Love in the Time of Corona: When RuPaul Put Me in Drag, Part 1

Of course the image is not available. That’s the point of the story, remember?
This isn’t a story about my friendship with RuPaul. That would be more than a blog post and besides, I don’t really like to think about it too much. Sometimes when you love someone in this life, they hurt you. But this isn’t that story either. 
This is the story of the night Ru put me in drag, the only time in my life I have been “slung up” as the queens call it. Do you know where the term “Drag” did not come from? Elizabethan Theatre; that’s folk etymology.  People, including Queen Ru Herself have passed on, as even I had through my own ignorance at the time.  The story that it comes from an abbreviation of “DRressAsGirl, or in some versions “Dressed Resembling A Girl,” written as Stage Manager shorthand in the Elizabethan Theatre has been debunked. What am I trying not to talk about?

When I was 17 years-old and I had just “come out” as bisexual to the first girl I ever had sex with. [Sidebar: Although I have had sex with more women than a lot of my straight buddies, I do not consider myself bisexual although I did have sex with a woman (and her Iraq Vet husband) at Burning man four years ago—oh God, that’s turning into a story for another time. Karen Walker says Bisexuality is just a layover on the flight to Gayville. I’m not sure if I agree. I think if we ever could drop all the labels we could all live more free. I’ve had a whole lot of sex with a whole lot of men who live their lives as “straight” and I can tell you that they enjoyed it throughout and although I often joke about how it makes it even hotter if he cries a little at the end (Marine humor) I really do think sex is better if nobody has to feel guilty afterwards.] 

So after I’d “come out” to this sweet girl who I do believe was in love with me,  I did what I thought all freshly-out-of-the-closet boys should do, I bought some sort of muumuu type thing that was the closest thing I could find to a dress that would fit a 6’7” teenager (yep, I was two inches taller than I am now when I got my first driver’s silence) and stopped off by Payless Shoe Sores for the only pair of women’s shoes that would remotely come close to fitting me. They had low, block heels, two huge straps across the top of the foot and were the most tragic and mundane shade of taupe patent leather you could ever imagine. I think I snuck it all down to my grandmother’s house and tried it all on in her front bedroom. That’s odd now that I think about it. Why did I go to her house to don this fabric confirmation of hedonism, dare I say my sodomy!? God knows if the poor old thing had walked in on me in that muumuu she would have likely met the Good Lord that very afternoon. Perhaps I was just too terrified to risk even being under the same roof with my father when I committed this ultimate transgression. No matter why, when I peered into that foggy mirror on the inside of my grandmother’s closet door, I likely felt like just walking back in that closet and closing the door. The person staring back at me from that mirror was not me.  That short and catastrophic experiment left me wondering if I could even be gay like one was supposed to be gay in the 80s. See?  That’s part of the problem with having some monophonic version of what it means to be gay. I thought that if I was going to gay, I’d have to wear a dress. Turns out that’s not true. 

RuPaul is the most famous gay man on the planet right now with the possible exception of Anderson Cooper and some closeted NFL football players but I’m mostly here talking about the men who have the courage to come out. Lots of boy children or at least children assigned “boy” at birth, should they find themselves wanting to “dress like a girl” or “act like a girl,” have  a super-famous icon to look up to in RuPaul. That’s a good thing I guess. We just need some more professional athletes to courage-up and come out. Or why athletes, just some visably public gay men who aren’t Seth MacFarland’s canned, predictable, effete, adolescent, and sophomoric stereotypes. 

Gay men, not to mention the rest of our beautiful “Alphabet Family,” present in many, many ways. Flip on Drag Race anytime you need to see some “shade.” I’m just trying to see some more shades of gay, you feel me? MVP quarterbacks seem to lack the courage drag queens have.  More folks need to step up. Especially now. 
I’m getting off track. I do need to say real quick that I acknowledge problematic nature of terms like “look/act/dress like a boy/girl.” Number one because those affectations are flexible and fluid over any considerable time. A woman seen in “dungarees” a hundred years ago was thought to be wearing man clothes. 
None of this is what I wanted to write about. 

One night RuPaul, my ex Adam and I were sitting in Ru’s West Village apartment in New York. I have many wonderful memories from that apartment. I may be all butt-hurt now. Truth is Ru just disappeared on me when I his stardom went to super-stardom, perhaps I simply didn’t make the cut. I first moved to Hollywood in 1997 and I’ve seen it many times. When celebrities start climbing that cash mountain, sycophants start popping up like tadpoles. Maybe there just wasn’t room left for me. Any famous person who has ever known me will tell you I don’t give a shit about celebrity except to the extent that someone uses it to do good on the planet. 

