If you think that drag is just about a man wearing false eyelashes and a pussycat wig, or it’s just a woman wearing a pair of glued-on sideburns and an Elvis jumpsuit, then you have not heard the Gospel of RuPaul.
If you’re a smart and sensitive soul, and your eyes are wide open to the ugly mediocrity and hypocrisy of this world, and you’re angry and bitter, then you have not heard the Gospel of RuPaul.
RuPaul’s Gospel takes the ordinary sense of what drag is and completely transforms it into a spiritual philosophy that heals the anger and bitterness. It “tickles the brain.” That’s how RuPaul himself puts it.
He says, “It gives people something to live for.”
He says, “When you become the image of your own imagination, it’s the most powerful thing you could ever do.”
Now, even if you happen to be a Jesus or a Buddha, you just don’t invent your Gospel out of nothing. Others are always helping, others are always contributing to the Good News vision that’s going to be born through you. One of these folks was RuPaul’s tenth-grade drama teacher, Mr. Pannell–a father figure. “At the time,” says RuPaul, “I was going through a teenage drama of my own. My bad grades had finally caught up with me, and I was being faced with expulsion from the only school I had ever really enjoyed going to. My teacher, seeing how shaken up I was, calmly pulled me to the side and said with an even tone, ‘The most important thing to remember, RuPaul, is to not take life too seriously.’” Hearing this, RuPaul said to himself “Excuse me? … I am about to get kicked out of the only school I ever loved, and your advice for me is ‘don’t take life too seriously’? Are you for real?” “Of course,” says RuPaul, “the truth and wisdom of his advice was lost on me then, but I never forgot it. In fact, over the next thirty years, it would become the creed I live my life by.” It was “The best advice I’ve ever gotten.”
Someone was telling me about how he has a running joke with a friend. From time to time they look at each other and declare, thunderously, “Do you have any idea how important I think I am?” And whatever real struggle they may be dealing with actually gets a bit smaller, in proportion to how much they laugh.
Our lives always get tangled up, but if we are taking things way too heavily and personally, instead of finessing things so they get untangled, the opposite happens. A tangle becomes a hard knot.
Stressing out is the worst problem-solving strategy there is.
But we do take our lives way too seriously. In part, it’s because we’re shamed, and shame locks a person down. You were born, you had natural human needs, but the people who were supposed to take care of you, for some reason, could not care for you and made you feel like a nuisance. Shame.
Or, Like RuPaul, you’re a guy but you liked to run around the yard with a pink dress on. Culture wants strict conformity to the social identities and roles we’re born into. Culture wants you to live within that narrowness. Culture says, pink dresses are just for girls. And so you got punished for it, again and again punished, until the shame became internalized, and now you don’t need anyone on the outside punishing you. You do it to yourself.
We’ll do practically anything to evade the pain of shame. So we accept the brainwashing. We earnestly come to believe that limits of our social identities define the limits of our total potentiality. We drink up the idea that this is who we are and there is nothing more than that.
Growing up, RuPaul heard the message like the rest of us, learned it, knew it by heart.
But again and again, lessons came contradicting it.
One day, when RuPaul was five, his sister Renata put some chocolate chip cookies in a paper bag, grabbed a blanket, and then led him out into the back yard, spread out the blanket, opened up the paper bag and gave him a cookie, and said, “Ru, Ru, this is a picnic!” It taught him that you can turn something that is completely mundane into something magical. Take the situation too literally and all you have is a blanket and a bag of cookies. But imagination, unleashed, reveals that there’s always more to life than meets the eye.
Aliveness is about not allowing the limits of the world you encounter to limit you. Refusing that. Facing the shame, finally, and learning how to heal it. So that the stage is set for becoming the image of your own imagination.
The most powerful thing you could ever do….
So when, as a boy, RuPaul saw Black comedian Flip Wilson on TV, in drag as Geraldine, oh how funny it was to him, liberating, fabulous. Extravaganza eleganza! He wanted to sing and dance and be just like that.
