When Vivica C. Coxx took the stage in a huge blonde wig while wearing an iridescent green, pink and gold dress with a black sequin to perform “Big, Blonde and Beautiful” from “Hairspray,” the middle school students in the auditorium paused.
Then they went wild.
“There were just factions of students who were like ‘Yaaaaassss’ and I just felt so magical,” Coxx, 35, a drag performer in Durham, North Carolina, told TODAY Parents. “Every time we came out with a new look they just lost their minds.”
Coxx and Stormie Daie are two drag performers who participated in Durham’s Central Park School of Children’s (CPSC) Pride and Liberation Event. Prior to the May 13 assembly, teachers had been noticing that LGBTQ students experienced more bullying and that they felt excluded.
“We were seeing data that our LGBTQ students were experiencing direct and indirect bullying,” Taylor Schmidt, an eighth grade social studies teacher at CPSC and an event organizer, told TODAY. “More still needed to be done.”
Schmidt and his colleague, Schara Brooks, an eighth grade science teacher, knew that introducing more LGBTQ pioneers into the curriculum and talking about the problems of bullying would help. But they wanted to do something that really made a statement. And, they knew that the drag performers from the locally-renowned House of Coxx would deliver.
“I was like ‘Heck yeah! We have to do this,’” Brooks told TODAY. “It was a really cool way of getting the information out there. Every time that Vivica and Stormie spoke, the students were enamored.”
The event featured drag and step team performances sprinkled between education info about LGBTQ history and identity and bullying for fifth through eighth grade students (while kindergarten through fourth grade students had drag queen reading hour with Daie). Local leaders, including Vernetta Alston, an openly gay city council person, and, Helena Cragg, the executive director of the LGBTQ Center of Durham, also spoke.
“I’ve heard a lot of positive things,” Brooks said.
Schmidt already noticed more students defending their LGBTQ peers or coming out of the closet.
“Kids who haven’t had a voice … feel safe to speak up,” he said. “The school has been lifted all week. It has felt like a different vibe.”
Throughout the school year, teachers had been incorporating important LGBTQ figures — such as Alan Turing, Marsha P. Johnson, James Baldwin and Sally Ride — into lessons. For the event, Schmidt and Brooks worked closely with Coxx, who had recently expanded her drag show to include a family-friendly version. They knew they wanted the drag queens to perform songs that stress empowering themes, such as “American Pie” by trans singer Shea Diamond.
“It is about being treated like a human and being happy,” Coxx said. “They wanted something with weight and reverence to talk about LGBT struggles.”
But the drag queens also preformed to upbeat pop songs, too, because “they’re kids. Let them have some fun,” said Coxx.
Brooks, who is also the step team coach, helped the team come up with a performance about the problems with bullying LGBTQ people. Parents received a letter prior to the event and if they felt uncomfortable they could keep their children home from school. But most families welcomed it.
“The world is full of so many different kinds of people and I think they all deserve respect. If that is the only lesson my daughter takes away from middle school, I consider it a success,” Daniel Niblock, 45, a video producer and dad to 13-year-old Layla, told TODAY. “If one bully left that show and decided to be a kinder person it was worth it.”
Niblock heard about the assembly when Layla mentioned in an off-handed way. He welcomed the school’s approach to tackling difficult concepts.
“Watching a few drag queens preform and speak about their personal journeys isn’t going to change any student’s sexual orientation but I think it could help some at-risk students realize they are valuable,” he said.