Put Some Gay In Your Day, Dallas!

Watching Leslie Twirl

The news of Leslie Jordan’s death, so sudden and such a gut punch, came on a Monday when I had no plans.  That absence allowed me the opportunity to go down a YouTube rabbit hole of clips, many of him on Will and Grace.  While I understand the cultural significance of that show, I wasn’t particularly a fan of either Will or Grace, but I liked Jack and loved Karen.  The 17 out of 246 episodes that featured Beverley Leslie (Jordan) were among the best of the entire series.

But I needn’t have gone to YouTube to see Leslie.  My social media was crammed with folks posting about him.  Leslie in selfies with everyone who met him, Leslie in interviews, Leslie performing at the Grand Ole Opry, Leslie on those short videos he made that helped millions of us through the worst days of the pandemic.  Even an appearance on a cruise ship with my colleague Sister Helen Holy sharing her ministry.

The one time I got to meet him, Leslie had just given a performance in Dallas.  One of his lines had to do with big, muscled-up gay men who appear to be all that but give themselves away when they open their mouths and out flows 50 yards of purple chiffon.  I only steal from the best, and I’ve used that one more times than I can count.

When I went over to meet him, I realized how much taller I was—well over a foot counting my coiffure.  Leslie looked up at me, puzzled, and said without missing a beat, “Guurrlll, how do you get your hair to do that?”  Pitch perfect delivery as one would expect.

I knew that the final stop on my Remembering Leslie tour would be spending time with Brother Boy.  As is usually the case when watching a movie that I have seen many times, I decide to dig deeper on one part of it.  Sitting down to watch Sordid Lives once again, my focus was almost entirely on Brother Boy and Leslie’s performance in that role.

Del Shores directed the screenplay he wrote based on his play, and the comedy as well as the overall message of the movie must have been obvious on the pages of the script.  But Leslie breathed life into Brother Boy, and the result is a character that resonates in ways both obvious and subtle with so many folks.

It could have been an effective performance even if Leslie had played Brother Boy strictly for laughs.  The funny is there, and Leslie could turn a one word response like “Oookkaaay” into a laugh line with meaning.

Brother Boy has been in the “loony bin” for 23 years, suffering from a “severe case of homosexuality” which includes what used to be called “cross-dressing” or “transvestism.”  While sent there by his parents for his own safety as the outside world is too dangerous for him to live in, Brother Boy is seen living inside an institution where he is catcalled and bullied routinely.  That is the price he pays for not conforming.

The decision to send him there, based on the timeline of the movie, would have been around 1976.  At that time, homosexuality had been removed by the American Psychiatric Association from its list of mental disorders, having been replaced in 1973 with “sexual orientation disturbance.”  (You say tomato, and I say tomahto.)  It is no wonder that for many years prior and many years after that most gay men choose to hide in closets or in marriages or in the gay neighborhoods of the larger American cities.  The same might be said of the L, B, T and Qs as well.

Truth be told, one need not be any of those letters to know about bullying.  Being expected to, pressured to, and sometimes forced to act, present oneself, and make decisions that are inconsistent with what one actually wants is pretty universal.  But most of us do it, in varying ways and at varying times, throughout our lives.  

So, when Brother Boy has his breakthrough moment, deciding not to “participate in my own recovery,” he confronts his therapist—his main bully—with perhaps the most powerful words in our language:  “No, I won’t, and you can’t make me.”  Leslie issues a call to that piece of Brother Boy in all the gays who can never be “straight-acting,” the lesbians who want to wear make-up and high heels, the straight women who don’t, and the straight men who didn’t want to go football practice or to war.

I like to think Leslie left so abruptly because, somewhere out there, he “had a show to do.”  Hopefully, Leslie took his baton with him, and his daddy is getting to watch him twirl at last.