Miss Majesty Divine, a drag performer, collects tips and dances among the crowd at Phat Sammy’s tiki bar in Huntsville, Ala.Credit…D’Angelo Lovell Williams for The New York Times
It was an unusually chilly Thursday night in December, and a drag queen named Miss Majesty Divine was putting the final touches on her show makeup. She was about to go onstage for her regular gig at a basement tiki bar, one of the last performances before Christmas.
Up at street level, two unwelcome guests had arrived. They were not fans. They were men with bushy beards, one holding a bullhorn, the other a placard that depicted a drag queen holding a screaming baby and the hashtag #stopdragqueenstoryhour.
“Repent, you filthy dog! You are going to burn in hell!” the one with the bullhorn shouted. “God sent AIDS to deal with people like you!”
Madge, as she is known to her friends and adoring fans, was unfazed.
“I teach math to middle schoolers,” Madge deadpanned. “You think I haven’t been called some things?”
By the end of the next workday, Madge, who in the classroom was known as Mr. James Miller, would call himself something new: retired. In the middle of the school year, the teacher, 52 years old, abruptly put in his papers. His career was over.
“It’s funny — all these people who complain about cancel culture, and now they are trying to cancel my whole existence,” Madge told me.
Miller’s troubles began on Oct. 12, when the conservative social media account known as Libs of TikTok, which specializes in finding and spreading videos, often out of context, of supposedly outrageous liberal behavior, posted an edited video of him performing in drag as Madge at charity events, some of which had children in attendance.
The video went viral, landing Miller on The Daily Mail’s website and many conservative news sites, falsely portraying his tame performances as lewd and overtly sexual. An avalanche of hate came down on Miller. Amid the maelstrom he realized that he could not continue teaching in Alabama. He had already been thinking of retiring soon, and this cataclysm prompted him to accelerate his plans.
I traveled to Alabama last month to try to understand the state of queer America today, to try to understand this unsettling whiplash I’ve been feeling lately as a queer person. The world watched a gay congressman lead the vote to codify national recognition of same-sex and interracial marriage, and the grandees of the L.G.B.T.Q. community gathered at the White House to watch President Biden sign that bill into law and to listen to Cyndi Lauper croon “True Colors.”
At the same time, queer people are being hounded by vigilantes and targeted by bigoted laws. On TV I watch queer people as protagonists but also hear them vilified as groomers and child molesters by right-wing news organizations and lawmakers. A web designer would rather go all the way to the Supreme Court than make a wedding website for a theoretical queer couple. Queer spaces, from clinics serving transgender youth to nightclubs, are under attack. These past few years have been a time of head-spinning backlash.
I chose to come here not because Alabama has one of the strongest records of homophobic legislation in the country or because it is one of the few states where less than half of the population supports federal protections for gay marriage. I came here because the last time I was in Alabama, in 2017, I had one of the best nights of my life, at a gay bar with a bunch of queer people I had just met.
At the time, I was the editor of HuffPost, and I was in town with a group of colleagues as part of a cross-country bus tour we did, interviewing people about the state of America along the way. We met and interviewed a man named Michael Meadows who had just been named Mr. Leather Birmingham. He invited us back to the local leather bar, Spike’s. It is hard to explain how good it feels to walk into a queer space when you are a queer person in a strange place — the warm embrace and recognition of a shared experience, no matter how different our lives might be. A night of karaoke, dancing in faux cages and rounds of shots ensued. My memories are hazy, but the pictures and videos on our phones don’t lie: We had a blast.
When I went to Birmingham in 2017, we were less than a year into the Trump administration. It was long before the phrase “don’t say gay” entered the popular vernacular and before the word “groomer” came roaring back into circulation as a slur hurled at queer people. It was before the tsunami of book bans and, Lord help us, long before Libs of TikTok.
It was a time when major TV shows featuring transgender actors were started. “RuPaul’s Drag Race” had become a cultural phenomenon, and drag performances drew wider audiences. Gay bars had become prime destinations for straight bachelorette parties, much to the chagrin of many gay patrons.