On TV he also saw Diana Ross. It was the Ed Sullivan show and she’s singing “Baby Love” and she scrunches her shoulders up and he does that too, he’s imitating her, he’s practicing her big eyes and big smiles.
All this is happening in San Diego in the 1970s and it was very white and very conservative and he felt the pressure of that, to color within the lines.
He wasn’t buying into any of it.
His big hero was David Bowie. About him RuPaul says, “Everything that I felt on the inside he was doing on the outside.” David Bowie’s genderfluidity was a symbol of an aliveness that was bigger than stereotypical labels and narrow social roles that can take people over and make them forget their deeper, essential selves.
Thus the Gospel of RuPaul: here it is: “Drag isn’t just a man wearing false eyelashes and a pussycat wig. Drag isn’t just a woman with a pair of glued on sideburns and an Elvis jumpsuit. Drag is everything. I don’t differentiate drag from dressing up or dressing down. Whatever you put on after you get out of the shower is your drag. Be it a three-piece suit or a Chanel suit, a McDonald’s uniform or a police uniform, the truth of who you really are is not defined by your clothes.”
Do you see my drag? It’s this stole, this suit, these colorful socks.
I’m a drag queen. Yes, I just said that.
Now look at yourself. Look at your drag.
And now think: what more could there be? What more wants to be, through you? Perhaps all you think you’ve been given in life is a bag of cookies and a blanket in the backyard.
But are you taking your life way too literally? Could there be more? Could there be something different?
Does shame hold you hostage, and keep you from showing your deeper, truer self?
“The biggest obstacle I ever faced,” RuPaul says, “was my own limited perception of myself.”
He’s not alone in that.
RuPaul says, “I do not impersonate females! How many women do you know who wear seven-inch heels, four-foot wigs, and skintight dresses?”
RuPaul says, “I don’t dress like a woman; I dress like a drag queen!”
You see, drag is bigger than just dress considerations. At least for RuPaul, it’s trying to get at something far larger. He likes to say, “We’re all born naked and the rest is drag,” and that sounds funny and flip, but we need to stop and pay attention, we need to go deeper, because what he’s saying is very deep, as deep as the sayings of any Existentialist philosopher. He’s saying that human nature at the core is fundamentally free, creative, and playful.
Which leads to the big question: what, then, will we do with all our freedom? If, in some grand sense, we are all drag queens, what are we going to do with our drag?
One thing is to mock culture, which is really about taking back freedom. Culture wants people to play dumb, but no, RuPaul is too smart for that. Thus, the mockery. “And it’s not only drag queens who have blown the lid off of culture’s lunacy and hypocrisy,” he reminds us. “Comedians, rock stars, and even Bugs Bunny have built celebrated careers on irreverence and challenging the status quo…. [A]ncient cultures … relied on drag queens, shamans, and witch doctors to remind each individual member of the tribe of their duality as male and female, human and spirit, body and soul.” Not just one or the other, but both/and.
Thus the mockery that drag makes of all that is narrow. Seven-inch heels, four-foot wigs, and skintight dresses are all about making fun. Names like Jinks Monsoon, Pearl Liaison, Trixie Mattel, Acid Betty–other names I can’t mention in this rated G context–they are all meant to disturb the peace of a culture whose narrowness can kill.
Narrowness killed Matthew Shepard.
Narrowness led to the Pulse massacre.
Any culture in which such travesties can happen is stricken by lunacy and hypocrisy. The fire-breathing, going-to-hell conservative preacher who condemns anything that’s not traditionally male or traditionally female and can even incite and invite the violence–but look who’s exposed as having a same-sex affair on the side? So often it happens just like that.
And how tragic, too, for the fire-breathing, going-to-hell conservative preacher who is so caught up in the narrowness of who he is supposed to be that he can’t be true to the person he really is.
There is so much to mock. The shamans and witch doctors and drag queens–from ancient times till now–have their work cut out for them.
