Published on June 18th, 2019 | by Rachel Aimee0
Therz So Many Ways to Be: An Interview with Mor Erlich, Creator of SEZ ME and THE DRAGTIVITY BOOK
I first heard about Sez Me when a school librarian told me she’d been using the LGBTQ+ web series to introduce the kindergarteners at her school to the concept of drag in preparation for Drag Queen Story Hour’s visit in the fall of 2017. At the time, we were just beginning to do DQSH events in schools and we didn’t yet have answers to questions from teachers about how to prepare both kids and parents for having a drag queen visit their school to read picture books. As an organization, we were still figuring out how to talk about drag, gender, and identity with kids in a way that was both inclusive and easy for kids to understand. So when I watched Sez Me’s “Drag Special,” I felt like I’d been given a gift.
A few months later I met Mor Erlich, the creator of Sez Me, at the Gender and Family Project’s holiday party and we immediately knew we wanted to work together. We were both creating children’s programming hosted by drag queens, and we both regularly got asked the same kinds of questions—How do I explain drag to my five-year-old? What pronouns should I use for the drag queen? What if my child has questions that I don’t know how to answer? Mor suggested we collaborate on an activity book to help kids and adults explore drag, gender, and identity together, and within a month he had written and illustrated the whole book. We self-published the first edition of The Dragtivity Book in time for Pride 2018.
In the twenty-page coloring and activity book, Hello Mellow, the animated egg-like host of Sez Me, gets into drag as Sonya Side Up, giving kids an inside look at what it means to be a drag queen. Starting out with the question, “What is a drag queen?” and offering a few suggestions based on things actual kids have said at DQSH events—“a cross between a dragon and a queen?”—Hello Mellow goes on to define drag as “a character you create to express your feminine side, or any other side of yourself you would like to explore” and invites kids to “decorate this female symbol to celebrate your favorite female role models.” Through simple activities such as “circle your pronouns” and “find your drag name,” The Dragtivity Book introduces kids to gender identity and gender fluidity in a way that is easy for them—and the adults in their lives—to grasp. Drag queens themselves love the book because it is so real about drag: “My room gets very messy when I get into drag. It’s time to clean up!”
The Dragtivity Book is now a regular feature at DQSH events in NYC and across the country (and DQSH organizers overseas have approached us about translating it into German, Hebrew, Japanese, and Swedish!) and we recently developed Dragtivity Time with DQSH and Sez Me, a workshop for kids and teens in which Mor and a drag queen from DQSH present The Dragtivity Book and explore the book’s themes together. After seeing Mor lead these workshops, I was in awe of the way he connects with kids and teens, bringing in his own story as an openly trans artist and responding to their questions with a calm openness that makes everyone in the room feel validated and affirmed. I wanted more people to know about his story and the origins of Sez Me.
What was the inspiration for Sez Me? Why did you decide to create a web series for kids?
When I was transitioning I had a young friend who was seven at the time who was very curious about what was going on with me and the changes I was going through and curious about my pronouns. He kept asking me a question that a lot of people were asking me, which was “What are you going to be? Are you going to be a boy? Are you going to be a girl? Are you going to be a man? Are you going to be a woman?” And I didn’t know what to say because I didn’t go through the journey yet, so you don’t really know until you’re there.
But the questions were in the binary and it really occurred to me that people were not aware of gender fluidity and all the other options on the spectrum that you can be. So I thought about how to express that and not make it about myself. Then I thought it would be great to have a variety show for kids that is talking about these things and exploring gender stuff. And because Duy was seven he didn’t even know about his own identity and the proper name for parts, or what girls have or what boys have, and I couldn’t be the person giving him this information. That was a job for a parent. So I thought, what I could do is let him know about how there are so many ways to be. More than two.
Why did you decide to have drag queens hosting Sez Me?
Drag queens experiment with gender and gender presentation and I felt like that was a fluid way to talk about gender without clocking anyone on their personal private life, whatever their identity is. It’s very sensitive to mention somebody’s identity as trans. You have to wait for them to come out as trans, you can’t just out someone. But someone in drag is still one person that is presenting another character, so for a child to see that it brings up a lot of questions and they can explore it. So I figured I’ll take my seven-year-old friend and put them in front of a gender fluid person and see if they get it, if they can understand gender fluidity.