And it wasn’t just media and society. Supreme Court decisions affirming the right to same-sex marriage seemed to have paved the way to mainstream acceptance of gays and lesbians. Polling showed consistent majority support for same-sex marriage. Some of the hottest debates within the queer community every June were over whether Pride had become too mainstream and corporate.
That year Alabama, a blood-red state, stunned the nation by electing a Democrat to the Senate, choosing Doug Jones, a former prosecutor who had brought two of the Klan bombers of the 16th Street Baptist Church to justice, over the right-wing Republican Roy Moore. Jones spoke proudly of having a gay son.
The late 2010s were a pivotal time in James Miller’s life, too. He was interviewing for a teaching job at Mountain Gap Middle School in Huntsville.
“When I was interviewing, I said to myself: I don’t want to spend another 20 years in the closet,” Miller told me as he got ready for the drag show. So when he got the job offer, he pointedly told the hiring committee that he would need to discuss it with his husband and son. It was a test, and the school passed, welcoming him with open arms.
“I thought, ‘I found where I want to be,’” Miller said.
At that point, Miller had also been performing as a drag queen for roughly two decades, though like any good teacher, he kept a strict divide between his classroom and his life outside of school. He said he got his start in drag performing at a charity event to raise money for an AIDS hospice.
“A friend of mine said, ‘Why don’t you do drag? You’ve got a big mouth and a bad attitude,’” Miller said.
Over time, he built a loyal following, performing at local nightclubs and at charitable events. As drag grew more popular with broader audiences, he started performing at story hours for kids. He said he took care to tailor his performance to the audience, keeping it PG whenever children were around, though like any kids’ entertainer, he said he liked to slip in double entendres that would fly over children’s heads but give the grown-ups a chuckle. It was a fun side hustle.
Until now. After Libs of TikTok released the video of him performing, he was placed on paid leave from his job. His email inbox filled with hateful messages.
“People said things like, ‘Why are they letting this thing breathe?’” he told me. Other messages called for him to be prosecuted for child abuse.
But he also got warm and supportive messages from parents and students.
“I heard today about the stupid issue happening, and I just wanted to say as a parent that has had three of their own children in your classroom, we fully support you,” said one such message Miller showed me.
The crowd at the tiki bar that December night whooped when Majesty Divine finally pranced onstage, lip-syncing along to Lizzo.
“It’s bad bitch o’clock. Yeah, it’s thick-thirty,” she sang, thrusting out an ample hip and tossing a bewigged shrug. “I’ve been through a lot, but I’m still flirty.”
Then Madge shared some news.
“Y’all keep up with the news? Well, don’t. It’s too depressing,” she said. “Tomorrow at 3:15 is the end of 30 years of teaching for me. I’m retiring.”
The crowd let out a cacophony of supportive boos and cheers.
“I love you all so much,” Madge purred. She brought down the house with a Tina Turner mash-up that ended in a barn-burning rendition of “Proud Mary.”
Amber Portwood, the manager of the bar, said it was a huge loss for the children of Huntsville.
“Madge is such a wonderful teacher and community person,” she said. “Her students were the first to come to her defense. It is absolutely shameful what happened.”
Asked about Miller, Huntsville City Schools sent this statement: “The district addressed a personnel matter several months ago following viral posts on social media involving a teacher. While we are limited in what we can share for privacy reasons, this was not a school-related event, it did not take place on school property, it did not occur during school hours, and it has no connection to any instruction that occurs in our classrooms.”
How did we get here? Looking back, I cannot help wondering now whether what looked in the 2010s like an unstoppable march toward mainstream acceptance of gay and lesbian people was perhaps more of a wobble. Perhaps the wanton cruelty of the Trump era uncorked something that was there all along. Right-wing, nativist parties espousing what they describe as traditional values have made electoral gains across many continents, and almost all of them have found queer people an easy target to use to whip up support for their agenda.
What looked in American polls like widespread acceptance of gay and lesbian people came in large part from a highly effective campaign to show that gay people are just like everyone else, save one small difference that likely was genetic and immutable, and that we wanted the same things: the American dream of marriage, conventional career success, military service.
