Pastor Christian Coon rallies people for a parade at Urban Village Church West's Family Pride Fest on Saturday June 24, 2023 | Todd Bannor

Urban Village Church West had a special guest at its family Pride celebration this past Saturday. Chicago drag performer Coco Sho-nell, in full glam, read stories to the children at the event. Her choice in storybooks share central themes: embrace individuality and diversity.

Coco Sho-nell | Courtesy of Facebook

“Love the skin that you’re in and find the beauty within yourself,” Sho-nell explained. 

The church invited Sho-nell to read at the Pride celebration through the Drag Story Hour, a movement begun in 2015 with drag queens reading to children in San Francisco. It is now a registered 501c3 non-profit. Sho-nell performed at the church once before in 2021 and Rev. Christian Coons was happy to welcome her back again.

“She’s a great performer and she loves children,” said Coons.

Drag Story Hour provides kids an introduction to the LGBTQ+ community to build understanding and acceptance of diversity. Sho-nell’s choice in reading materials reflects that. One of her favorite books is “There’s Only One You” by Kathryn Helling and Deborah Hembrook, which teaches children that no one person is exactly the same as another.

 “You may have straight hair. You may need glasses to see or you need to maybe use a wheelchair,” she explained. “It’s OK. That’s just who you are.”

Her other favorite book is Academy Award-winning actor Lupita N’yongo’s “Sulwe,” which tells the story about a little girl whose skin is darker than anyone else’s she knows, including that of her mother. The book explores colorism and self-worth, ultimately leading its young protagonist to embrace and be proud of what makes her unique.  

“It’s OK if you don’t look like everybody else. That’s what makes you, you,” she said.

No protestors showed up to the River Forest event, except some uninvited deer that brazenly grazed near the bounce castle Saturday afternoon, but that has not been the case at similar events outside the Chicago area. NBC News reported that a group of masked neo-Nazis disrupted a drag storybook reading two weekends ago in New Hampshire by chanting homophobic slurs. 

Those who purport drag to be an act of the nefarious and immoral lack an understanding of the world and an openness to learn, according to Sho-nell. 

“Humans fear what they don’t understand,” she said. “We’re trying to break that stigma.”

Coons echoed her sentiment, adding that he believes many people who oppose drag have never had meaningful relationships or even a conversation with someone who does not fit the mold of being cisgender and heterosexual. 

“Once you do, you begin to see the fruit of their lives,” he said. “I just can’t see how you can, in good conscience say, that this is not a child of God.”

Legislation to criminalize drag and reduce the rights of the wider LGBTQ+ community is being pushed – and challenged – across the country as well, with one of the most notable efforts coming from presidential hopeful and governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis. 

Passed in April, the sweeping “Let Kids be Kids” bill prohibits the discussion of gender identity in schools and bars transgender minors from receiving gender affirming medical care. The legislation also makes it illegal for minors to attend drag performances. Florida State Rep. Randy Fine, who sponsored the bill, said the law will “protect our children by ending the gateway propaganda to this evil – ‘Drag Queen Story Time.’”

A Central Florida federal judge has temporarily blocked the state from enforcing the age restriction at drag performances, ruling June 23 that a drag performer reading to children does not constitute an obscene performance. 

Within the conservative Christian community, drag performers and their storybook reading have come under fire. Evangelical leader Franklin Graham was quoted in a September issue of “Christianity Today” encouraging parents and grandparents to quit patronizing libraries in protest. 

This stance is actively opposed by Coons and Urban Village, which Coons said has always been welcoming of LGBTQ+ worshippers and other groups “pushed to the margins.” Nor does he believe it should be scandalous to invite drag performers to read books with positive messaging to kids.

“We are for them; we love them; we believe they are created in the image of God just as anyone else is,” Coons said. 

Join the discussion on social media!