But besides mocking culture, another thing we get from RuPaul is the invitation to look back at ourselves growing up from a drag queen perspective. To use our freedom in this way too. We heard this in the video clip a moment ago, with regard to Kennedy Davenport, but I want to quote what is said when RuPaul goes on to talk with Pearl Liaison–the one whose outfit he jokingly describes as “new from the Dee Snyder Intimates Collection.” “You were born naked,” RuPaul says, “but you’ve grown to become a fierce drag queen. Here’s a photo of you as a little bitty boy. Now if you could time travel what would Pearl have to say to little Matthew?”
And Pearl says, “Ahhh god, I’d have to start with a warning. You’re about to enter the toughest years of your life and it’s gonna suck really bad for a long time and people are going to [mess] you up and take advantage of you and people are going to be looking at you from across the room for so many years and you’re not going to understand why.” And Pearl cries and cries….
And then RuPaul asks, “Do you understand why now?” Pearl nods yes, yes, yes, and then RuPaul says, “You’re a star baby.”
Two quotes from RuPaul will help make sense of what’s happening here:
“When you become the image of your own imagination, it’s the most powerful thing you could ever do.” We’ve already heard this one.
But here’s a new one: “If you are trigger-happy and you’re looking for a reason to reinforce your own victimhood, your own perception of yourself as a victim, you’ll look for anything that will reinforce that.”
It all adds up to this: To look at yourself from a drag queen perspective is to remember the pain of your life and to feel the temptation to reinforce your own victimhood, but you don’t. You step back from that. You choose to become the image of your own imagination, as far as possible. It’s the most powerful thing you could ever do.
From spiritual teacher Clarissa Pinkola Estes comes a prayer that is an amen to what RuPaul is getting at:
Refuse to fall down.
If you cannot refuse to fall down,
refuse to stay down.
If you cannot refuse to stay down,
lift your heart toward heaven,
and like a hungry beggar,
ask that it be filled.
You may be pushed down.
You may be kept from rising.
But no one can keep you from lifting your heart
It is in the middle of misery
that so much becomes clear.
The one who says nothing good
came of this,
is not yet listening.
That’s Clarissa Pinkola Estes’ amen to RuPaul.
Today, on this Pride Sunday, I want each of you to look at yourself from that fierce powerful drag queen perspective. Because you are a star, baby.
And you are even more than that, according to RuPaul’s Gospel. There is yet another level to all of this. RuPaul wants everyone to know that “You are an extension of the power that created the whole universe.” “The truth,” he says, “is that you are a spiritual being having a human experience. The human part of the experience is temporary. Think of it as a t-shirt and a pair of jeans. Your spiritual being is not temporary. It is eternal. Think of it as the sun and the moon. That’s why the saying ‘You’re born naked and the rest is drag’ couldn’t be more true.”
And this is the full and entire Gospel. Our drag actually does not end with our nakedness but extends even to include our physical human body and our basic individuality that comes with a name and a history. Before all of that was born in a certain place and time, you were.
You are eternal.
A Vedanta Hindu would put it like this: Atman is Brahman. But RuPaul just says: “You are God in drag.”
[Head exploding sound]
[More head exploding sound]
Perhaps you came this morning really thinking that drag is just about a man wearing false eyelashes and a pussycat wig, or it’s just a woman wearing a pair of glued-on sideburns and an Elvis jumpsuit. But now you’ve heard the Gospel of RuPaul.
Perhaps you came this morning with eyes are wide open to the ugly mediocrity and hypocrisy of this world, and you’re angry and bitter. But now you’ve heard the Gospel.
In life we face a lot of obstacles. Everyone does, some more than others. But the biggest obstacle people ever face is their own limited perception of themselves.
Don’t believe the voice of shame. You weren’t born with shame. That was put inside you, to control you. Don’t believe it.
The truth of who you are is abundance. Abundance is the truth of who you are.
Extravaganza eleganza is you.
Don’t let anyone steal that.
Take that power back.