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Requiem for a drag queen
The New York Times obituary for Barry Humphries extolled the life and career of a beloved actor of stage, screen and television. You could be forgiven if you didn’t recognize his name, but surely not if you did not recognize his alter ego. Humphries made a seven-decades-long career in the United Kingdom, the U.S., and Australia by dispensing ad-lib sarcasm, wit, and humor with interview guests and audiences while under lilac-colored bouffant wigs, behind oversized rhinestone glasses, in sensible pumps, and donning garish, flamboyant gowns as the character Dame Edna Everage. Nowhere in this obituary–and those published in most media around the world–was the word “drag” mentioned.
A performer adored by straight audiences–and a straight man himself–he was never fully embraced by gay audiences, who nonetheless regarded Dame Edna as an insinuation and a soft acceptance of drag in mainstream popular culture. Humphries had not explicitly referred to himself as a drag queen but insisted that as an actor his portrayal of Dame Edna was a performance. He treated Dame Edna as an alternate, separate character and, while in character, spoke of himself, Barry Humphries, in the third person.
Not calling it drag, but performance, was a neat semantic trick that eased the discomfort and removed the stigma of seeing a tall man in outlandish women’s attire who could get away with saying things usually left unsaid. Perhaps when a straight man dresses as a woman, even a ludicrous caricature that borders on misogyny, the audience can suspend belief just enough to experience a safe, non-threatening flirtation with the subversive and the taboo in pursuit of humor. What began as a satire of a middle-class Australian housewife was soon elevated to the honorable, chivalrous title of dame, all the while retaining the same (although sometimes veiled and at times explicit) intolerant, right-adjacent tendencies. Periodic controversies would erupt following racist, anti-trans, or other offensive comments she made over her career. The amazing thing about Dame Edna was that she was never considered a man in drag; she was simply Dame Edna.
Humphries’ craft as performance derived from the vaudeville, burlesque, and English pantomime traditions of transvestism combined with the ad-libbing standup comic. He insisted he was neither a female impersonator nor a cross-dresser, but LGBTQ+ people were not fooled. It was obvious that Dame Edna was a clear appropriation of the gay drag queen aesthetic repackaged as a singular original creation for entertaining mainstream audiences. But, despite the qualifications, Dame Edna was a drag queen – although one without the genealogy, the history, or queendom of real drag queens, like two who also recently passed away and deserved far more recognition for their true and steadfast call to duty.
Real drag queens are gay men who, as Humphries did, create a character, but, unlike him, they are corporeal and rule over realms that extend beyond the stage and encompass real people and their communities. There is no fourth wall that provides a false safety barrier between contrived performance and “normal” people, between the conventions of the stage and “perceived” experience, between suspended reality and the hard truth. Real drag queens are rulers who rally their subjects using their creative talents and personas to cultivate community in order to transform their people and domains.
Darcelle XV was a real drag queen. By the time he died at 92 in March, Walter Cole was the cherished icon of Portland, Oregon’s LGBTQ+ community and had been certified as the world’s oldest working drag queen performer by Guinness World Records in 2016. Teased as a “sissy boy” growing up, Cole was drafted into the Army in 1952 and a few years later returned to Portland married with two children. In 1967 he purchased the derelict Demas Tavern in the rundown Old Town neighborhood, and soon after came out to his wife (they remained legally married) and met his life and business partner Roxy Leroy Neuhardt, a dancer who helped to develop the club’s drag cabaret show. Neuhardt christened Cole’s drag persona Darcelle, whom Cole described as “sequins on eyelids, lots of feathers, big hair, big jewels, and lots of wisecracks.” The club’s unofficial motto was “That’s No Lady, That’s Darcelle.”
Many shows and wigs later in 1973, Darcelle was crowned the 15th empress of the Imperial Sovereign Rose Court of Oregon, an LGBTQ+ charitable organization of the Imperial Court System. The tavern was renamed Darcelle XV Showplace – home to the longest-running drag show west of the Mississippi. The showplace grew into a Portland institution drawing straight and LGBTQ+ audiences and is credited with forming relationships between the city’s LGBTQ+ and business and political communities. In 2011, Darcelle served as grand marshal of the Portland Rose Festival’s Starlight Parade and received the city’s Spirit of Portland Award. Darcelle was an advocate for LGBTQ+ youth and a tireless fundraiser for innumerable causes. The showplace also functioned as a de facto community center and would host Christmas Eve meals for the homeless. In 2017, a monument to Oregonians who died of AIDS was installed in a Portland cemetery and dedicated as the Darcelle XV AIDS Memorial in honor of her life’s work for the cause. Over the course of her career, Darcelle created over 1,500 costumes for shows that raised hundreds of thousands of dollars over the decades. Darcelle XV Showplace was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2020 for its contribution to LGBTQ+ history.
