Lil had been battling cancer and was put in hospice care in June. While she lived a public life onstage, friends say she wanted to keep her health issues private.
Lil was born in Savannah, Georgia on December 28, 1935. As a young child, she sang on Savannah radio, and she dressed in drag for the first time when she was five years old. She performed publicly for the first time in drag at age 18, doing the song “Three Letters” by Ruth Brown.
Lil gained fame early for regaling the sailors docked at the Savannah port by singing and dancing on the ships in the harbor, where the sailors would pick her up and throw her in the air, according to Atlanta LGBT historian Dave Hayward. However, she experienced a great deal of harassment as well for being gender nonconforming in the 1950s South. Not only was she discharged from the National Guard, she was also arrested on numerous occasions for what she wore.
From the Savannah port into Atlanta’s heart
Lil came into Atlanta’s life after a move in the early 1960s and proceeded to perform in the gay bars of the time, including Mrs. P’s on Ponce de Leon Avenue and Chuck’s Rathskellar and Rose Room on Monroe Drive. She was called the “Queen of the Jukeboxes” as she was featured on jukeboxes around the Southeast—unique among female impersonators as she often performed in her own voice and composed her own songs. She was a major influence on the performers that rose up in her wake, including Jayne County (who attributed her performing career to Diamond), and was also a clear influence on drag stars like RuPaul and Lady Bunny, who both started in Atlanta.
While not a political activist, she generously performed benefits for the Georgia Gay Liberation Front. The entertainer also performed at other benefits over the years, including for the Committee on Gay Education at the University of Georgia in 1972, when she sang “Stand By Your Man.” Hayward tells Georgia Voice that UGA officials did all they could to throw the COGE off campus, but that Lil’s notoriety and the standing-room only crowd helped ensure that the group had the financial backing and the high public profile necessary to keep it going.
Rather poignantly, when asked by Georgia Voice last year what she had learned about herself as a performer over the years, she replied, “There comes a time when it’s time to hang up your skirts.” There are no confirmed details on a memorial as of yet.
Here’s a clip of Diamond Lil singing “Queen of the Dunk ‘n Dine Grill.”