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Once There Was a Queen ...

To the tune of “The Wheels on the Bus,” a roomful of children sing along: “The hips on the drag queen go swish swish swish / swish swish swish …”

It’s Drag Queen Story Hour at the Brooklyn Public Library, led by Lil Miss Hot Mess, a.k.a. Harris Kornstein ’06, serving creative, playful activism to teach acceptance and diversity at an early age.

“I joke that, at heart, I’m an awkward teenage girl in a talent show,” says Kornstein, whose performance ethos combines campiness and sincerity.

Started in San Francisco by the literary nonprofit RADAR Productions, Drag Queen Story Hour now occurs at libraries, schools, and bookstores worldwide, tapping into children’s imaginations while providing positive, unapologetically queer role models.

Kornstein’s first foray into drag involved a Harry Potter-themed show shortly after he graduated from Swarthmore. He’s come a long way—even appearing as a dancer with pop star Katy Perry on Saturday Night Live. Currently, he balances Drag Queen Story Hour with working on his dissertation at NYU.

His research on social media, surveillance, and big data led to more specific questions on how these issues affect the queer community—where policing has long been a concern, from bar raids to forced outings. He’s also interested in how drag provides a creative outlet to resist surveillance.

Kornstein’s goal is to bring drag into the classroom at a Swarthmore-like institution where he could work in a hybrid mode of performance and theory. Starting with story hour, though, has been fiercely rewarding.

“I have the kids repeat, ‘When I grow up, I want to be a drag queen!’” he says. “I tell them to say that whenever unsuspecting adults ask them what they want to be.

“It’s always a cute moment that plays on the unfounded fears many people have about queers converting children—and that’s exactly why I like it.”