When I was 20, I married a woman. Five years later, we divorced, and I began exploring Atlanta’s gay drag scene. I was totally intrigued with the Sweet Gum Head, located on Cheshire Bridge. After I became editor of the Atlanta Gazette, an alternative (not gay) weekly newspaper, I decided to write a cover story about drag in the city and I focused on Lavita Allen, a Sweet Gum cast member.
Lavita was the son of a wealthy Atlanta family and somehow was still in the closet with them. I loved her performances. She was a lip-syncing comedian who now and then performed country-western tunes. We became friends. After the club closed, we’d go across the street to the Dunk ‘n Dine. The place was crazy – filled with drag queens and late night, drunk party boys. As far as I know, there’s no similar scene in Atlanta now. Scrambled eggs at dawn were a decent hangover cure – especially when someone throws them in your face, as happened to us one night.
My greatest moment in a restaurant with a drag queen occurred 20-plus years ago. I was a huge fan of DeAundra Peek, the totally lunatic drag queen on public-access TV’s “American Music Show.” I thought it would be fun to take the clownishly made-up DeAundra, nee Rosser Shymanski, to dinner at Partners Restaurant (R.I.P.), for a column. My naïve thought was that the mainstream diners would get a kick out of her. Nope. People looked horrified. Even Alix Kenagy, my longtime friend who owned the restaurant, was totally disoriented. She didn’t know what to say. In fact, she later asked me something I’ve never forgotten: “Do you think it’s best for you to be openly gay in your column?” Hell yes.
Another edible interaction occurred well before that when I hosted a party for staff members of the Gazette. One of my neighbors was the super-corpulent Mickey Day. She arrived with her skinny young boyfriend. I started passing around a plate of hors d’oeuvres. My partner had decorated the plate with a few flowers, including a thick chunk of a just-blooming gladiolus. Mickey grabbed the gladiolous, popped it in her mouth, and said, “Tasty.”
Perhaps my favorite food-related incident occurred when I took Lisa King, another Sweet Gum performer, to my parents’ huge anniversary party. We spent most of the time standing over a table and eating my mother’s favorite shrimp dish. The next day, my mother called me. “I can’t believe you did that.” Huh? “You know, I’m no racist but you really should not be bringing black girlfriends to our parties.” She didn’t get that Lisa wasn’t a woman.
One of the saddest experiences was with Diamond Lil, one of the first drag queens to bring the art to Atlanta. She was totally camp and actually performed songs she’d written with her own voice. Four years ago, I started attending the Atlanta Death Café, a monthly event at Oakland Cemetery. It was not hospice therapy; it was a discussion group, replete with endless pastries and fruit, devoted to exploring the subject of death. Every time I went, I ran into Lil, usually sitting at a table alone. We had known one another for years and she was not looking her best. I never asked what brought her there, but less than two years later, she died of cancer.
Finally, I’ll mention the incomparable Violet Chachki, a “Drag Race” winner. I saw her ordering food at La Fonda on Ponce not long ago. It was kinda like seeing Beyoncé at Burger King. I wondered how her tiny waist could manage more than a single grain of rice.