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As drag events face threats, Philly sets record for most attended story time

The Philadelphia Gay News on June 1 hosted an event that had the largest attendance at a drag story time reading, according to Guinness World Records.  (Stephanie Ramones/Visit Philadelphia)
By Praveena Somasundaram Washington Post

Philadelphia leaders were on a mission to attract a record-setting number of guests to a drag event kicking off Pride Month, but safety concerns left them wary of promoting the event they hoped would make history.

Federal officials last month warned of terrorists possibly targeting LGBTQ+ events. Stores, gyms and restaurants have faced bomb threats over Pride merchandise, inclusive policies or drag events. So on Friday, just one day before the drag story time in Philadelphia, organizers finally made the event public, describing their goal to set a record.

“Kids and kids at heart will enjoy stories read by Philly’s most famous queens,” the event posting read.

On June 1, they met their goal.

Philadelphia claimed the first title for the largest attendance at a drag queen story time reading, Guinness World Records confirmed to the Washington Post.

“It was amazing to see that the community came out on literally such short notice, that they wanted to support this effort,” said Mark Segal, publisher of the Philadelphia Gay News.

The LGBTQ+ publication received the title for hosting the event, which brought together 263 people to hear five drag queens read stories. Segal said the story time was a chance to bring visibility to drag events, which some conservative politicians have sought to ban, claiming the events are inappropriate for children. Legislators have also introduced hundreds of bills targeting transgender rights, and more than a dozen states last year attempted to restrict drag shows.

“That says to me, they want to put us back in the closet,” said Segal, a prominent LGBTQ+ activist who participated in the 1969 Stonewall riots following a police raid at a gay bar in New York City, which marked an inflection point in the gay rights movement at the time.

“Our best tool for equality is visibility,” Segal added.

First lady Jill Biden said during a stop at a Pittsburgh Pride event on June 1 that legislation targeting LGBTQ+ rights serves “only one purpose: to spread hate and fear,” the Pennsylvania Capital-Star reported.

In Philadelphia, as hundreds gathered at the city’s National Constitution Center for the story time, Neil Frauenglass watched closely as a Guinness World Records official counted attendees’ red tickets. Guests included allies, activists and families with small children.

Minutes passed before the official looked up at Frauenglass and nodded.

“I knew that we got it,” said Frauenglass, chief marketing officer of Visit Philadelphia, a tourism agency that sponsored the event.

The record attempt was a large-scale version of a drag story time that Visit Philadelphia hosted last June in front of Independence Hall, where two drag queens read books to about 12 people.

This year, Frauenglass had a different idea.

“We thought, we need to go big,” he said.

He contacted Guinness World Records and learned that there was no existing title for the most attended drag queen story time. To set the first record, Guinness said they would need at least 250 attendees, Frauenglass said.

Guinness agreed to send an adjudicator to count attendees at the event, which Segal and Philadelphia Gay News would host. The last step was to invite the public to attend.

“Let’s get loud & proud,” read the online event page, which went live on Friday. It invited those in Philadelphia to “make history once again” after the Constitution and Declaration of Independence were famously signed in the city.

“We also wanted to tell the world that we’re a fun and inclusive city,” Segal said. “That’s what drove me.”

Even with just 24-hour notice, hundreds signed up to attend, he said.

Segal and the other attendees piled into the National Constitution Center, where a display of rainbow balloons was set up against a wall bearing the text of the First Amendment. Rainbow-striped mats lined the floor in front of the stage where attendees could sit.

The Guinness official began counting tickets around 9:30 a.m. Per the guidelines, all guests had to stay in the event space while the drag queens started their readings. Segal and Frauenglass waited, watching in anticipation during the 10 minutes as the official counted the tickets.

They counted along in their heads and knew it would be a close call.

As the tally continued, Ian Morrison, a drag queen who has performed under the name Brittany Lynn for nearly 10 years, read “Hello, Philadelphia!” – a children’s book on the sights and history of the city.

Morrison and the four other drag queens who performed didn’t realize they were reading to 263 attendees, surpassing the number needed for the record, until just before the official announcement. He said he hopes it will lead others to see Philadelphia’s event as a model for being “open and welcoming.”

“We are the founding city,” Morrison said, adding: “And if we do it, everybody else should take note of that.”