Saturday, June 4, 2011

Drag Family Reunion

No, this post is not about me bringing my beloved better half to a Wrathall family reunion in drag, though Göran and I used to joke about that. Göran actually passed as a woman for a while, selling Avon cosmetics in Iowa. (True story!) So we used to have this hilarious fantasy in which he would come to my family reunions as "Tasha Monet," and then we would fit in with all the other heterosexual couples! Except... OK, he's black, and so we'd still be scandalizing everyone with our interracial relationship. So I guess we couldn't win! That was the joke... We've gotten plenty of laughs from it over the years.

But no, this is about a different kind of drag family reunion. To understand this, you have to know that when Göran and I first met back in 1993, he was the reigning queen of The Gay 90's, the biggest gay bar in Minneapolis (and possibly in the world -- it's a HUGE bar). Any way, he was this drag performing sensation, and I was just this nerdy grad student. (I just noticed, drag and grad have the same letters.) Göran would do these big shows, and I became his personal valet, carrying his train of bulging drag suitcases, bringing him drinks, and ordering the cabs. I was his "trophy husband." He'd show me off to the other "girls" and say, "Have you met my boyfriend John?" and then relish the gleam of envy in their eyes. Those were the days.

It was kind of cool to be allowed backstage into the inner sanctum of drag queendom. I mean, really. How many people in their lives get to enjoy the fierce and catty camaraderie that can only be experienced when drag queens don't have their wigs on yet? It definitely made me feel special to be dating a drag queen. And then, when I was sitting in the audience and "Tasha Marie Monet" came on stage, she always lip-synced the love songs to me and me alone. It was as if I was the only one in the audience. That made me feel special too. Every once in a while, I hear one of those songs and a rush of memories and emotions come back.

Anyway, that was many, many years ago. After Göran and I had been together a few years, he gradually relinquished his role as Gay Community High Priestess (that's what, in fact, drag queens are). It was a lot of work to do drag! He got tired of the late nights and the smoke-filled clubs and cleaning up the "drag bag explosions" the next day. (Yes, the house was always a frickin' mess after a drag show! Clothes, make-up, wigs everywhere!) He eventually gave it all up in exchange for the joys of full-time marital bliss. We were trying to figure out the other night when exactly he did his last drag performance. Some time in the mid-1990s.

But every once in a while, we would run into some of his old drag friends. Last summer, for instance, Reuben and Melanie, friends of ours from the Lake Nokomis Ward, took us on a 60-mile bike trip to Hudson, Wisconsin and back, and who should we run into but "Sofonda Peters," working a hot dog stand (of all things). As a boy, of course. (Sofonda is in this picture on the left.)

Anyway, Sofonda called Göran a few weeks ago and told him that as part of a benefit for the Minnesota AIDS Project, a few drag queens had decided to try to break the Guinness world record for largest drag performance. They were trying to round up every drag queen they knew in order to get them all on stage at once in a great big, lip-synced, choreographed dragstravaganza. They were calling it "Night of 100 Drag Queens." Göran agreed to participate.

And last night, it was like a great big, Drag Family Reunion. All the old queens gathered with the young queens, and they had a shindig to end all shindigs. They didn't quite make it to 100 drag queens on stage. Only 57 ultimately made it into the performance. But that was still more than enough to break the previously standing Guinness world record of 30 drag queens. That doesn't seem like much of a world record to me, but I guess it's really hard to coordinate drag queens. Like herding cats. But really super catty cats.

It was such a strange experience for me. So much has changed in my life since those old days when Göran was Miss Gay Nineties. The thing that struck me most poignantly was how lost I felt in those days when I first started tentatively exploring the gay club scene. It was disorienting. Everything in that scene was so completely at odds with everything I'd been brought up with in a tight-knit, devout Mormon family and community. It was as if I'd been scooped up by space aliens and dropped on a different planet. Everything was simultaneously exciting and amazing and... Also a betrayal of everything I thought I'd been raised to believe in. It felt quite lonely... Last night I heard Sofonda reminiscing about those days, and her recollections of me confirmed my remembrance of myself. I was out of place, odd, vulnerable.

But last night I was not lost. I was surveying my past lostness from the vantage point of one who is found again. And I was aware of the rampant lostness sprawled out there all around me. It's not, I realized, a moral thing. It's not the casual attitude toward sex, the boys walking around in their undies, the alcohol, the rampant materialism. Those are all just symptoms. What it is, is a knowledge thing. It's the not being quite sure who you are, or what your purpose is in life, or where you are going. It's looking at the material surface of things, and mistaking it for the spiritual heart of things. It's being disconnected from family, from faith. (Partly because so many of us have been excommunicated from all those things!)

I also realized, however, that of all the things the gay community has going for it, it is the drag queens. They are not part of the problem of lostness, they are part of the solution. If there is a force for moral redemption that is native to the gay community, it is them.

After the event was over, I borrowed a friend's car and chauffeured a few of them home. (I was back to being the drag queen's valet again!) They were all drunk as skunks. (Good thing their valet was a practicing Mormon, to get them home safe.) They were reminiscing about the old days, and remembering some of the queens who aren't with us any more. I was actually weeping last night, remembering "Andrea Muffy St. Clair," who passed away from AIDS-related complications a few years ago. I was listening to them talk. And laughing, because you can't be around drag queens and listen to them talk and not laugh. It's one of their saintlier qualities. And I was aware of this deep, deep, profound love. These old queens had a bond and a love and a respect for each other that is quite unique. I guess that's why the worst sin in the drag queen code is a lack of respect.

