Amid the early ’80s culture, laced with an atmosphere of burgundy bow blouses, the “Tylenol scare,” and harvest gold kitchens, I wandered around as a painfully shy, eager-to-please, socially awkward little girl. At eight years old, elementary school brought its share of fair-weather friends, but I didn’t ever really know where I fit in.
I didn’t look or dress like the preppy-to-the-max kids with their pink & green Izods and monogrammed sweater collections. I didn’t play soccer, or go to swim practice on Saturday mornings like most of the kids I knew.
Though I tried, I was never good at sports, and school P.E. was a torture zone. I was always the lone kid standing at the end of team-picking, the leftover that neither the green nor the gold team wished to inherit – and rightfully so. I had zero athletic coordination, didn’t understand the rules of the game, and flinched when an air-filled bouncy ball came within 6 feet of me. The reaction was like a reflex, and the more I tried to suppress it, the harder my mistrust of airborne objects burst forth in squeals of uneasiness.
Additionally, around that time I developed a mighty colossal case of Tourette’s syndrome, complete with physical and vocal tics that plagued me throughout at least seventh grade, until I learned various coping mechanisms that somewhat concealed them. To top it off, early adolescence heralded in a slew of anxiety-related mind games, including Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. And OCD brought forth an endless repetition of aggravating rituals and uncomfortable thought patterns.
I was a homebody and often kept to myself. I lived in my own world of imaginary people and elaborate, cinematic-type fantasies. I wrote daily in my journal. I escaped into books; Judy Blume was my hero. I colored and drew pictures. I took comfort in my home, settling into Saturday morning cartoons and paper dolls. Occasionally I visited neighborhood friends, but an unfortunate side effect of anxiety culminated in me getting homesick a lot, causing my parents to have to retrieve me from failed sleepover attempts. I was nervous and anxious most of the time, complete with regular upset stomach and headache. I felt weird and awkward all the time. And even though I was a wispy twig of a girl, I was never comfortable in my own body.
I was most definitely not one of the cool kids.
I remember hanging out on the playground in elementary school with the other girls. They swung effortlessly on the monkey bars and darted from group to group like butterflies. It seemed all the other girls were carefree, flirty and fun. They seemed so comfortable. But I remember standing there in stark contrast, being uncomfortably aware of my ungraceful, dangling arms that felt longer than they actually were. I remember not knowing what to do with my hands while I was talking, so I would keep them plastered to my sides like a robot. Everything embarrassed me for no good reason. I never understood my awkwardness; it was just something I lived with.
This, I know now, is how a lot of kids feel growing up. But when you’re a kid, you think you’re the only one.
During that time the movie Annie, starring Aileen Quinn came out. My mom took me to see it and suddenly I had an official obsession. I couldn’t put my finger on exactly what it was – maybe the vibrant colors and costumes, the singing and dancing, a kid just my age who had enough discipline and spunk to sing, dance, act, and star in a blockbuster film? Whatever it was, it hit me hard and I just wanted to be any of the orphans in that movie.
Several years later when my elementary school’s fifth grade class was putting on a full scale performance of The Sound of Music, I knew what the feeling was: the allure and seduction of musical theatre. I had a case of it, and I had it badly.
Our little school didn’t have an auditorium, so the fifth grade rehearsed and performed in the multi-purpose room. As a fourth grader, I’d don my best behavior all week so that I could be awarded the Friday morning job of taking down student artwork from the multi-purpose room walls. I’d sit on the floor and peel the tape off the back of each piece of art as slow as humanly possible, so that I could watch and absorb the rehearsal process that was going on in that big open room. I couldn’t get enough. I wanted to be in fifth grade right then, so I could get out of social studies and rehearse for the play instead.
Soon after professing my love for theatre, my mom began taking me to see local and regional plays and musicals around our area. I was enamored. Eventually my parents enrolled me in a six-week summer theatre camp, and at age twelve I had suddenly “come into” my own, and simultaneously found a bunch of people just like me – often quirky and awkward in real life, but passionate, brave, and strong on the stage.
