By Steacy Easton, Contributing Writer
Allan Gurganus once wrote a long essay called “He’s One Too”, about growing up in the 1950s queer and very Southern. It talks about how to live a public life (or what a queer public life might mean) before such a thing was possible.
He talks about how the florist, the church organist or the librarian were so overt that they could be covert. The secret, subversive quality of the sissy. Being thirty years younger than Gurganus, I recognize that the sissy’s high femme snap had it’s own kind of armor. There is power in being so audacious. In saying what cannot be spoken out loud, with a swish and a lisp.
I don’t think they are fashionable anymore, I think that sometimes the queer community is a little embarrassed by the sissy. That we think we are better than they are. They might remind us of the old times, when those shibboleths and codes need to be retained. Queer folks seems to be very earnest these days .The carefully crafted irony disappearing into manifestos and discourses.
Leslie Jordan is our great, unapologetic, gorgeous, moving, very funny sissy. The bitchy, fetching, Queen of the South, who reminds us of the traditions of Gurganus. In the middle of quarantine, he spilled an entire history and performance of piss elegant sissydom, from the beginning of time to the present. On Instagram he told stories, made jokes, name dropped, discussed recipes, and told us how he lived in the South. How he wants to live in the South.
Like all true experts in this style, he made outsiders feel like insiders. I think that it’s easy to view it as a kind of vicious irony. His most famous character on Will and Grace, Beverly Leslie, has that wicked, serpent tooth charm. But Leslie himself seems to love and want to be loved.
Gurganus mentions this hiding in the open as he talks about the church organist. Even with the damage that the Southern church can do with it’s official prohibitions against all that makes queerness worth living, the person who plays the organ or directs the music is often an example of the sissy. Of queerness hidden in plain sight.
I think this is why I’m moved by Jordan singing hymns on “Company’s Comin'”. It makes an oblique argument about how Jesus loves all the little children; even the high femme ones. Maybe even especially the high femme ones. When Jordan releases an album of hymn, he is making an argument about the South. About the hymns that he sang as a child, hymns that might still comfort him.
He also, by including queer members like Katie Pruitt and Brandi Carlile, recreates the Southern church for a queer space. There is something significant in this being the first major production that T.J. Osborne is on after his coming out. That Jordan includes the small introductions, the studio chatter, that he calls people Miss Brandi or Miss Tanya–that intimacy can exist outside the strictly ecclesial. That it also includes Dolly Parton adds a certain amount of hero worship. But it suggests that Leslie is well known and it works as a kind of social climbing (that’s the South too).
Jordan is not a great singer; but the people singing with him are generous. They mold their voice around him and he becomes central; more than the clown. But, he also knows when to just take a step back. The connections between queer speech, and church speech, can be a tradition of call and response, of trading verses as a way of trading stories.
The annotations, the talking back, is as important as the actual songs sometimes. This could be considered a kitsch artifact. One of deeply moving, religious sensibility. (Of course kitsch, in that it is a people’s art, has the weight of protestant sanctification.)
I think that’s why I find the album is both a great time, a solid entertainment, a significant religious moment, and maybe my favorite gospel album of the year. Jordan blesses the sissy, and by extension, makes an argument about how God might do the same.