When you’re a performer and you perform in as many drag shows as I have over the years, you get to meet a lot of people. You get to see a wide variety of personalities, some big and some more reserved. Brenda Starr was generally one of the more reserved people I’ve met at a show, but her presence was very powerful in its own way. Brenda and her wife Jane were frequent audience members at our shows at the I-Beam for years, and they always had supportive encouraging things to say. They also introduced numerous of their friends and family to the shows as well, and their smiles were infectious. Less often, Doug would be the one attending the shows in place of his femme alter-ego, because of tight schedules or other events but he was just as enthusiastic and supportive as Brenda. Since the I-Beam closed, I haven’t seen nearly as much of Brenda and Jane as I would have liked; it’s difficult when you don’t have an established place to call your own. Regardless of how people felt about the I-Beam, and I know that the feelings about that place really do run the gamut, it was still a recognized place for queer folks and their supporters to gather, enjoy a good show, and have a fun night out.
My heart broke when I heard that Brenda/Doug had passed away. We weren’t the kind of friends who saw each other every day or spent a lot of time together; I met Brenda at the shows and I pretty much only saw her at shows, unless I happened to run into her while I was out shopping for goodies in Fargo before or after a show night. But we were friends. We were the type of friends who are united by a shared passion, who meet each other, look in each other’s eyes and know, “You are my kind.” To keep it country, we were folk.
Brenda and I probably had very different reasons for exploring gender and femininity, but we never let that get in the middle of our friendship. Far too often, that isn’t the case with us queer and trans folks. The Q and T is a big umbrella, and it can be lonely; once we start to figure out who we are, it can be tempting to want to find others who are just like us. We like that spark of recognition, that “OMG, me too!” feeling that comes from finding someone who shares our interests, our curiosities, our passions. But there is also the potential to build up walls. Sometimes drag queens and cross-dressers keep each other at arm’s length; sometimes they keep other at the length of a football field! Maybe the cross-dressers are put off by how the drag queens can be just so “out there” with their look, so in-your-face with their personas. Sometimes the drag queens don’t get why the cross-dressers may want to explore a more subtle expression of femininity, or why being passable would even be something to strive for. This is very reductive of course. There are all different kinds of drag queens with all different kinds of personas, and there are some cross-dressers that don’t give a fat flying fuck about trying to be passable. But these are some of the concerns I’ve run into over the years. Instead of getting together to talk about why each of us has chosen to explore and play with and reproduce and parody femininity, we build our little boxes and gate our little communities.
Brenda was never a gatekeeper. She was warm and welcoming and she loved getting to know other people who had the same interest in trying to figure out all of this crazy mixed up gender stuff that she did. She even ventured up on the stage with us a time or two; she battled through her stage fright to see what it was like for her sisters up on stage, under the lights, and in front of an audience. We never really talked much about how she felt about the experience, of being on stage, but I had so much respect for her for doing it.
What I appreciate most about Brenda, and that I hope to carry with me as best I can, is her openness. I’ve identified as “queer” for a long time now because I like that it doesn’t settle anything. If you say you are gay or lesbian, people think they have you figured out. They think they know all about you because of that word. That’s not to say that gay and lesbian people aren’t complicated and complex and just as diverse as us queer folks, but our society has a firmer idea of what those words mean, or are supposed to mean. They don’t have to ask. I like queer because it isn’t the end of the conversation, but the beginning. People have to ask, “What do you mean by that?” If they are brave enough to do just that and ask, then it starts a conversation where the two of you can talk about gender and sex and desire and all of that complicated, mixed up stuff. Through those conversations, you can start to realize that even if we aren’t the same, we can find moments of recognition in each other’s stories while also learning as we encounter those things that are not like us. It allows us to start building a community based on sharing who we really are, rather than on sharing a label.
Brenda was someone I really am lucky to have had as part of a community I belonged to. I cherish the time I had to get to know her, and all of my thoughts and intentions go out to Jane in this unimaginable time. I know that her light and her love will shine down on us, but I can’t help feeling a little selfish, wishing we could have kept her here a bit longer. But that’s the thing about stars: we really only appreciate them in darkness.
Tags: Brenda Starr, cross-dressing, crossdressing, drag, drag audience, drag queen, drag show, drag troupe, I-Beam, Janessa, Janessa J, Janessa J Champagne, Janessa Jaye, Janessa Jaye Champagne, Miss Jaye