RIVERSIDE, USA – Athena and Scalene, their long blonde hair flowing down to their sequined leotards and rainbow dresses, are reading to around 15 children at a bookstore in Riverside, a quiet California town.
The scene would be unremarkable – except that they are both drag queens.
"We have a message, and the message is to empower the youth to be good people and to accept everybody for who they are, through storytelling," says Athena Kills, a 22-year-old student whose real name is Jovani Morales.
The reading workshop is part of Drag Queen Story Hour, an initiative launched in 2015 by a handful of libraries and schools across the United States.
Far from the LGBTQ bastions of San Francisco or New York, which last week celebrated "World Pride" with great fanfare, the small Cellar Door Books store joined the movement a year ago.
On this Saturday morning, June 22, in Riverside, southeast of Los Angeles, there is no politics or proselytizing, no reference to gender or sexuality – just a tyrannosaurus, a princess, a robot trying to understand love.
Athena and Scalene read a few classic children's books, throwing in some theatrical flair only to capture and retain the attention of their young audience.
"Just by showing up and being here, that in itself is sending a message, that you can be whoever you want to be," says Athena.
However, the young man admits he has experienced many difficulties along the way.
"Being a drag queen, and being gay in general, rejection is something I've lived with my whole life – sometimes even from my own family," Morales tells AFP.
"So it's something I've always grown up with," he adds, expressing regret that he never had a "role model" to look up to at a young age.
Clowns and ultra-conservatives
Athena started doing readings a year ago – this is his fourth session.
"The kids? They love it," he says. "All these things, a bunch of bright colors and stuff. What little kid wouldn't want to see that?"
"We're just like prettier clowns!" he adds.
The presence of drag queens at children's reading events does not make everyone laugh, however.
Drag Queen Story Hour is regularly targeted by ultra-conservatives and extreme-right groups who try to disrupt the sessions.
On television networks, such as the Fox News channel, some commentators criticize the "unhealthy lifestyle" of drag queens, raising the specter of AIDS and suggesting they have ill intent.
"Drag Queen Story Hour is really just people reading books to kids ... there is no underlying mission," says Elisa Thomas, 26, a saleswoman at Cellar Door Books who had the idea of organizing the readings.
Thomas, who is a lesbian, recruited her own drag queen friends free of charge for the occasion.
The Riverside bookstore has not escaped internet hate campaigns, and has had one Christian extremist storm into a session.
Its owner has been subjected to anti-Semitic insults and threats on social networks.
'I love their outfits!'
But this unintended publicity has only attracted more fans.
One mother, Melissa, drove from an hour away with her two daughters who "love drag queens, an inspiration to them."
"I want to let them experience people showing they can be what they want," says Melissa. "We live in the desert, you don't have that around our place."
Her daughter Waverly, 10, agrees.
"It's just cool that they don't let people tell them what to do," she says, adding: "I love their outfits!"
Joshua, who is 7, was visiting the bookstore by chance with his mother Rochelle at the time of the reading, and both decided to stay out of curiosity.
Intensely focused during the session, the boy told AFP afterwards he simply found it "funny."
"I really liked the story of the T-Rex," he says, not interested in talking about anything else.
"He loves stories," his mother laughs. "It could have been an astronaut or a policeman reading – I believe it wouldn't have been very different for him." – Rappler.com