His mascara may run, but he won’t hide.
Dressed as Ms. Cherry, his drag queen alter ego, Jason Mayo performed at Norfolk County’s first drag storytime in downtown Simcoe last week, after days of online backlash leading up to the family-friendly event.
“We just spread love and understanding and diversity,” said Mayo inside The Ledge, the clothing and accessories boutique that hosted the storytime on March 16.
Mayo said while he has thick skin as an openly gay public high school teacher and gay rights advocate in a small rural community, online comments calling the event “disgusting,” “shameful” and “degenerative” did wear him down.
“We wish people weren’t like this, but this is sadly where we’re at,” he said.
“It’s not everybody. It’s actually probably far less than it used to be. It’s just that they’re so loud.”
The social media vitriol was countered by words of gratitude and praise from commenters who said the “fabulous” and “beautiful” event was a sign of Haldimand-Norfolk becoming more inclusive.
Mayo bantered with the crowd of about 50 people while reading children’s books that “focus on that idea of the beautiful humanity of each of us,” said Catherine Wiebe, owner of Firefly and Fox Books, which co-sponsored the event.
Fewer than a dozen protesters gathered outside on the sidewalk, holding signs calling drag “harmful” and making vague claims — without being able to offer any evidence — that drag storytimes “groom” children for sexual exploitation and human trafficking.
Greater in number were supporters who waved Pride flags and signs declaring “Hate has no home here.”
The anti-drag demonstration in Simcoe was a muted echo of vociferous protests that have popped up at drag storytimes elsewhere in Ontario as an outgrowth of the “Freedom Convoy” movement.
Most apprehension about drag is rooted in ignorance, Mayo said.
“It’s a character,” he said of Ms. Cherry, likening drag storytime to kids seeing Disney characters in costume.
“It’s just a man in a dress entertaining you,” he added. “It’s fun, colourful, and embraces a full spectrum of identity.”
Madi Banks, who attended the storytime with her family, was dismayed at seeing protesters “twist it and morph it into something it’s completely not,” but “pleasantly surprised” by the overall feeling of positivity.
“Honestly, I wanted to cry when I walked in and saw all the kids there,” Banks said.
“I am a member of the LGBT+ community as well, so I was a little apprehensive after seeing all of that hate online. But my heart feels really warm.”
Amber Banks said she was “so excited” to attend the event and support Mayo, one of her favourite teachers in high school.
“I wanted to come and help to spread the message that it’s not a scary thing to read storybooks to kids,” she said.
Pride Haldimand Norfolk chair Robyn Cunningham Edl thanked The Ledge and Firefly and Fox for “standing firm in their allyship” despite angry messages from customers and pressure to cancel the event.
“We’re not here to push anything on anyone. For me, it’s about inclusion,” said Amanda Paton, owner of The Ledge.
“Everybody should feel accepted and welcomed everywhere, and I feel like we’re lacking that.”
Norfolk’s first drag storytime came out of a conversation Mayo had with Wiebe at her downtown bookstore earlier this year.
“I knew that it would not be without controversy, given how things like Ryder’s Rainbow have been received by some parts of the community,” Wiebe said, referencing the efforts of nine-year-old Ryder Mandryk to have a rainbow crosswalk installed in Simcoe.
“But as a bookstore owner, I feel like a really foundational piece of my mandate is creating a space where people can hear other people’s stories. When I think about the queer community in Norfolk County, there aren’t a ton of spaces that are welcoming and safe places for them to share their stories and be listened to.”
Madi Banks said it was “refreshing” to go to an event in her hometown and feel comfortable being herself.
“I know that there are a lot of queer people in Norfolk, but you don’t see a lot of queer spaces for people in Norfolk,” she said.
Mayo hopes some of the people who came to protest left with a new perspective.
“I think that’s truly the issue. These people have no exposure to gay people. They only see the hatred online,” he said.
“When you sit in a room with someone who’s different from you, you learn so much from them.”
By J.P. Antonacci, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Original Published on Mar 21, 2023 at 10:00