And I also realized that they are self- conscious guardians of a much larger code. A code that includes morals like: Know thyself. Love thyself. Stand tall, no matter what anybody says about you. Be fabulous. And don't be afraid.

12 comments:

Bravone said...

And Goran does look fabulous! (how do you get the two dots over the O?)

Holly said...

I LOVE THIS POST.

My best friend was also a professional drag queen in the 90s. I always felt special to hang out with Helena and watch her get ready (though mightily grateful I didn't have to deal with all that she did), and I LOVED watched her perform. I was shocked and horrified when my friend "killed" Helena, though I understood why: he got tired of spending more time and money on a stage creation than on his own his life, however difficult and disappointing that life might be.

(I just noticed, drag and grad have the same letters.)

that is exactly the sort of silly coincidence I notice and delight in. :-)

And I was aware of the rampant lostness sprawled out there all around me. It's not, I realized, a moral thing. It's not the casual attitude toward sex, the boys walking around in their undies, the alcohol, the rampant materialism. Those are all just symptoms. What it is, is a knowledge thing. It's the not being quite sure who you are, or what your purpose is in life, or where you are going. It's looking at the material surface of things, and mistaking it for the spiritual heart of things. It's being disconnected from family, from faith. (Partly because so many of us have been excommunicated from all those things!)

this is a wise and useful insight.

I also realized, however, that of all the things the gay community has going for it, it is the drag queens. They are not part of the problem of lostness, they are part of the solution.

I agree with this. Even if many drag queens move on from it, you can see how it works as a "fierce" claiming of self and the right to expression.

And can I add that Goran looks amazing--I can only imagine how gorgeous his persona was in her heyday!

MoHoHawaii said...

Beautiful.

Anonymous said...

I'm sure Goran would say that it wasn't THAT many years ago! Give a girl some wriggle room!
Lovely post, John. I'm especially attuned to calls to bravery and boldness these days--I really need to be reminded that even when it feels as though all the world is against you, you still have the choice to slash on that lipstick, slip into those heels,and go kick some ass. love, Peggy

Mary H said...

Great post John. I think Goran is so beautiful inside and out and love seeing drag Queen pictures. What a fox!! Oh and you're beautiful too!

calibosmom said...

Love it! "Be fabulous and don't be afraid!" My new motto!

J G-W said...

Bravone and Holly - He did look great! It's funny... He was comparing the pictures from this latest drag adventure to some pictures from when he was much younger, and was commenting how he looks more "matronly" now. Then he said, "I think I'm OK with that." Nothing like aging gracefully!

Bravone - If you have a PC, not sure how you make the "ö." On a Mac, you just hold down the "option" key, type u, let go the "option" key and type o.

Holly - Thanks for the story about your friend...

I'm sure a lot of queens let go of the drag eventually. Cost is certainly an issue too... It was probably also a factor in Göran's letting it go. (He did a great job staging this one night comeback on a decent budget. Two words: Nordstrom's Rack.) He's told me some stories of how drag also drove some queens to a life of crime...!!

But you're also right, whether you make drag a lifelong career or not (or whether you do it at all), it has a symbolic power in the community... There's no denying it. I don't mean to overdraw this analogy, but it is almost a kind of priesthood...

J G-W said...

Mohohawaii - I thought you would enjoy this!

Peggy - You are the HERO of this evening! (For those of you haven't followed the events of the evening on Facebook, our rental car broke down, and Peggy dropped everything to help us get Göran to the church on time... Also, it was her borrowed car that got Sofonda and Laticia and Tasha home safely afterward!)

Any time you need an injection of boldness, you come right on over. We'll fix you some hot tea, give you some words of encouragement and a foot massage, and maybe watch an episode or two of Buffy the Vampire Slayer!!!

J G-W said...

Hey Mary! Are you trying to coax out my inner drag queen??

Hidden away in some album somewhere is a picture of me in my one incarnation as a "real" looking "Karen." Maybe someday if you're REALLY good I'll let you take a peek.

Calibosmom - Definitely words to live by!

afunnyguy said...

WOW! I happened across this whilst looking for pictures on another item. Imagine my surprise! My name is Iain St James and I was the organizer for this event. You have some amazing pictures and would love to see more if you have them available. yes it was quite a night and one I hope to agin try and get the elusive 100 Drag Performers. Thank you so much for attending, it truly is more difficult than one can imagine. It was wonderful to be able to honor so many of the older generations and see them interact and pass on to the younger generation. Thank you for this lovely post.

J G-W said...

Hey Iain!

It was a fantastic event. Thanks for organizing it.

I may have a few more pictures, but the ones I posted on my blog are the best of the ones I took. Göran might have a few pictures to.

If you want me to email them to you, send me an email through the address I have listed for my blog! Then I'll have your address and can send you what I have.

Anonymous said...

And they wonder why the USA is going the way of Sodom and Gomorrah!!!