“Do you play with girls at school?” the farmer’s wife asked, as she placed milk and cookies in front of me.
Even as a child, I thought that was an odd question. I could have told her I played a mean skip rope, but that would require too many words. Even so, had she asked, do I play with boys, the answer would have been the same, my falsetto voice still betraying me.
Why don’t people ever ask the right questions, I wondered.
Not until she was invited over to meet my visiting grandparents did she discover I was a boy. In front of my whole family, she exclaimed, “You’re NOT a girl!”
Most children would be embarrassed. No doubt I was somewhat, but what was seared into my memory? Looking like a girl gets you milk and cookies!
I am not one of those gay males who recognized their sexuality early as I was not attracted to either sex. I remember like it was yesterday when I was a teenager, an adult male telling me, “If you put pins in your hair, you’ll look more like a girl.” And later, “If you place your penis between your legs, you will look more like a woman.” (I wouldn’t learn the word “tuck” until decades later!)
Growing up, I never even thought of trying on makeup, let alone actually wearing it. That might have to do with the fact that makeup did not exist in our house. I remember my father not letting my mother even wear lipstick. “You’d look like a harlot,” he yelled. The height of irony and hypocrisy is he was the older male cited above. And yes, you can assume I did not try on a dress either. You can imagine what hand-me-downs my mother had to wear as you know who never bought her a new dress ever. Why would I even think of trying one on? I saw what they looked like on poor Mother.
Again, what was seared into my memory? Looking like a certain woman gets you called names. Being a woman means you are owned. That certainly didn’t appeal to me, but neither did the poor representation of the male sex that “owned” me.
In my mid-teens, I convinced my mother to divorce. I was the only witness for the prosecution. With my “tucked junk” tales with Daddy, twenty minutes is all it took for the Judge to grant her freedom and mine. As soon as I could afford to, I bought her a new wardrobe and makeup, yet the thought of going into her upgraded closet still never crossed my mind.
Nevertheless, I did have an early fascination with female beauty. When I first saw Marilyn Monroe in a movie I couldn’t fathom her extraordinary unique look was real. I thought she was the epitome of female glamour. I remember when I was 21, I bought a special edition magazine on the twentieth anniversary of her death. I then read all I could about her life. I didn’t want to be her, look like her. Rather I identified with her struggles for identity, love, and recognition. I studied her life as if it were a blueprint for how I could overcome, survive and thrive and unlike Marilyn, live past thirty-six.
I continued to struggle with my sexuality but neither sex was still in my view as I passed the age of twenty. Not until I turned 25 did I even meet anyone who I could call a best friend.
My regular hairstylist couldn’t take me in as a drop-in and asked, do u mind Charlie? I had seen Charlie walking into the shop on other visits. I was fascinated by this bold young man. Was he really wearing base makeup in broad daylight?
We hit it off immediately. At this point, I had never uttered even one swearword while my new friend cursed up a storm. While he was only 19, I was greener than her valley so the combination worked.
Eventually, clubbing ever weekend, I discovered the entertainment committee was putting on a show. I asked a member, do you think I could do anything to help? He said, take off your glasses.
I complied. “I think you could do drag.”
“Okay, once I find out what that means, I’ll get back to you.”
I repeated that tale to Charlie. He said, “Let’s experiment.”
While he’s putting “stuff” on my face, I stare into his eyes, stating, “You know you really are a star. So original, unique, and one of a kind.”
“Shut up and sing to the record I have on,” he instructed.
Moments later, he concluded, “Well, guess what, Donald? You can sing and you can do drag.”
I was 27-years old. I had makeup on for the first time. How the magic twist of fate delivered, but what?
After only one performance under my belt, I decided to perform in a contest. I would fulfill the obsession of my youth, Marilyn Monroe. Going out on a limb, I performed “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend.” With makeup and hair by my best friend, I won.
Charisma. Uniqueness. Nerve. Talent. The four qualities RuPaul looks for in a drag queen. One doesn’t need a reality show to discover one’s worth. Far more important, I had my mother, Marilyn, and Charlie.
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Photos courtesy of the author.