The Unapologetic Gender Trouble of Flame Monroe

Flame Monroe (right) and actress Thea Vidale attend the 2005 BET Comedy Icon Awards.

Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

If Marcus Parker gets his reality show—and based on the sizzle reel he and his wife posted on Facebook last week, I expect TLC is already on the phone—you can expect a rash of tortured articles not seen since the My Husband’s Not Gay mini-boom of early 2015. Parker, perhaps better known by his drag persona Flame Monroe, is a bisexual, self-identified transgender person who has had surgical interventions to create breasts and other feminine characteristics but who currently lives as a man when he’s at home with his three children and lesbian wife. He’s also a conservative Christian who doesn’t support full marriage equality.

According to a short profile that ran in the Chicago Tribune back in 2011, Parker explored his gender identity from an early age. The author of the piece happened to know Parker from their days growing up in a South Side project:

Parker rarely played sports, but he jumped double Dutch rope better than most of the girls. He was petite and cute and walked like a girl, which in our neighborhood also meant he had to fight and that, too, was like a girl. And yet he was outgoing and self-assured with a tough exterior.

Parker began to reshape his body at the age of 23, but, according to his own account, stopped short of a “bottom” M-to-F surgery after participating in sex with a heterosexual couple. He continued to live his life as a woman, however, until his girlfriend, the mother of his children, left him.

“Before I had children, I was living a whole ‘nother life—I was living as a girl 24 hours a day,” Parker recounts in the video. “My sacrifice came when I had children and their mom left, and I had a choice: Do I take my career, or do I take my children?” He goes on to explain his choice: “I’m a transgender man who lives his life now as a man, so that my children can have some kind of normalcy in their lives. Because I’m already extreme.”

What I love about Parker is his refusal—or perhaps inability is a better word—to live his life by the current LGBTQ politically correct playbook. Like the men profiled in My Husband’s Not Gay, Parker’s political and moral commitments challenge the idea that all queer people must share the same values to merit the descriptor. But more than that, his very body and shifting gender expression do not compute under a paradigm of discrete identities and ever-broadening enumeration. Is he a trans man, as he puts it? Or is trans woman more accurate? How does being a professional drag queen factor in? Can a trans woman do female drag? Does his “living as a man” mean he’s doing a kind of male drag at home? And we haven’t even broached the topic of which sexuality labels are “appropriate” considering his relationship with a sort-of-butch lesbian woman. 

Of course, the value of a show like this is to demonstrate that, at some point, these kinds of questions cease to matter. Parker has made a family and a life for himself that clearly brings him joy; the details shouldn’t concern us. But then again, individuals like Parker who live at the margins of our neatly schematized vision of gender and sexuality—or really, who bounce from the margin to the center of the page and back again—do the important work of highlighting how arbitrary and fragile such schemas always are. I’m someone who spends much of my waking life thinking about sexuality and gender, and I’ll be honest: Parker’s story throws me for a loop. I, for one, welcome the ride, and if the series gets picked up, I hope reality show viewers will, too.