I frequently ask myself some of the following questions…
James Michael Joiner: When did you start doing drag?
Loretta Good Lordchild: When did you start doing drag?
JMJ: Five? Six? I used to put on shows and make my family buy tickets to them. My grandmother had this wig and big bead necklaces. And then as an adolescent I frequently played with my imaginary hair, constantly brushing the air out of my face for an audience of none. I wanted to be Candice Bergen.
JMJ: It’s funny that you didn’t start doing drag when Hedwig came out.
LGL: I know! I was obsessed with Hedwig. But the drag part didn’t really register with me as much as the songwriting did. So I taught myself how to play guitar.
JMJ: When did drag register?
LGL: In a commercial way, with Drag Race probably. I was a Chaplain Resident for the mental health unit of the Portland VA Medical Center and my office mate and I joked that our clinical training was basically like Drag Race, in terms of the challenges to personal growth, at least. But in a visceral way it was watching Pepper Pepper host things around town. I think it was a Dark Night of the Soul storytelling event which they were hosting where I first realized, “oh, you’re doing what I do as a priest.”
JMJ: In terms of working the crowd?
LGL: In terms of holding sacred space. I have this very clear memory of Pepper using their words and bodily presence to create a container which we as audience were entering together, which I imagine the other storytellers feel like they got to enter as well. A safe space, a risky space, a space for witness. It attracted our attention towards seeing and being seen. She did this thing at the end where she read a list of fragments and words she had written down from everyone’s stories and I was really impressed by that.
JMJ: So it wasn’t the glamour that drew you in?
LGL: Oh of course it was glamour. I was studying the Satipatthana Sutta and fascinated by all the little disconnected bits that make a person up, how a change in pigment or light or shadow could transfigure someone’s face, what these little points of color can communicate to others and ourselves. Glamour possesses that communication with a certain intentionality. Faced with the scrutiny of someone else’s gaze there is some power to be had in directing it, in saying, “this is what I want you to see.” I was curious, for myself, if wearing something on my skin would direct my own attention to something deeper, whether I’d see something new by exhibiting my femininity in a highly extroverted way.
JMJ: Have you had trouble accessing your femininity?
LGL: I’ve had trouble accepting it. I’ve had aversions to it because it got me picked on as a kid. In some circles the exaggerated femininity of drag can be a reaction to a performer’s or audience’s own toxic masculinity. I know the ideas of maleness I’ve put on have often been a defense against the threat I’ve perceived against femininity in myself.
JMJ: Has drag changed that at all?
LGL: I think so. Buying heels embarrassed me at first, so I had to ask myself, what am I ashamed of, here? Do I find it shameful to cross this arbitrary gender line about shoes and why? Same for the clothes. Suddenly I had to face this bias I had that feminine presentation was somehow less than male presentation, perhaps especially for someone assigned male at birth. I don’t think I was aware of how hard that line was drawn for me until I tried crossing it, that was eye opening. I can be narcissistic and I hate that it had to be about me to get how deep my gender norm biases were rooted but there you go.
JMJ: I’ve become aware of it in my daily life. I think if I weren’t so fearful of what other people think my daily gender presentation would be much more fluid and ambiguous.
LGL: Yea, because you’re so butch now!
JMJ: I’m not. But I am plain. I guess I don’t have to wear black all the time. It’s just funny to me that what I appreciate most in others I don’t exhibit in myself more regularly. Living in New York for a while my favorite thing was the extravagant street fashion, especially when it queered with gender, but I’m not like that, unless I’m on stage.
LGL: And even then it’s not like anyone has accused you of being a fashion queen.
JMJ: True, that. I remember at first wanting to look really plain in drag, too, like “just a normal girl.” Part of the same fear, maybe? But then I realized that if I didn’t exaggerate it on stage it’d never read in the back row. I get asked a lot about whether drag is degrading to women, especially from a lot of women in my life who don’t go to drag shows often. Discuss.
LGL: Yes. It’s like, do you start acting stupider when you put on a wig? Do you start acting stronger? One person in my life thought I was “bitchier”, and you have to ask, “does that mean powerful in a feminine way? Self-assured for a woman? ‘Nasty’ etc.” I know for myself expressions of infantilized femininity come from a suppressed anima, so I try to ask, what does that part of me look like when not suppressed? What does she do in her free time?
JMJ: I think I’ve seen that in your Holy Mother of God routines, where your Blessed Virgin Mary seems to be played by a melange of Carol Burnett and Stockard Channing. At one point she gave birth to the whole world and then kicked it aside to flirt with someone on the front row.
LGL: Yea, someone called that slutty. Again, why? Because she’s choosing how to spend her time? Playing Mary has the same loaded expectations that a sexy nun trope does. She’s supposed to be pure so it’s supposed to be scandalous if she’s not. Or maybe it’s supposed to be liberating when she’s not. Some parts of Christian art and piety focus on Mary as this mystic point of communion with God, and in turn are very concerned with which parts of the story constitute her consent to that projection. Lots of people looking at that story from outside the tradition find the consent questionable, or at least curious. That whole dynamic is much more interesting to me than purity, but they’re linked, of course.
JMJ: Now we’re talking about what I went to grad school for!
LGL: Indeed. May I ask you a few questions, now?
Loretta Good Lordchild: When people find out you’re a priest, what do you think they want to know about you?
