There’s a problem with drag queens. Before I explain that, let me explain me.
When I was five—in the ’50s—my mother took me to a psychologist in downtown Charlotte. I remember playing in a sandbox where I promptly buried the mommy and daddy dolls. Looking down the hall into another room, I saw my mother standing in front of the doctor’s desk. With one hand touching her chest, she wailed in her heavy Southern accent, “Do you mean my little boy’s going to grow up to be a fay-yy-ry?”
After that trauma, my mother took it upon herself to man-up the five-year-old me. She put me in a gym to take tumbling lessons. By the time I was 12, she had me lifting weights in the attic, as if I were producing enough testosterone for it to matter. She made me protein shakes. I had a tanning lamp. I had a military haircut. In other words, in her futile pursuit to make me musc and masc, she prepared me perfectly for eventual life as a homosexual. Meanwhile, I remained in the closet and, at the age of 20—giving up a Yale fellowship—I got married. I dragged my wife to rural Georgia, where I edited weekly newspapers. All of this was to hide within a fantasy of normality that lasted less than five years.
After divorce, my penis more and more steadfastly refused to point where my mother wanted it to. One night, I went to Hollywood Hots on Cheshire Bridge Road. Soon after I arrived at the nightclub, this outrageous, punkish queen came out of the shadows. Her name was Lily White. She and her two friends, the Grease Sisters, lip-synced “Summertime Blues” by the Flying Lizards. I’ve told this story many times, but I basically woke up during their performance. I realized that being gay—being an outlaw—was going to be a fabulous adventure.
Now, back to my first sentence here. Drag queens have always been a problem. As the first to hurl rocks at Stonewall, they were the ultimate outlaws of that time. Their success as performers depended on sabotaging norms. Because of that, many gay men marginalized them as embarrassing stereotypes who stalled the path to full acceptance. Whatever. I didn’t get awakened by a drag queen at 25 to turn my vestigial fear and self-loathing back on my liberator.
This attitude persisted among many for years. Every gay pride, queens (and boys in leather) were reviled by the masters of masc. When AIDS arrived, it was drag queens like the Armorettes who raised money and took the edge off our suffering with their campy, black humor. Ultimately, RuPaul, who lived on Juniper Street, emerged as a drag queen who has turned the very thing that so many insecure gay men regarded as shameful into a global metaphor for exactly what Lily White revealed (more creatively) to me in the late ’70s: Cultivating eccentricity, not hiding it, is our real task.
Drag’s phenomenal popularity does make me wonder whether the normalization of something radical disempowers it. About 35 years ago, I left a Halloween party with a painted, bearded face in a torn black slip, a jock strap, a purple wig, and Doc Martens. I had a flat tire on Ponce. The homeless circled the car like moths. Two cop cars pulled up behind me, their blue lights swirling. One cop got out of his car, looked in my window, and froze. I’d done nothing illegal. Feeling full-on Lily White and ready to go psycho, I looked at him and said, “Don’t.” He got back in his car, waved at the other car, and both drove away. Several of the homeless applauded. I wonder: would that happen today?
You can find Lily White, who is in nursing home care, on Facebook. She has two pages, Lily White and Lily White II.