“Time to paint up!” Porsche is wont to exclaim when she’s getting ready to put on a show. One of the most phenomenal vocal impressionists I’ve ever heard, Porsche wears a dress, heels, and a blond wig to work — as well as false eyelashes, lipstick, and foundation. Thus adorned, she sings: exactly like Eartha Kitt, exactly like Tammy Wynette, exactly like Debbie Reynolds. (Seriously. Who else does Debbie Reynolds?)
Porsche is a man, a former high-school football player from Texas. She also sings exactly like Elvis Presley.
You could take painted-up Porsche home to mother, and yet she is everything that some people want to eliminate. A gay man who dresses as a woman, works in gay bars, and drinks alcohol. (A necessary preparative for singing exactly like Janis Joplin.) She uses her artistry to express a range of feeling, but mostly to express and to inspire joy.
Her shows are a regular summer feature at the Ice Palace in Cherry Grove, Fire Island. Yesterday, as news reports about the massacre at Pulse were still coming in (and they’re still coming in as I write), Porsche had to paint up. By this morning, she’d learn that one friend had been injured in the attack. Another friend did not survive.
How do you put on a show, when all that is going on? How do you “address this,” as Porsche asked herself? You sing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” is how. Because Porsche also sings exactly like Judy Garland, and when President Kennedy was shot, that’s what Judy sang. For gays, it’s not a hymn of Christianity. It’s a hymn of Judy-ism.
The performance wasn’t merely “the show must go on.” This was defiance, and once again, as at so many points in our journey, a drag queen was leading the way. We will go on — we will go marching on. Whether you respect them or not, we will continue to celebrate art, and pride, and freedom, and love, and life itself.
Again and again in recent years, I have asked myself how to respond. When — and how — do I move beyond grief and anger? And once I’ve done so, what do I do? Is it possible for me to make any gesture that represents what the fallen might have done, to pay tribute to their lost potential? “We don’t let the terrorists win,” okay, but in yesterday’s attack, there’s another factor. Daesh has been tossing homosexuals off of buildings for a while now, and as they bring their campaign to American shores, it was a matter of time before they specifically attacked gays and their friends. True, Daesh hates other people, too; their adherents could have gone after anybody. But Sunday morning, a man professing allegiance to Daesh went after the gays.*
Daesh isn’t the only outfit that calls for the punishment of homosexuality by death, and it’s hardly alone in its enthusiasm for violence. Around the world, governments call for much the same, as do groups and individuals. In the United States, some people invoke religion to demand the execution of homosexuals. During the primary campaign, the Texan Senator Ted Cruz gratefully accepted the endorsement of one such pastor, and Cruz’s own father, also a pastor, is an outspoken homophobe. Neither fellow is a Muslim.
Among the Republican politicians who tweeted their “thoughts and prayers” yesterday, I saw only one who referred to the scene of the attack as a gay club. It’s hard not to construe this across-the-board omission as a nod to social conservatives, who are eager to roll back the advances in civil rights made by gays in recent years.
For now, at least, we still have the right to marry. And even Texas hasn’t passed a law subjecting us to the death penalty. But in many states, gays can legally be denied housing, employment, and basic services, simply because they’re gay. Gays are subject to daily persecution, and in many states, a crime against them is not considered a hate crime under the law, no matter how many times the assailant bellows, “Kill all the faggots.” The Red Cross may not want our blood, but plenty of other people do. We are still second-class citizens.
While Porsche was singing on Fire Island, another man from Texas, Miss Victoria Chase, had to paint up in Manhattan. Sundays are karaoke night at Boots & Saddle. But yesterday wasn’t like other Sundays. Wary of a copycat attack, police officers in combat gear stood guard outside the door. They carried automatic weapons. As one of Victoria’s friends observed, it’s a sign of progress that the police are now protecting, not raiding, gay bars — the Stonewall is just around the corner from Boots. But the need for protection is unnerving.
How do you put on a show, with all that going on? By singing “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” Victoria’s signature number, which reliably brings me to tears. Leader of her community that she is, Victoria sang for all of us. No, no, there’s no way. We’re not going.
In some ways, “And I Am Telling You” may seem like the flip side of “Battle Hymn,” immobility versus marching. Yet both songs are about prevailing, refusing to submit, and staying true.
Victoria sang “And I Am Telling You,” she tells me, as part of her Pride Package, along with Aretha Franklin’s “Think.” Well, this is Pride Month, and we’re thinking hard. This year we’ll remember that the Stonewall Rebellion was a response to a violent attack. We’ll remember that Pride isn’t just a parade or a party. We’ll remember that Pride stayed strong even while thousands of us were dying.
It’s time to paint up, stand up, and raise our voices. Most especially for those who no longer can.
*UPDATE: After I posted this essay, reports began appearing to the effect that the Orlando shooter may have been a closeted and/or self-hating homosexual; his affiliation with Daesh never seemed close, though Daesh gladly took credit after the fact. The shooter’s mental health (and his relationship with his father) surely factors into his motivation and his crime, as well. It will probably be a long while, if ever, before we know even a substantial part of the full story. However, it occurs to me that it’s possible to be both radicalized and closeted at once, as the 9/11 attacker Mohammed Atta reportedly was. And if anything, the new reports about the Orlando shooter confirm the need to respond to the massacre with pride. The more we break down the closets, the more society admits our worth and respects our rights, the healthier and safer we will be.