I started taking as many acting, singing, and dancing classes as I could. I took classes on how to apply stage makeup and how to sew costumes. I learned how to crawl along the catwalk to hang and adjust lights for the stage. I learned how to work the fly system. I auditioned for everything at the community theatre, even if I was too young for the show. I auditioned for the experience, and when I didn’t get cast, I worked backstage painting or building sets, or working on the props crew, just so I could be inside the theatre, creating, surrounded by artistic people who I admired.
Along the way, and from a young age, I was working with lots of people from the LGBT community. They were some of the most fun, most real, most kind people I had met. Though I didn’t identify as LGBT, I just felt a kindred spirit among them. I guess the magic of the theatre naturally draws all types of creative people who don’t fit into neat little boxes, people who enjoy escaping from every day life, people who appreciate the artistry and work ethic it takes to put up a show. That, and the fact that the theatre world is welcoming to everyone. Whoever you are, no matter what your skill level or talent, in the theatre world, there’s a place for you.
Soon after “finding myself,” I found the drag queens. They were local celebrities of a sort, who performed in full drag at both hole-in-the-wall clubs and expensive venues. Some of them were “out” in the community, known by both their drag name and “real” name, and some were most definitely not out. For the closet performers, being outed could have ruined their reputations, their careers, or even their families. There were all kinds: butch-acting, athletically muscular men who happened to look fantastic in heavy drag makeup, more feminine-presenting, somewhat softer men who didn’t have to work too hard to look fantastic in drag, and everything in between.
I actually had a few theatre makeup and costuming teachers who were professional drag queens, and I loved to hear them talk with (or about) each other in the dressing rooms where we honed our stage makeup techniques. In the theatre, I was an observer, and an absorber. I watched. I took everything in and studied it. Listening to and watching the drag queens do their thing mimicked those feelings I had from my earliest experiences watching live theatre – I just couldn’t put my finger on it, but it was alluring and intriguing and sexy and beautiful. And, I thought they were way better at behaving and looking like a woman than I was.
Indeed, I learned so much growing up in the theatre. But perhaps the biggest lesson I learned was how to actually be a woman. And, I learned that from the drag queens. Undoubtedly, they taught me how to apply flawless stage makeup and how to adapt it for every day life, how to dress to flatter my body, how to stand and walk with poise, how to work a costume, how to dance – whether on stage or at a club, and of course, the oh-so-delicate art of throwing shade. But, most importantly, (and the element I had been missing throughout my childhood and adolescence), they taught me how to have confidence, and how to work that confidence. They taught me that confidence was at the heart of being a woman, and without confidence, you have nothing.
When you think about it, it makes sense. Imagine how much courage, how much confidence it takes for a man to go out in public dressed as a pretty woman, and to be taken seriously. Many of the drag queens I knew were public performers or singers at clubs. They would talk of being openly harassed or groped by drunken men while going from their car to the building. Or being heckled by obnoxious audience members who were only there for the joke of it all. The drag queens had to be ready to give it right back, and put the mockers in their place with a few carefully placed cutting words – with a large captive audience watching, no less.
The drag queens showed me how much more powerful your wit and your words are than your physical strength. You can’t necessarily fist fight out in the open without serious consequences, but you can have a full knock-down-drag-out (pun intended) with your tone, articulation, timing, and choice of words. This is a lesson I’ve never forgotten.
Confidence was the one ingredient I had been missing throughout my younger years, and my drag queen role models taught me how to summon it forth with ease. I always found it ironic that it took a man to teach me how to be a woman – a strong woman who believed in her worth, and who could stand her ground and not take anyone’s bosh. God knows my mother tried to teach me everything I needed to know about being a woman, but as it often is with kids, they don’t get the lesson until it comes from someone who’s not known as “Mom.” And I don’t know who could be further away from “mom” than a drag queen.
I’m forever thankful the theatre world became my surrogate family when I was an angst-filled, sassy teenager trying to find my own voice and confidence. I can’t say it enough, but I highly recommend the world of theatre to teach the most important life lessons regarding humility, teamwork, trust, self-expression, and acceptance. And I highly recommend the world of drag queens to teach the most sagacious life lessons, whether that’s how to make your eyebrow game on point, or how to fend for your life with the diversion of witty banter.