Coming of age in the early 1990s, entering those awkward teen years, is hard enough without the added pitfalls of being what no teen really wants to be — different.
Sure, teens want to be seen as unique, but only within certain bounds. They want rebelliousness without the confrontation inherent in being truly other. I can remember kids taunting me and calling me names, and as bad as that was, at least their criticisms were external. Far more difficult was the inner struggle to self-accept. Pride, at least to me, is not the ability to gloat, but a silent comfort in one’s own skin. We all come out of our own closets. Some people hide mental illness or poverty or any number of things society tells us deserves shame. Being gay is just another one of those things, not necessarily good or bad in itself, just one facet of the jewels we call self.
In this day and age, it is unfortunate that we must still wonder whether our love is offensive to others. In some ways, I prefer blatant bigotry to the bigotry that disguises itself as politeness. When people guard their children from people like me in the media or people like me in public, they usually explain that young folks are just “not prepared” to learn about us. I am a drag queen, and my gender expression does not match my gender identity at all times.
This challenges people’s perceptions of what it means to be a man. When a man expresses traditionally feminine characteristics, men are uncomfortable for many reasons. Masculinity is seen as an ideal for all kinds of sexist reasons, but my pride of self allows me to expand my expression beyond what makes people comfortable. Drag queens are not just men in dresses, but a challenge to the entire idea of what it means to adhere to societal pressures. Without elevating myself to the level of social crusader, I feel that my pride makes others’ pride more accessible.
There is a concept within sociology referred to as the Overton Window. A shift in the Overton Window corresponds to a change in social opinion at large. When people push it beyond its current limit, they also shift the bounds of acceptability. Our role as drag queens is to allow people to accept themselves, because we represent broadened boundaries. We complicate gender in ways that open opportunities for self-expression unfettered from our usual norms.
One does not need to search long to see that more and more people are finding their pride and expressing it openly. Caitlin Jenner faces media and public scrutiny as people accuse her of capitalizing on transgenderism, but there are easier ways for someone within the Kardashian clan to receive any attention they desire than to publicly transition while in the eyes of a judgmental world.
Brave expressions of self encourage more of the same. I know not everyone is in a situation that allows them to be open, because of employment and housing discrimination, not to mention personal derision, but I encourage people to express their pride and allow others to do the same. It might take a while to find, but once you can say, “I am who I am and that’s OK,” you are one of us.
The few, the proud, the self-accepting.
Pride means something different to everybody, but that is what it means to me. As I have always said, “Just do you.”
Estella Sweet is a fierce female impersonator well-known throughout Northeastern Pennsylvania. She also manages Heat Nightclub & Bar in Wilkes-Barre.