Drag Has Always Been in My Life

‘With all the glitz and glamor I was subjected to growing up, you’d think it would have unwillingly forced me to become a drag queen.’

I was just a kid when one of my cousins took me to see John Water’s film Pink Flamingos at the Nuart Theater in Los Angeles. We smoked a joint before going into the theater, and while we were waiting for the movie to start, I swear I saw a raccoon cross the stage. Then, when the lights went down and the film began to play, I was utterly mesmerized by the screen presence of the incomparable drag queen, Divine. In the scene when the reporter asks her character Babs Johnson if she could give him some of her political beliefs –– her response “Kill everyone now! Condone first-degree murder! Advocate cannibalism! Eat shit! Filth are my politics; filth is my life!” still brings me joy.

Drag queens reading children’s books at the San Francisco Public Library

But that wasn’t my first introduction to drag. Instead, it was being broadcast nationally on the family T.V. in the form of Geraldine Jones, a character portrayed by comedian Flip Wilson, who made “the devil made me buy this dress,” a line I often mutter to this day. So the screen lit up for me when Geraldine would swagger on set wearing dresses designed by Emilio Pucci. I still have the vinyl album “Geraldine – Don’t Fight the Feeling,” which says a lot about me doing drag.

I also saw the incredible singer and female impersonator Jim Bailey on various variety shows, entertaining us as Judy Garland, Barbara Streisand, Phyllis Diller, and so many more. Again, I was just awe-struck by his spot-on looks and impersonations. But as a still-in-the-closet kid, I was secretly thrilled to see such blatant gayness nonchalantly displayed.

Divine, Flip Wilson as Geraldine Jones and Jim Bailey as Judy Garland

My love for Divine continued in high school as I escaped my family’s East Bay home one evening to see her live at the Alcazar Theater on Geary Street in San Francisco, starring in the play The Neon Woman. After the show, I waited by the stage door in hopes of meeting her. Instead, when the show’s cast came out excitedly, Divine looked at me, turned to one of the other actors, and said, “how old is this child?”. I was speechless as I gazed at the colorful cast staring down at me. The voice inside me begged them to take me away forever. 

Leaving the theater, I purchased a copy of the play’s poster featuring Divine in a zebra dress with a whip in her hand. And I hung it proudly on my bedroom wall once I got home.

The Neon Woman staring Divine (aka Glen Milstead), Alcazar Theater, San Francisco, California

Gender fluidity was also in the music I heard at home, whether on the family record player, the radio and eventually, the sounds coming out of the bars and nightclubs—the fake I.D. I used, at the time, read that I was 6’1″, which surprisingly worked. Whether they were out or not, my gaydar was in full effect listening to and watching artists like Little Richard, Janis Joplin, Johnny Mathis, Barry Manilow, Billy Preston, Sylvester, Village People, Grace Jones, Freddie Mercury, Elton John, David Bowie, George Michael, Boy George, Holly Johnson of Franki Goes to Hollywood, The B-52’s, Queen Latifah, and K.D. Lang and so many more.

Drag has always been a part of my life. I was always a little too excited to attend the funerals on my dad’s side of the family. But, as I look back now –– it was a big old drag show to little me. My father’s aunts would pull up dressed to the nines in barrel-curl updo hairstyles, furs, cat-eye glasses, and stiletto heels in their new Cadillacs and Lincoln Continentals. To this day, they were and still are my inner drag inspiration.

With all the glitz and glamor I was subjected to growing up, you’d think it would have unwillingly forced me to become a drag queen. But it didn’t. I had no interest or desire to do drag as a young brown queer boy navigating white gay territory. It wasn’t until years later, when I jokingly asked my friend Mr. David to put me up in her for Halloween, that I truly fell in love. It was the early 90s, and the AIDS epidemic had buried the community in darkness and death. However, drag made me feel alive again — allowing me to find new creativity and express a different side of my artistic self. Thirty years later and a lifetime of drag influences, I still look pretty.

Juanita first time in drag at The Cafe on Market Street, San Francisco, 1992

Now, my biological sister and brother are proud of what I do. My brother has been part of my annual Pride event team for years. He graciously greets my friends by name. On the other hand, my sister has taken a particular interest in my jewelry collection, earmarking pieces to collect upon my exit from this mess of a world.

My parents, both gone, had different views about me doing drag. I came out to them when I was 17 years old. There was no big todo about it; they accepted and loved me. Years later, I showed them a portrait I had taken while starting to hit my drag stride. Upon first glance, my dad laughed and said, “you look like my cousin Delight.” I took that as a big compliment, as I adored her, especially when she’d show up to family events decked out in furs and with her hair to the goddesses.

As my mom looked at the photo, I could see she disapproved. Her face, like mine, didn’t hide what she was truly feeling. I put the picture away and promised her she’d never see me in drag again. And she didn’t, even though that didn’t stop me from doing it. The next day she called to tell me she loved me and asked if my hairstylist boyfriend could do her hair that weekend. Which he, of course, happily did the entire time we dated. It didn’t bother me that she didn’t like seeing me in drag. I loved her, and she loved me, and that’s all that mattered.

My brother and sister celebrating my 30th year of drag at the SF Arts Commission Main Gallery, Fred Rowe Foto, 2022

The rise in extreme anti-LGBTQIA+ hate rhetoric and the laws rapidly evolving around them across the United States from far-right extremists is ugly and unrelenting. Their message is poisonous and a sideshow to distract from more pressing issues.

This week Tennessee Governor Bill Lee signed the provision into law explicitly banning drag shows in public and doing so while images of him doing drag circulated on social media. 

As the haters continue to show their faces in our government, on the news, and on social media, we must continue to show ours. 

I’ve often suggested to people whose family has disowned them for being queer to still reach out to them — even if it’s just a letter — to let them know how great your life is and all you’ve done. It’s a small act, but it helps break up the paradigm that queerness is a hindrance when we all know it isn’t. If anything, it’s a gracious gift. 

Please share your story with your friends, families, and allies; we need their voices. Tell everyone about your triumphs and struggles of being queer; this will hopefully trigger something in those who hate, as a simple reminder that we are all human and made of love.

In partnership with Inclusion Tennessee, the Campaign for Southern Equality has a resource page for Transgender youth and families in Tennessee impacted by the passage of HB1/SB1, a law prohibiting transgender-related healthcare for people under 18, including a page to contribute donations.

Feature image: Courtesy of Fred Rowe Foto


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