trope that all gay men are pervs or predators. Also, not all drag is sexual. Sure, in a gay bar at 1am, it’s going to be fruity but that’s not what’s happening in a classroom at 9am.

As for the accusation that drag is an inappropriate parody of what a woman is and therefore some kind of blackface, I say this: blackface is about white people putting on make-up to mock a minority, drag is about a minority (usually gay men) putting on make-up to express and explore their identity. Not the same.

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I also think about little kids like Rory O’Neill who grew up in a village in County Mayo called Ballinrobe. He had a pretty happy childhood on the whole but he didn’t really see other people who were like him. He told me how, at 12 years old, he started to feel different or odd; he understood there was something about him that he didn’t see reflected in the place where he lived and so he needed to go to a bigger place to find out what it was. It turned out to be the fact the fact that he was gay.

Some 40 years on, Rory is now a famous drag queen, one of the most famous, and is making history just now on the Irish version of Dancing With The Stars. Rory and his dance partner Denys Samson are the first male same-sex couple to appear on the show in Ireland and the effect of something like that in a relatively conservative country like Ireland should not be underestimated.

Ireland also voted in 2015 to legalise same-sex marriage and Rory went viral during the referendum campaign when, dressed as his drag alter-ego Panti Bliss, he made a speech about equality and homophobia that went viral. He was credited with helping to encourage Ireland to vote Yes.

I asked Rory about all of this when I spoke to him and what he said emphasises why there’s something inherently good about Drag Story Time. For some reason, he said, our society has decided women get the jewellery and the make-up and high heels and men get the dull stuff.

But Rory asked a good question: if a man wants to cover himself in glitter and big hair, why shouldn’t he? It’s an expression of his identity and more importantly it challenges the idea that men should wear certain clothes and behave in a certain way. “All I’m doing in drag is ignoring the rules,” he said.

And that’s the bottom line really and the reason why we should all chill out about Drag Story Time at the Tate or anywhere else. British society, even though it has nudged forward a bit, still sees women and men in pretty rigid roles and judges the ones that step out of line.

Rory pointed out that a woman who doesn’t do make-up and high heels and all that stuff can often be labelled lazy or slovenly or lesbian; equally, a man who does want to do the make-up and heels can be judged as less-than-a-man or suspicious in some way. Some people will rush to their placards to write “leave our kids alone!”

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A story session at the library, or in school, read by a man or a woman who looks a bit different challenges those attitudes. Because there might be a child in the audience like Rory, a child who is beginning to understand that there’s something about them that’s different. Or a child who will come to that realisation later but it doesn’t matter because he or she has already seen that there are different kinds of way to be an adult.

It seems to me that all of this is perfectly good. The protesters who object to the drag storytimes aren’t “far right” – we should be careful we don’t render that phrase meaningless by bandying it about too much. But they should ask themselves if storytime for children always needs to be done the same way. Because the stories aren’t all the same, and neither are the children.