Alex Saunders loves doing drag storytime for kids and has no plans to stop, even after being the target of online hate.
Saunders, a Saint John drag king whose stage name is Justin Toodeep and Justin 2D for kids events, has been a drag performer for 12 years.
They've also been a dedicated volunteer with the YMCA and the Salvation Army, as well as spending the past five years reading books and making crafts with kids through the public library with drag storytime.
"Doing drag is about first and foremost giving back to your community," they said.
The past week, though, Saunders experienced something they say they've been through before.
They've been receiving hate messages, some even threatening their life, after Saint John People's Party of Canada candidate Nicholas Pereira made an online post about a drag storytime event.
Saunders was part of that event last weekend through the Saint John Free Public Library in Market Square.
Pereira paired the event's information with an unrelated image of a young person tipping a burlesque dancer by putting money in their underwear, spreading misinformation about what drag story time is all about.
He has since deleted the post, but not before it reached hundreds, causing both strangers and people Saunders knows to attack them online.
"I haven't been letting it get me down too much," Saunders said. "But it makes me feel very unsafe in my own community."
No plans to stop
Although they fear for their personal safety, Saunders has no intention of stepping back from drag performances, including events for kids.
Support from the community has kept pace with the hatred they've been experiencing, they said, and they plan to keep going and perform at more Pride celebrations in Saint John in August.
"The outpouring of love from my own community, and from supporters and allies has been unreal, absolutely unreal."
The library said it has hosted four drag storytime events, intended to celebrate diversity during Pride Month, and people have been "very supportive."
"Activities such as this are a healthy part of a child's development as they develop an understanding of and respect for differences, while feeling free to explore identities," head librarian Laura Corscadden said in an email.
"Programs such as this have been offered successfully over the past several years in many other public libraries in other jurisdictions around North America."
Saunders said they want to be part of events for kids because kids don't have very many queer role models.
"They see me out there, being my weird self and living my best life. And, you know, they fall in love with that," Saunders said.
Saunders said because they have a charisma kids are drawn toward, the least they can do for the community is read to children and show them there are different kinds of people in the world.
"People need to know that they're not alone. And that's what I like about drag story time. Plus, how cool is it to read stories to kids, make them happy and give them cookies?"
What happens at drag storytime?
Blair Richardson and her family moved to New Brunswick from Toronto a year and a half ago.
Richardson, who has a young daughter nicknamed Mouse, said her family was always connected with the queer community in Toronto, going to events like drag storytime and drag brunches.
"I think a lot of youth need to not only hear it if they are part of that community, or will eventually be, but also the kids that will just grow up to be straight," said Richardson, a supporter of the drag storytime series in Saint John.
"It's important that they hear the regularity of the stories that are presented here, the inclusion, the messages of love."
While she's noticed a difference in how many queer-friendly places are available in Saint John — there are no gay bars, for example — she said attending events like drag story time has helped her family find friends when they didn't know anybody in the city.
She even worked with the library to expand storytime events beyond just Pride week in August.
Richardson said the drag storytime events themselves are always full of colour and costume — all outfits are appropriate for kids, she added.
Her daughter also loves books and reading.
"It really combines a lot of the passions that a five year old should have, which are, you know, stage and entertainment and literacy."
The stories the drag kings and drag queens read to kids usually focus on themes of acceptance and being yourself — Richardson pointed to a recent story by Michael Hall called Red: A Crayon's Story about a blue crayon inside a red wrapper that goes on a journey to find its true colours.
On top of reading stories, kids get to do crafts and have a snack at drag story time.
"It's just a really beautiful event for kids to be a part of," Richardson said.
Her daughter, who looks forward to drag storytime "more so than anything else in life," is even trying out drag for the first time later this summer.
"Mouse just wants to be just like Alex, in kind of every aspect of life, and really looks up to them."