In early April, shocking news appeared on social media that iconic San Francisco drag queen Heklina had unexpectedly died in her London hotel room. It was reported by her friend Peaches Christ (Joshua Grannell) who was in London for a joint performance of “Mommie Queerest.” Heklina was the creation of Stefan Grygelko, named after an active volcano in his native Iceland. London officials do not suspect foul play in his death.
Since the early 1990s, Heklina had been the premier drag artist in Bay Area queer nightlife that featured irreverent shows and annual contests at various clubs. She got her start in 1996 as a founder of Trannyshack, a weekly drag show at the Stud bar (now closed) that operated through 2008 (the show name was later changed to Mother). Each week featured an over-the-top, no-holds-barred riff on the political, social, racial and gender controversies of the day. Heklina threw out the rule book for drag performers: she welcomed female performers (known as faux queens) and drag kings to her stage. As recalled in the Bay Area Reporter by Adriana Roberts, a trans woman and early Trannyshack performer, “Coming from a punk rock ethos, she created a space that welcomed performers from across the gender spectrum, at a time when drag was VERY codified into TIRED (her words) tropes of men in sequined gowns doing diva lip-syncs. None of us realized it at the time, but she helped revolutionize the concept of what drag could be, breaking its mold years before the rest of the world caught on.”
In 2015 Heklina opened Oasis, a nightclub in the South of Market neighborhood, with fellow drag artist D’Arcy Drollinger and investors. It was one of the few performance spaces that featured drag shows, dance nights, musicals, concerts and fundraisers. In her own statement emailed to supporters of Oasis on April 4, Drollinger called Heklina’s passing “a devastating blow to the community” that was personally heartbreaking. “I have known Heklina for 34 years. Opening the Oasis was a crowning achievement we shared, after performing for so many years in other people’s venues, to create our own space was a dream neither of us believed we could do and yet we did it together. She’s been my Carrie Bradshaw, my Janet Wood, my Darlene Conner, my Phoebe Buffay, and my Dorothy Zbornak. Heklina could push all my buttons and at times make me crazy and I still love her.” In 2019 she sold her shares in Oasis and moved to Palm Springs, although you would never have known it because she continued to perform everywhere.
Castro Street will be closed to accommodate the overflow crowd expected for Heklina’s sold-out memorial service scheduled for May 23 at the legendary Castro Theater. The statement from Grygelko’s estate added that Heklina’s “accomplishments as a performer, producer, and transgressive LGBTQ+ rights advocate have left an indelible mark on drag, the entertainment industry, San Francisco, and the queer communities worldwide.”
On June 22, as first reported in the Bay Area Reporter, Darcelle XV and Heklina will be inducted into the National LGBTQ Wall of Honor at the Stonewall Inn bar in New York City, a memorial to deceased LGBTQ+ luminaries started in 2019 as part of the Stonewall 50 anniversary. The news was announced April 11 after learning of the two drag artists’ passing by Nicole Murray Ramirez, Queen Mother I of the Americas and Nicole the Great, the titular head of the Imperial Court System, the charitable drag organization that began in San Francisco in 1965. “I knew both of them,” Murray Ramirez said during a phone interview with the B.A.R. “They inspired and entertained a lot of people. … Darcelle was a role model for me. … Heklina as a performer made you laugh. That’s a gift.”
So what makes a drag queen a real queen of all her subjects and all she surveys? It is much more than acting or performance. It means bearing the weight of the crown to justify your right to rule, to rally your community, and create and leave a better world for the most vulnerable. The great drag queens inspire us to see our lives from an unexpected perspective by upending conventions of gender and ultimately they foster an impulse to see a universe with new possibilities and the courage to present our authentic selves to the world. Darcelle XV and Heklina were sui generis and certainly achieved as much in this life–and they will not be the last of their line bestowing fabulousness and inspiration for generations of LGBTQ+ people. As supermodel drag queen RuPaul said, “We are all born naked and the rest is drag.”
Rest in power.