I grew up in the 1960s and 70s, and my introduction to what was then referred to as “female impersonation” was embodied in character actor Jim Bailey.
I don’t recall which variety show Bailey was on, but he dazzled as either Judy Garland or Barbra Streisand, all dolled up in glitz and glamour. When he finished belting out one of their hits, he caught his breath and took off his wig.
My young mind was blown. Was this really a man in the guise of a woman?
I wasn’t damaged in any way. I wasn’t being groomed to become a drag performer. I asked my mother to explain what I had just seen and her response was that he was wearing a costume and makeup because it was fun to do and fun to watch.
She didn’t cast aspersions on this talented person, nor did she tell me I couldn’t watch him. She did, however, forbid my sister and I from watching “The Three Stooges” since the gratuitous violence was not what she wanted us to emulate.
Throughout my childhood, adolescence, and adulthood, I watched movies and TV shows that featured performers in gender-bending roles and clothing. Flip Wilson was the wise-cracking Geraldine, Julie Andrews in “Victor/Victoria,” Dustin Hoffman in “Tootsie,” and Robin Williams in “Mrs. Doubtfire.” “RuPaul’s Drag Race” has found fans of all gender identities and sexual orientation. The film “To Wong Fu, Thanks For Everything, Julie Newmar” showcases Patrick Swayze and Wesley Snipes in gorgeous get-ups.
A few years ago, I was honored to be present as part of the Wall of Love during the Drag Queen Story Time with Miss Annie that was held at the Lansdale Library in the Philly suburb of Lansdale, P.A. Hugs warmed hearts and bodies. It took so much dedication for us all to be there together to take a stand for love and diversity when the temps were in the low digits.
We were there to stand between the protestors and the families who were streaming into the library, and I’m grateful that it was peaceful. I had a conversation with one of the protestors who really believed they were acting out of love. They didn’t see that what they were expressing was hate rhetoric.
The man told me that his sister is an out lesbian who is married to a woman. He said he loves them and referenced “Love the sinner, hate the sin.”
I wonder how you can love someone and hate who they are at their core.
I then told him that the origin of the word “sin” is Hebrew and it means to miss the mark, like in archery. It is about do-overs. I reminded him that he could change his mind at any time. He asked me if I knew Jesus. I told him that the Jesus I know wouldn’t be carrying the kind of signs his compatriots were (one proclaimed, “Feminists support pedophilia”) and wouldn’t be shouting the things they were.
I then asked if he had ever been to the Mummer’s Parade where until maybe 30 years ago those who marched were men, some dressed like women. I asked if he had ever been to one of Shakespeare’s plays since all of the actors were once men, even the female characters. “That was a different time,” according to this man.
He then went on to say that what Miss Annie was doing was attempting to indoctrinate. I asked, toward what? Had he actually been in the library and heard what she had to say? No, but he had heard what it was about.
We parted peacefully, wishing each other well. A little while later, I did go in and watched as a group of kiddos and their parents listened with rapt attention. One little girl, when asked what a drag queen was, said it was a man or woman who dressed up in pretty costumes with wigs and makeup. Simple as that.
In my late teens, I joined friends at the Theater of Living Arts on South Street for the midnight screening of the “Rocky Horror Picture Show” more than 30 times, usually in costume, toting along props to be an audience participant. For a few hours, I immersed myself in the decadent delight of doing The Time Warp and appreciating the artistry of Tim Curry as Frank N Furter, the Sweet Transvestite From Transexual, Transylvania.
In my 20s, I was introduced to a few men who shared a house with someone I was seeing. I don’t remember what their day jobs were, but by night they were gorgeously garbed as they gracefully moved across the stage at a local club, tottering in heels that I could never stand in, let alone dance in. One day, they invited me to go shopping with them to pick out lovely items. I had such fun observing the care it took to select just the right outfits. Later, I watched them shaving, donning their wigs, and carefully putting on makeup, transforming themselves into beauteous beings.
As you read these descriptions, is there anything you find frightening, soul stealing, or damaging to children? Wasn’t there even an episode of Bugs Bunny in which he wore a wig and bright red lipstick?
In numerous states, legislators are making their venomous voices heard as laws are being passed that criminalize drag performances.
But beauty pageants are still part of world culture, and sadly, include children who have caked-on makeup and teased-up hair, strutting their stuff in provocative poses and dance moves that are highly sexualized. Have you heard of right-wing conservatives complaining about that societal “norm”?
Do they object to the scantily clad servers at Hooters or cheerleaders for NFL football teams whose skin-tight or revealing uniforms leave little to the imagination?
What is so threatening to their sensibilities about drag performers who offer their talents on stage in public venues and cafes?
Clearly, it’s based on their hatred of LGBTQ+ individuals—a hatred that’s designed to obliterate a culture that is here to provide entertainment.
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