Sister Unity stood before me in West Hollywood Park on the first full day of legal gay marriage in California. She was dressed head-to-toe in drag and sounded somewhat disappointed.
“A gay guy walked up to me and said, ‘Do you really think this is going to help us in November?’ When he said it, 'power to the sissies' came to my mind.”
She was part of a two-person contingent representing the Los Angeles chapter of The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a drag queen outfit that puts a queer spin on Catholic nun-hood. Some people think they’re wacky, but I’ve always seen them as fun…and a lip-sticked reminder of the kind of rebel streak that’s needed to be out and gay.
At West Hollywood Park on June 17, the media ignored Sister Unity, left, and Sister Margaret Snatcher and instead swarmed actor George Takei (in the background) and his fiancé Brad Altman.
Sister Unity’s story also reminded me of something I had been brooding over since the state validated the anti-gay marriage November ballot measure, now known as Proposition 8. Already, I had been hearing from aides to Los Angeles politicians that gay rights groups asked them not to marry gays en masse so straight folks wouldn’t be freaked out by the sight of hundreds of husbands and husbands and wives and wives kissing each other on the front steps of City Hall in downtown.
A coalition of gay rights groups that included the Human Rights Campaign and Lambda Legal also released a "joint advisory" called “Make Change, Not Lawsuits,” which warned people against getting married in California, flying back to their home states, and suing federal or state governments. LA Weekly then ran an article that explained the advisory wasn’t so much about avoiding “bad rulings,” as the groups wrote, but more about keeping things calm for Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama.
So with this stuff swirling in my head, the gay man's comment to Sister Unity made me wonder: Are gays—you and me—being pressured by our own people to hide certain things about ourselves? Are we, in some way, being shoved back into the closet? I tried to talk with some activists I respect in the gay community, but they either never got back to me or dismissed these nagging thoughts outright. So I tracked down writer and gay provocateur Larry Kramer, figuring he would speak out if something was up. I mentioned Sister Unity’s run in and put my closet questions to him.
(Larry Kramer in New York City. Photo by David Shankbone)
“This has been going on since the Garden of Eden,” Kramer responded in an email. “People are going to do (and wear) what they are going to do. That's why HIV never goes away. I will say that I am seeing a lot of guys in suits getting married and women in dresses, so that can balance things out more than usual, no? I haven't seen any guys in drag getting married, I mean full drag. I think I saw a few in leather. The ship didn't sink.”
I also asked for a historical perspective, if what Sister Unity encountered was something that happens every time gays win some kind of right? That gays try to appear more "normal" so we can be accepted in the mainstream?
“I have NEVER seen the gay population try to appear normal, as a concerted effort, trying to play down ANYTHING,” wrote Kramer, “You say ‘every time we win some kind of right.’ That is very generous of you. I wasn’t aware that we’ve won all that many rights.”
Kramer, a New Yorker who doesn't care too much for LA, wasn't aware of certain things brewing in California, so I contacted longtime gay rights activist Miki Jackson, who has a sharp eye for political/cultural trends and has lived in Los Angeles for over 30 years.
“Having the spotlight on we GLBTs seems to have some of that ‘put on your Sunday best’ aspect to it,” Jackson replied an email. “There are a lot of people who are kind of nervous and want to be respectable. Feeling like we will be scrutinized seems to turn that up. Also getting something and having the ax hanging over it is nervous making. There are always a lot of people who get upset because the media will focus on the flamboyant characters and that makes them feel like we will be judged harshly. I heard a lot of that leading up to the weddings, people were afraid there would be pictures of guys in drag everywhere.”
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Jackson added, “I've always wondered if some of it goes back to pre-war Berlin, where the gays got some freedom and acceptance and it ended up that they came out of ‘hiding’ only to make it easier for the Nazis to round everyone up and send them off to camps.”
With the political campaigns starting to rev up to defeat Proposition 8, people will want to control messages and images sent out to the larger, and more heterosexual, public. (Read Variety Managing Editor's Ted Johnson's "Wilshire & Washington" column on media coverage of gay marriage.) I only wonder who will be ditched in the process. After all, as conventional thinking goes, and I’m no fan of conventional thinking, a front-page picture in the local newspaper of two men holding their adopted baby girl is much more preferred than two men in drag dressed up as nuns.
Maybe so, but at what cost? If we can’t embrace Sister Unity, who in the name of RuPaul will? And no one told the drag queens who started up the Stonewall Riots they wouldn’t be good for Gay Liberation. The ladies kicked butt just for the right to drink in a bar and not be hassled, and look where we are now. Something is happening, and it doesn’t feel right.
Contact Patrick Range McDonald at email@example.com.