The thick Rapunzel braid knotted on top of my kid Harry's head hung draped over his* right shoulder. Dressed all in black, from feathered boa and long slit skirt to the open-toe stilettos, I thought Harry looked like a young celebrity. In drag, my creative director and photographer son becomes Amber Alert to her fans and me. But I wasn't sure if the fuzzy photo on Facebook was of Amber or Harry.
"I loved your look for that show at the Jane Hotel," I told Harry over the phone. "I know you were there with the other 'Girls of Straight Acting,' but I didn't know if you were in drag. I didn't see any glitter, so I wasn't sure."
"I had some glitter on, Mom, but it was a subtle look -- no eyelashes."
"Eyelashes make a difference?"
"Oh, for sure!" Harry replied. "Big time!"
I appreciated the clarification, because I occasionally get questions about Harry based on his look. If wearing a dress, some people ask if she's trans, to which I reply that my son identifies as queer. Or, if Harry's wearing earrings with a sweater and leggings, I get asked if he's in drag. So now I can explain that drag for Harry means false eyelashes, glitter and at least a pound of makeup.
The truth is, some days Harry feels more feminine, so his gender expression just reflects how she feels on any given day or time of day.
I remember asking Harry myself in 2005 where drag queen fit it in with transvestite and transsexual. (Transgender wasn't as commonly used at the time.) It was the summer before Harry's sophomore year in high school. He was fifteen and a Rocky Horror Picture Show devotee who went to every midnight showing at the Oriental Theatre in Milwaukee dressed in wildly extravagant outfits.
Before answering me, Harry glanced over and smiled at his friend Alex who had stopped by the house.
"Well, Mom, people don't really use the word transvestite anymore. Cross-dresser is probably better. And that's just when a straight man or woman puts on clothes of the opposite sex because it makes them feel good."
"Okay." I'd said, thinking about comedian Eddie Izzard who often performed stand-up in a dress.
"When a man feels like a woman trapped in a man's body and has an operation," young Harry continued, "she's a transsexual."
My thoughts went to Christine Jorgensen, my only reference point then for a transsexual (now transgender) woman.
"And when a gay man has waaay too much fashion sense for one gender, he's a drag queen."
At that, he and Alex burst out laughing. And while I stood in the living room processing that idea, they headed up the stairs to Harry's room. I understood about "too much fashion sense," remembering that Harry was only six years old when he tried to teach me clothes don't have a gender.
Then last month, thanks to the 1995 comedy film, To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar, that was playing in marathon rotation on Logo TV, I figured out Harry had picked up those definitions, along with many other tips, from the flick's drag royalty duo of Vida Boehme (Patrick Swayze) and Noxeema Jackson (Wesley Snipes). I flashed on the To Wong Foo DVD cover Harry had received from a friend in San Francisco while still a high school freshman.
The movie is about the road trip three New York City drag queens take to Los Angeles for the Drag Queen of the Year competition. And along with "drag princess" Chi-Chi Rodriguez (John Leguizamo), I learned a lot about life from Ms. Vida and Ms. Noxeema. At the same time, I felt an infusion of Harry's spirit and outlook.
When my kid and I are out together now and I notice someone staring at Harry's look, I can hear Vida Boehme saying, "Your approval is not needed, but I will take your acceptance."
So I want to share what I think are important life lessons for anyone, as spelled out by Vida and Noxeema. The header is theirs.
Four Steps to Becoming A Drag Queen
- Let good thoughts be your sword and shield;
- Ignore adversity;
- Abide by the rules of love; and
- Stand up! Because being larger than life is just the right size.
*Author's Note: My son uses the pronouns "he/him," "she/her" and "they/their" interchangeably, so as Harry's mom, I do as well.