Sez Me is so different from normal kids’ TV because it’s not scripted. How do kids respond to seeing kids just being regular kids?
They absolutely love it and most kids instantly conclude that they have to be in it! The one harsh criticism I got from kids is that the Drag Special is very informative but it doesn’t have a kid or Hello Mellow in it, and the kids were MAD about that. They love having a kid or a teenager in there for mentorship.
To me, the thing that is magical about Sez Me is that it speaks to kids in their own language. They don’t feel like adults are trying to teach them a lesson, but while they’re watching it they’re learning a ton about LGBTQ experiences and culture. They just don’t realize they’re learning because it’s so much fun to watch.
Really the experience of Sez Me that is different from usual is that most people talk about LGBTQ+ issues and the challenges of being an LGBTQ+ person, and young people could get the idea from it that being LGBTQ+ is a dark experience, like that it’s always bad. And really being LGBTQ+ is awesome, so we talk about LGBTQ+ topics, not issues, and we capture a variety show that is colorful and innocent and pure and for all ages and completely safe and it presents a very positive experience of LGBTQ+ people.
One time, Davon [aka Miz Jade, one of the drag queens on the show] brought his five-year-old nephew over to my apartment and we showed him the first episode of Sez Me. His nephew was raised in church and he didn’t know that Davon does drag. He was commenting out loud, like “What is it, a boy? A boy can’t wear a dress.” So he was conflicted but he wanted to keep watching and he thought it was really funny. And he would say things like “Oh, but you can’t be gay. Gay’s not good.” But he kept asking to watch more and more, and then at the end he said, “I wanna see more of it.” And we said “That’s it. That’s all we have for now.” Then he goes, “So I would need to be on it.” So Davon said, “If you want to be on it you have to talk with a drag queen,” and he goes, “That’s cool.” This kid that forty-five minutes ago had a real issue with drag queens and a boy wearing a dress, because he heard some things in church—forty-five minutes later this kid is ready to be on screen with a drag queen. So then Davon pulled out his phone and showed him pictures of himself in drag and actually kind of came out to him, and he was totally chill about it. That was the point where I knew that, time and time again, it’s a tool that doesn’t fail.
After we met and started talking about collaborating, you came up with the idea to do an activity book about drag right away. I think it was the next time we talked.
Well the book sums up basically seven years of research around gender for kids that we’ve done on Sez Me, so I couldn’t have done it that quickly if it didn’t write itself. A lot of the things in it are quotes from the episodes or from the Drag Special.
The idea for making the Drag Special [to explain drag to kids and families] came out of when Ronnie was the guest of episode six. Ronnie’s mom, Vanessa, said “Just because we have LGBT kids doesn’t make us specialists on LGBT stuff. For example, I completely don’t understand drag, and as far as I know it puts my daughter in danger as a transgender girl.” So there was this tension of like, “Is drag going to make our daughter confused with drag queens?” That’s why we created the Drag Special and even published it before the sixth episode, because I thought, “How did I not start with that? I have a drag queen host.”
What are your plans and hopes and dreams for the future of Sez Me and the Dragtivity Book?
I can see The Dragtivity Book becoming a series of activity books. Drag is rich and there is much more to explore! And kids love it.
For Sez Me, I want to make more unique content and feature more points of view and queer talent. It would be fantastic to find private funding for the project. I’d also love to tour the Midwest and South with my gender fluidity workshops.
Overall my biggest hope is that the content I am putting out there, Sez Me and The Dragtivity Book, will help kids, guardians, and educators create a safe space and a safer future for the queers, GNC, and LGBTQ+ people in their lives. Or anyone who may feel alienated. I hope we as a society can rise above labels and celebrate the joy of just being yourself, a human, LGBTQ+ or not.
The Dragtivity Book is available on the Drag Queen Story Hour website. All proceeds go directly to Sez Me and DQSH NYC. Reach out to Mor at Sez Me to book a gender fluidity workshop for your school, library, or community space.