Nevertheless, I won’t forget piling up with Ru in his big comfy bed and binging on Joan Crawford movies all weekend, the trips to Two Boots for pizza. One night when were we walking out to the Louisiana/Italy-themed pizza shop, Ru turned to me and asked, “Well, should we be total n*ggers and take our own hot sauce?” “You have to ask?” I answered. You see Ru had heard me throw a little hissy fit the last time we were at Two Boots Pizza because I told those people working there (who I assure you had absolutely nothing to do with the decision) that it was unconscionable to even consider opening up the doors of an establishment that claimed to be even partially representing Louisiana cuisine with not a bottle of hot sauce to be found in the joint! Maybe Ru didn’t want me making another scene. Maybe Ru likes hot sauce as much as I do. On the way home it started to rain. Whenever I’d go out the door of Ru’s place when he was home, if there was rain cloud within 100 miles of Manhattan, he’d say “Take an umbrella.” I’d say, “I’m not taking an umbrella. I just leave them places.” He said, “Buy more expensive umbrellas. You won’t leave them.” And yet I did. The very next day when I’d conceded to borrow and then misplace and then feel compelled to replace Ru’s high-tech aerodynamic and very stylish umbrella for a price on which we could have both gone to Two Boots a few times. But on that night, on the walk home, I was actually glad we had it because it came up one of those gully washers in New York where the water rides the wind down the canyons of the avenues. Ru’s phone rang and he answered. You could tell the person on the other end of the line said that inane thing everyone says, “What are you doing?”  I surmised this was the question because Ru, in an (actually) atypical manner (for his out-of-drag persona) said in a way that filled the block, “I’m walking in the West Village with Jeff Key, looking like men but feeling like women!” And I laughed and I probably blushed a little bit and I was reminded of many years earlier, the early 80s in fact, at the “Steak and Egg Kitchen” on Southside Birmingham (affectionally known as the “Fag and Drag Kitchen”), on a night when earlier one drag queen had thrown another drag queen through the front picture window but the waitresses had just swept up the glass and mopped up the little bit of blood and makeup and kept slinging hash and as my other underage friends and I entered, fresh from the gay bars.  [The expectation for quality in fake IDs was low back then and 17 passes for 19 pretty easily if you’re 6’7” (19 being the legal drinking age in Alabama 1982)]. And there in the Fag and Drag stood Lennis Glover, a famed softball/volleyball athlete from my high school an hour away in Walker Country. (We’d all slug through classes there in the morning with the help of “yellow jackets” and “speckled birds.”) Lennis was so masculine I found her attractive. When she saw me she just said, “Well Miss Key! We were wondering when you were going to show up!” (Think Mary Stuart Masterson’s portrayal of Idgie Threadgoode in Fried Green Tomatoes.) And when she said it, it pieced me through the heart. And I loved it and hated it. She’s calling me a she and she’s supposed to be one of my own!  Then she slapped me on the ass like she would have a 15 year-old tight-bottomed, bow-headed outfielder and something happened inside.  All those times of my cousins calling me a girl or telling me I acting like a girl or walked or sat or ate like a girl—all those thousands of times I’d heard that shit from them and other little redneck kids. The sting of Lennis’ slap on the ass felt good and something inside changed. I got stronger. I thought about the fact that most of my allies to that point and been girls, especially black girls; a lot of my heroes and champions in life were girls and women. I thought, you know what you pieces of shit? You wanna call me girl, then girl it is. And I turned to my friend Smooch and said, “Come on girl, I’ve had enough pancakes and drag queens for one night.” And he said, “Let’s go girl!” And thereafter I owned the word and the concept and the power behind it. I think women are amazing. When a man thinks calling me a woman is an insult, I just laugh quietly to myself at his stupidity and take the compliment. The roots of homophobia are nourished by the stinking, shitty, manure that is misogyny. Neither can fully exist without the other. But I was learning to feel proud of who I am, even as I was learning who that was. 

And that’s the same feeling I got when Ru said that to the unknown person on the other end of that cal,l that he and I were walking through the West Village looking like men but feeling like women. It’s almost like being able to recall every single time in your life when you were bullied for being queer and saying, “Y’know what?  Fuck those fucking fucks.” If I could time travel to those situations I tell you what, the bullies would shit their pants to see this me show up. I became strong. And I’m not talking about the 6’5” 270 part. 

Oh shoot, I never really got to the part about the actual process of RuPaul making me look like a woman. But I promised to keep these around 1500 words and I just bounced past 2000. Economy of language isn’t necessarily the hallmark of Southern, Gay, Alcoholic writers. Apologies.  

Besides, what happened from there on out on that night is a story unto itself. Maybe I better pick this up tomorrow. 
My faithful readers will remember the reason I got off on this topic at all was because the pictures Ru took of me from that night, together with two books, 16,000  word written journal, 2000 hours video journal, all my pictures and videos from Iraq, thousands of other pictures, many short stories and poems, were all on the external hard drive that Matt David Jordan of Monroe, Louisiana stole from me when he was supposed to be working on them. (Meth.) I definitely do not want anyone, especially any Marines to kill him for me but I would very much like to see those pictures of Mehadi and me from Iraq. 
Tomorrow, I’ll tell you what RuPaul taught me by making stick my wiener between my butt cheeks and putting on a dress. 


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