James McMurtry on Performing in Drag: ‘Every Man Should Wear a Dress Once or Twice’

Music

James McMurtry took the title of his 2002 song “Red Dress” quite literally while playing a string of concerts earlier this month. The songwriter performed the song at gigs in Knoxville and Nashville, Tennessee — and, on Friday night, in New Braunfels, Texas — dressed in drag to protest an increasing slate of anti-LGBTQ legislation being introduced across the nation.

In an essay for Rolling Stone, McMurtry explains why he donned his red dress for the encore with opening act BettySoo (herself dressed as a man) and why the right-wing panic over drag and gender orientation is motivated by fear.

My bandmates and I stopped over in Greenville Texas on the way home from Nashville after our brief foray into civil disobedience. I don’t like to do more than eight hours in a van anymore if I can help it. So we stopped in Greenville, where a sign that read, “Welcome to Greenville, Blackest Land, Whitest People” had hung over the main street well into the 1970s. The city took the sign down, but I don’t know if the populace ever discarded the sentiment, which seems to be resurgent all over the country, if it ever went away at all. I got a text from BettySoo, by then somewhere way up I-81 on her way to Vermont to visit her boyfriend, Charlie. She said Rachel Maddow might mention us on her show that night if there was time. Charlie and Ms. Maddow are buddies. It pays to know the right people. Later that night, I appeared on national TV for the first time since I was on Letterman in 1989, and this time I didn’t have  to pay a dime to anyone on Madison Avenue to make it happen. All I had to do was know the right people and put on a red dress.

Every man should wear a dress once or twice, just to learn a thing or two. They’re damned inconvenient and often flimsily built. During our rapid, pre-encore wardrobe change for the second of our three Tennessee shows, my zipper jammed beyond repair, but the show must go on, so I wound up showing some back that night. Bettysoo sewed some hooks into the back for the final performance, for which I also donned fishnet stockings. Even with socks on, it took a while to work my toes down through those fishnets. No one had yet hipped me to the technique of bunching them up and pulling them on from the toes up. Good thing I put the fishnets on before the show and wore them under my Wranglers, or I would never have completed that wardrobe change. My ex wife said I should try heels if I really want to empathize (too steep a learning curve, thank you).

When we walked out for those encores, we thought we were risking arrest, though we didn’t think arrest was actually likely. The staff at the Bijou Theatre in Knoxville said that one guy got really upset at the encore, went outside and flagged down a police officer and demanded that the officer come in and arrest me. The officer shrugged and walked away. We had somehow missed the news that a federal judge had put the Tennessee anti-drag law on hold due to its unconstitutional vagueness. We didn’t find out until we saw ourselves in a cell phone video on Maddow.

In the video, and in the still shots I’ve seen from the Tennessee shows, I don’t look particularly female. I just look like a pasty old white guy in a dress. My friend, Fred Koller, writer of Eighties-era country hits for various artists, and one of the last old-school antiquarian booksellers, dubbed me “That Old Rugged Crossdresser.” Liberace, in his day, was so much prettier than I’ll ever be. He was on network TV every week for a while, and later had yearly specials, if I recall correctly. I don’t remember anyone feeling threatened by Liberace. No one worried about him influencing or “grooming” their kids. Now the right is all in a wad about drag performers corrupting and possibly molesting children. Right. A drag show is not a target-rich environment for pedophiles. Pedophiles tend to gravitate towards positions of authority with access to children, such as the priesthood, camp counselors, positions where they are granted the trust of the parents by virtue of their station. Priests and preachers have long been thought to all be godly men, and therefore trustworthy, but we’ve seen lots of evidence to the contrary in recent years. There seems to be some hysteria over the influence of drag performers, trickle down from the anti-trans anti-gay hysteria, the usual talk about the “Gay Agenda,” the idea that sexual orientation is a choice and therefore subject to influence. Drag performers aren’t all gay or trans, but they all defy the traditional gender roles so sacred to the right, and are therefore to be vilified by the right lest the children of the right think it’s OK to be different.

Right wingers know, like the rest of us, that sexual orientation is hard-wired, not a choice, probably genetic, and that’s what scares them. They know it’s hard-wired, but they’ve been trained to believe any form of LGBT is a sin and a curse, and if it shows up in their bloodline it will bring shame on the family name. And if society at large evolves to the point where being LGBT is truly accepted, some son or daughter of some small town Baptist deacon or Methodist minister might think it’s OK to come out and folks would talk.

Small towns can be deadly places. In a small town in which most of the current residents were born and raised, inhabited by the same families for generations, you can count on your neighbors in times of need. But those same neighbors are watching you like the hawks on the phone poles. There is no anonymity in a small town, anything you do can and will be held against you. My paternal grandparents lived most of their years in a blinking-stoplight town of 1500 people. After 43 years of bitter marriage, they separated, but they never filed for divorce, because divorce proceedings are public record, folks would know and folks would talk, and the one thing my grandparents agreed upon was that they didn’t want to be talked about. My parents’ divorce, in the Sixties, was a crushing blow to both sides of my family. The lurking, creeping, paralyzing, old-world fear of family shame is a handy tool for the rising fascists, especially here in the United States, where, due to congressional gerrymandering, the rural conservative vote often outweighs the urban and suburban progressive vote. There are lots and lots of those small American towns, where social life is structured mostly around church and high school sports and few dare to step outside the local cultural norm. And in such places, a resident can take a few minutes and drop by the courthouse or the high school on voting day to cast his or her vote on the way back to work after a Dairy Queen lunch, unlike residents of the East side of Austin who might have to stand in line for three hours to vote, their wages docked for each hour.

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Long ago, as a child, I rummaged through one of my grandmother’s scrapbooks and found a snapshot of a skinny old man standing on a bandstand wearing a black, one-piece women’s bathing suit and grinning. I asked my grandmother who it was and she said, ”Oh that’s Daddy,” meaning my grandfather, whom I didn’t recognize, having never seen him in anything but his long sleeve shirts and his Levis stuffed in the tops of his hand-made boots. Granny said the picture was from some local charity event at which everyone got a good laugh. “We put balloons in the suit for his bosom,” she said. I know I didn’t dream that scene. It’s been 50 years since anyone’s used the word “bosom” for breasts. My grandmother got a laugh out of her husband in drag. Most of the blue hairs of that time seemed to think Liberace was “just such a sight.” Nobody said a word about “Geraldine Jones” whom we kids mimicked on the school bus on Friday morning after watching The Flip Wilson Show the night before. Grandparents of our current time, who are my age, are too busy banning books and drag shows to develop a sense of humor.

So we did our little bit for humanity in Tennessee, but it won’t be enough. Artists can only point out the problem. The whole populace will have to do the work of fixing the problem. Unfortunately, the poor, who don’t really have the time, will still have to do most of the work, because they have the numbers. The rest of us can and must help. We can vote. We can rent vans and drive people to the polls, hand out water to those in line, where such action is not already illegal. Everybody do their little bit, and we might have a chance. 

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