ROYAL DRAG

This is a story that took place more than 30 years ago, at Club 57, on St.Marks Place in New York City. It has become integrated into the ‘Special Attention’ performance lecture.
The accompanying photographs were taken by Timothy Greathouse (1&2), Jo-Ann Porter (3,5,6,8&9) and Anonymous (4&7).

Photo: Timothy Greathouse for the Village Voice

Photo: Timothy Greathouse for the Village Voice


I GOT MARRIED when I was twenty… to a boy in a dress. He to a girl named Jim. At the time it didn’t feel young even though he was twice my age and apparently I was a step-grandmother. They were all back in Oakland though.

The day we got married was the 29th of July, 1981.
Now that probably doesn’t mean anything to you, but it’s the same day as Prince Charles and Lady Di. It was a performance, and the stunt was to see if we could get on TV the same day as the royal wedding. The Americans were being so ditsy about the royals that that even Ronald Reagan himself couldn’t get a word in edgeways.

Photo: Timothy Greathouse for the Village Voice

Photo: Timothy Greathouse for the Village Voice


Billy, that was his name, was to be Di, and I, though I say it myself, was a bloody good Charles look-alike. So for him I make a sequined frock from bits and pieces I find in rubbish bins, and I wear his mothbally tux with some bits of conjuring rope stitched on, meant to look like naval braid. He looks like a monkey in a dress but I could almost have fooled the princess.
Photo: Jo-Ann Porter

Photo: Jo-Ann Porter


We arrange to get married on St. Marks Place, the church upstairs from Club 57, where we can party afterwards. The Polish Catholic Church – yeah well, what did we care, it happened to be nearby. The priest insists we go to mass at least once beforehand, sure no problem.
Photo: Jo-Ann Porter

Photo: Jo-Ann Porter


But this is in the midst of all the Solidarity struggles in Poland and on the appointed morning the church is locked and there’s a note saying sorry, he’s gone to Poland where his brother has been arrested. Where to find a priest prepared to marry us on the steps of someone else’s locked church?
The Yellow Pages – under clergy.

We phone around, starting with the addresses closest to the Lower East Side, but it isn’t until we get as far away as Brooklyn that someone agrees, checking – Now y’all does realise I’m a black preacher man?
Fine by us! St Marks Polish Catholic Church, one o’clock. See you later.

All the guests are in drag too, the queen mother, towering over everyone, her enormous hairy back spilling out of a low-cut summer dress, all wobbly heels and garish mascara, a huge hat made from a red and green pizza-box casting a shadow over her moustache. A girl in tartan trousers and army beret purporting to be Prince Edward. Loads of flowery bonnets and white gloves.

Photo: Jo-Ann Porter

Photo: Jo-Ann Porter


Trying not to be too concerned that the preacher still hasn’t shown up, we lead the parade several times up and down the block. Then there’s this jittery looking chap in a pin-stripe suit and a homburg hat on the corner, looking like a bit-part Harlem pimp, and with this big book under his arm. That’s got to be our man.
I introduce myself and he can hardly get a word out for stuttering with embarrassment – Ah’m s-s-s-sorry. Y’ see the ch-church jus’ don’t b-b-believe in this k-k-k-kinda thing… Ah mean this is a g-g-g-g… a g-g-g-g… a g-g-g-gay wedding?
Nah! I’m a girl! It’s just for publicity! Well any New Yorker can understand that. No problem.
Photo: Jo-Ann Porter

Photo: Jo-Ann Porter


So he lines us all up on the steps of the church which isn’t his, puts on a black robe over his pin-stripes and reads from his big bible. But he keeps on getting the words all mixed up.
Accord¬ing to the laws of God and New York State, do you take this man to be your lawful wedded wife?… I mean husband?… I mean… Aw shit!.. Jus’ say ‘I do’!
Photo: Jo-Ann Porter

Photo: Jo-Ann Porter


By the end of the ceremony he’s thawed totally and he sticks around to eat a piece of the wedding cake and dance with the bride – I mean husband, aw shit, whatever!
Photo: Jo-Ann Porter Cake: Sur Rodney Sur

Photo: Jo-Ann Porter Cake: Sur Rodney Sur


My dad only found out about me getting married when some American friend of his phoned up to say they’d just seen his daughter’s wedding on the telly.

Years after we’d split up, Billy phones, all sentimental, saying he loves me, asking me to marry him again. The old tell-tale slur to the words – I don’t think so!
Later I see the headlines, realise that Ferguie and Prince Andrew have set a date, and I catch on. He always used to phone up every once in a while, Billy, wishing me a happy birthday in August (my birthday’s in November) or sending a Valentines card in May. Now it’s been so long, I guess he’s either dead or in jail.

Yeah well, that’s the kind hand-to-mouth life that trailed him. A series of minor disasters that you could sometimes nip in the bud and other times just have to submit to – like when you can see that the milk pan is boiling over but you’ve just taken a mouthful of toast and the split second you take panicking whether to blow it down with a mouthful of chewed crumbs means that it’s too late, the milk’s all over the stove already.
Once when he and his Mexican buddy had been drinking themselves completely legless on tequila they then tried to drive back to Oakland across the Golden Gate Bridge. The car zigzagging back and forth like a cartoon of a drunk, the inevitable happens. And whilst the friend gets taken up in front with the cops, Billy and I are left in the car hooked up behind their pick-up truck. Billy, hollering unintelligibly to himself, rolls down the windows and starts throw¬ing everything he can find out over the bridge.
The friend is a parole officer and a poet, and all these boxes of files and paperwork are getting chucked out of the window into the water below. Billy’s acting on the lifelong assumption that worse trouble is always lurking and has somehow got it into his head that if there are cops then there must be something incriminating in the car and that he was doing the friend a favour by ditching the evidence.
Everything goes – the poor guy’s sleeping bag, his tool-kit, all his work – everything.
We got through a few friends because of the drinking.

Photo: Jo-Ann Porter

Photo: Jo-Ann Porter


When we get to the other side of the Golden Gate the cops just dump us, side of the road, middle of the night, middle of nowhere. Billy gets mad and takes it out on me as usual. Like it was all my fault. As punishment he demands his shoes back.
At times like this it’s better to play along and not argue, so fuck him, what do I care. I sit there barefoot, shivering, waiting for his brother, the one they still call Junior, to pick us up, bless him. That’s family, coming out at 4 o’clock in the morning for this kind of thing.

It was the last time we ever saw Junior. Five months later he shot himself through the head because he couldn’t afford to buy stuff for his daughter’s Christmas, stuff she’d seen on TV.

I’ve heard nothing from Billy for a long, long time now. 15 years he’s just vanished.
Perhaps he didn’t manage to survive the chain of disasters he attracted. Comedy turned tragedy that no well-timed double-take and swift ‘it’s-behind-you’ could get him out of. Keeping thinking that maybe sometime soon Prince William would announce his engagement and a wedding date, and that maybe Billy’ll phone up asking me to marry him again and we can both put on disguises and pretend to be somebody else again for a while.