James Michael Joiner: I think they want to know if I really believe it all.
LGL: Do you?
JMJ: Yes, in the way that belief and trust overlap with each other. When I hear stories about Jesus I find myself remembering the people in my life whom I have loved and trusted wholeheartedly. Sometimes I imagine one of them telling me, “Look, I’ve come from God and I’m going to God and I’ll be gone and it will be terrible but I’ll come back to take you with me, trust me,” and I find myself nodding and thinking, “right, of course.” It’s queer, but faith is a little queer, at least in the sense of operating out of a part of our personhood which isn’t limited to rules and rationality.
LGL: Reason is in vogue right now.
JMJ: Is it, though? The Enlightenment project of rationality seems to have taken a real beating and religion has played a part of that. Post-Enlightenment Christianity had two basic approaches: deny that reason has any place in the life of faith or use tools of reason to pick it apart. Neither has worked out well. When people say they’re spiritual now I think that many are looking for ways to access intuitive or non-rational means of being in touch with reality.
LGL: What is real?
JMJ: “The state of nature from which we have been forever severed by our entrance into language.” At least that’s what Jacques Lacan thought. It’s neat to me that Christianity calls Jesus “the Word of God,” because a word is such an abstract thing and flesh and blood is so concrete. I think it’s a way of communicating a thin place between what we can and cannot describe, where words fail and we find ourselves in the presence of something we cannot explain, something larger than our human limits. That’s what faith is to me.
LGL: Do you pray?
JMJ: Constantly. At least I constantly find myself talking to what is beyond me. Prayer, for me, is a way of unselfing, of taking a shoddily constructed self out of the equation and speaking with what remains. Like instead of saying, “Lord Jesus give me strength to deal with so-and-so,” I try to say, “Ah, look, here’s this frustration, here’s this aversion, and if we look just a little harder there’s some loving understanding and compassion, too, which seems beyond ‘me’ and somewhere between ‘me’ and the ‘other’ but perhaps within reach.” I talk to Love. What does Love want? How does Love see this person? But I’m a Jesus freak, so it comes out as “Lord Baby Jesus please just help…” most often.
LGL: How has drag impacted your life as a priest?
JMJ: It’s brought a lot of balance into my life. When I first put a wig on my head and got a microphone in my hand it was like this giant sigh of relief coming over me. Like, “ah, this is better.” I’ve always been a natural born performer and I think that played a big role in how I got into preaching, but it turns out that being a priest is not so much about that at all. Someone probably tried to tell me that before I became one but I wouldn’t have listened then. It helps to be comfortable in front of a crowd, but you have to be able to help hold the attention of a group of people without making yourself the center of it. I’ve always been self-conscious of my strong need for attention so it’s good to have a place where I can exercise that. I’ve seen what it looks like when someone isn’t aware of that dynamic as a public minister and it stinks. So the drag is an outlet but also a lab because I feel more like myself in and out of different drag and I think it ends up making me more comfortable in other roles.
LGL: What could the church stand to learn from drag?
JMJ: I enjoy the iconoclasm of camp sensibility. Sometimes I think the Church has trouble distinguishing between reverence for what is beyond us and taking ourselves too seriously. Christianity and Judaism are both very concerned with idolatry, calling out what we’ve made our own gods out of. In the Bible it’s idols of wood and gold but for us now of course there’s all kinds of other things, too. Ceremony can be idolatrous, theology can be idolatrous, clinging too tightly to ideas of right practice, it’s all a fine line. I love drag’s determination to take an idol from culture and simultaneously revere and satirize it, to actually love it through laughing at it and tearing it down, being honest about what’s ridiculous. The faeries do this especially well also.
LGL: Radical faeries?
JMJ: Yes. My time hanging out with radical faeries in and around Portland coincided with my exploration of drag. The faeries have been around since the beginning of time but as a self-identified subculture since the late 70s. Realizing I was a faerie was like realizing I was gay. It’s not just that I’m attracted to men, I am culturally gay. I see my queerness as a spiritual gift. And here are the faeries living that value in really practical ways, taking care of each other, creating family, rebuking culture, grappling with consciousness. I see them as an embodiment of an incarnational love that Christianity has had hesitation around when it comes to daily life. When I’m doing drag in my mind I’m kind of being a radical faerie publicly.
LGL: Like a walking heart circle?
JMJ: Basically. People tell me things. In and out of drag. Which I’m glad for, because my favorite thing is when someone really listens to me. If I can do that for someone I’m glad. The fact that the faeries sit around in giant circles and just listen to each other still blows my mind. Where else are gay men doing that? Or anyone? It’s the most powerful form of spiritual communion I’ve ever seen. It’s what I think church should be like. And then at night that circle can change into a “No/Know-Talent Show” where that attention is given to people in performance where they are safe to take risks and sometimes be complete messes and it’s the most beautiful thing ever. I’d like to be a walking no-talent show, too, where people feel like they can show me what they’re working on regardless of polish.
LGL: Where can folks find you being a complete mess next?
JMJ: Most Sundays at St. Michael & All Angels Episcopal Church! 9 & 11! And this Sunday is also our reunion show of Comedy is a Drag! at the Funhouse Lounge, 8pm, $3. It’s sure to be a hoot.
LGL: It’s been a hoot, chatting today.
JMJ: Thanks, the feeling is mutual.
Oh, what? You were looking for an actual interview? How about this one?