When the folks at Hallmark design Mother’s Day cards, they probably aren’t picturing the 6-foot-8 Shaqille-O’Neal-in-heels that I call mom. My birth mother is easy to celebrate; but what about my “drag mother” Bob TheDragQueen? She is, after all, the one who found me when I was just a twink with a death wish and gave me a second chance through the power of glitter and lashes. On the eve of this Mother’s Day weekend, I’m choosing to celebrate the way that she saved me. And I’m celebrating all the other queens across America who use lipstick to rescue lost kids. I’m declaring this holiday Drag Mother’s Day, too.
I found drag the way I found most things in my 20s—by accident while drunk. I was staggering home through a blizzard one night when I spotted a very handsome oversized man hauling a very broken oversized bookshelf down the street. Never shy, I offered my help as an underhanded way of getting into his apartment. But once we had forced the battered bookcase through his doorframe, I found something far different from the illicit encounter I had anticipated. Every surface in this man’s home was strewn with a diva’s accessories, wigs and gowns draped across the threadbare furniture, glittering crowns and bras hanging from a dusty chandelier. In chasing yet another guy, I had stumbled upon a remarkable woman—my future drag mother, Bob.
If you’re having Burlesque-inspired, montage-visions of Bob schooling me in the ways of eyeliner and padding, be assured it wasn’t that easy. A drag mother is more than a glorified Avon lady. She helps prospective queens transform not simply from boys to girls, but from nobodies to somebodies. It’s true that she sometimes instructs her daughters in poise, lip-synching, and the other arts so perfectly enumerated in classic drag flicks like To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar. But her first and most difficult job is to teach her daughters that they have something remarkable within them, something worth bringing out. And she does this either by setting an inspiring example—or by nagging.
Bob had to nag me for months before I would attempt my first tuck. “I do a drag protest every Saturday in Times Square,” she said. “You should join.” But no matter how often she prodded me, I kept her and drag at arm’s length. I said I didn’t have the cash to buy foundation, and that I’d never been interested in dressing as a woman anyway (apart from that one Amy Winehouse Halloween costume). I said I didn’t know anyone who could loan me a gown. I said I didn’t know how to walk in heels. And when Bob casually dismissed these excuses during our regular coffee dates, I tried not to think about the my real issue with drag: I had always secretly hoped that there was a beautiful woman locked inside my ugly body, and I didn’t want to find out that I was wrong.
For some of us queens, drag mothers are healers. By forcing us to look at our reflection in the mirror, they are, intentionally or not, forcing us to confront ourselves. When a drag mother gives lessons on posture, she is nudging her daughters to ask why they walk with their shoulders hunched. If she yells at them to speak up, she makes them wonder why they mumble. I don’t mean to suggest that queens suffer from insecurity more than anyone else. But for those of us that do, our fears are writ large on our bodies, and drag mothers read them out loud for our benefit. I know that Bob was reading mine when she saw how I hovered at the edge of her marvelous drag world, but hesitated to dive in.
She mentioned it only in passing, the phrase “body dysmorphia,” very early in our friendship. But I’ll never forget the way Bob talked about the disorder—a crippling unhappiness with one’s physical flaws—because it made me think about my own problems. I didn’t think I suffered from the clinical illness per se, but it gave me a new way to think about my own habits: brushing my teeth in the dark to avoid mirrors, fearing reflective tea kettles, refusing to open a Facebook account. As my friend talked, I looked at her cracked lipstick, her chipped nails, the stubble poking through her grease paint; it dawned on me that most of her glamor came from her magnetic confidence, her joy and swagger. I knew in that moment that I could either try to learn about Bob’s approach to beauty or cling to my own regimen—which involved getting drunk enough to forget my face, hunting for a stranger who’d call me pretty, and then walking home on the pitch black tracks of the C train. Both approaches were frightening, but Bob’s seemed less deadly.
Of course, not all drag mothers are so inspirational. A few years back, a mother-daughter duo living in an outer-borough apartment became somewhat infamous for tearing one another apart. According to rumor, the mother turned enough tricks to buy gowns, but never paid rent, and she kept her daughter up all night with violent dramas. “You must have left the house when I was asleep,” I overheard the mother drawling once, “Because I would never let you out in public looking like this.” The acid flowed both ways. “She’s just … not talented,” the daughter told me, with the kind of hatred you reserve for someone who has hurt you deeply. Like any other friend, a drag mother is as likely to abandon you over a trivial misunderstanding—or worse, stick around to darken years of your life—as she is to lift you up.
But with Bob, I got lucky. For three years, she has been everything that the greeting cards praise in good mothers, sitting in the front row at my performances, celebrating my victories, acknowledging failures, challenging me to think bigger. Whether I’m lounging in the chaos of her living room or shepherding the uninitiated to one of her countless weekly shows, I’m always discovering something new thanks to her. But I never stop thinking back to the very first day she painted my face. How she provided every drop of makeup I needed. How she fixed up my cheap wig with a bright flower. How carefully she helped me into a tremendous white gown. When she finally turned me around to face the mirror that morning, I saw something I’d never encountered: A reflection that I wasn’t afraid to look at. It was me, and it wasn’t me. It was something to which only a drag mother could give birth.
And for that, I can only say thank you. Happy Mother’s Day, Bob.