But like all liberation movements, the fight for queer liberation contained multitudes of different people with different beliefs, including those who wanted revolution — to overthrow the entire heteronormative patriarchal system built around monogamy and the nuclear family within capitalism. They saw that system as the root of oppression not just of queer people but also of women and all kinds of marginalized people.
But the vanguard’s demand for revolution inevitably runs up against the majority’s urgent need for safety and basic rights. Much of the L.G.B.T.Q. rights movement’s efforts moved toward reforming rather than remaking. And so we have decriminalized gay sex, legalized gay marriage and allowed gay people to serve openly in the military. And a lot of us slipped into a kind of complacency. We once chanted, “Silence equals death.” Now we cooed, “Love is love.”
As many more queer people have come out into the light, parts of the community that were more hidden from the mainstream are demanding their visibility, too, especially transgender and nonbinary people, among them many children and teenagers who in previous generations would not have dreamed of coming out. And that has made a lot of people of many different political stripes very uncomfortable.
“A lot of the improvements in L.G.B.T.Q. life that the pollsters point to and on which we base our conclusion that there has been significant progress — they don’t really tell us much about what people are privately feeling,” said Martin Duberman, a leading historian of the gay rights movement who, at 92, has some long-term perspective on this issue. “And I think what we are seeing now is those private feelings coming out again.”
For much of modern history in the United States, queerness had to be carefully hidden to avoid police harassment and violence. Eventually queerness came to be tolerated if it emulated heterosexual norms — gender appropriate, couple-focused, monogamous. Now the insistence on recognition from queer people who don’t conform to expectations about gender seems to have been a bridge too far.
We’ve been here before. Urvashi Vaid, the lionhearted activist who tragically died at the age of 63 last year, wrote about this in her prescient book, “Virtual Equality,” which was published in 1995. As a candidate, Bill Clinton had courted the gay vote, but he ultimately triangulated his way to the Defense of Marriage Act and the abominable “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in the military.
In a 1994 speech Vaid warned us, “By aspiring to join the mainstream rather than continuing to figure out the ways we need to change it, we risk losing our gay and lesbian souls in order to gain the world.”
Years of effective activism culminated with the dismantling of the Defense of Marriage Act by the Supreme Court. But as supporters of voting and abortion rights will tell you, a Supreme Court decision turns out to be a flimsy scaffold on which to build your freedom. The court has gutted the Voting Rights Act and overturned Roe. The battles for the ballot and bodily autonomy have moved mostly to the state and local levels. It is clear that queer people will receive a frosty reception from the emboldened majority of the highest court in the land.
So what now? I posed this question to the organizer and writer Dean Spade, who has worked relentlessly as an advocate for queer and trans people.
“The only social movements that have ever won any liberation or even reduced the conditions of harm were made up of millions of ordinary people, gumming up the works, throwing wrenches into the machines of oppression and then helping each other survive the systems along the way so that they could keep organizing,” he told me.
Queer people have never sat around and waited for rights and dignity to be handed to them — from the first stirrings of gay resistance in the early 20th century to the Stonewall uprising to the horrors of the AIDS epidemic, we have built our own systems of mutual aid and care. In Alabama, that spirit and the people who carry it refuse to give in to the backlash.
I saw that spirit at the Magic City Acceptance Center, an organization that provides a safe space and supportive programming for queer youth in Birmingham. There I met a 31-year-old queer Black woman named Lauren Jacobs, who was born and raised in Birmingham. When she was trying to decide where to go to college, she could have done what generations of young queer people have done: Get a one-way ticket out of Alabama, head for one of the meccas on the coasts and never look back.
But she didn’t. After checking to make sure it had an L.G.B.T.Q. student organization, she chose to attend the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa and joined the vibrant queer community there.
“We have a long, long track record of activism here,” Jacobs told me.
After graduation she decided to move back home to Birmingham, roll up her sleeves and fight for queer people in her home state.
“It felt like there was so much work to do in Alabama,” she said. “There is so much I like about how we organize in Alabama.”
The center now serves hundreds of queer youth in Birmingham and across the state. It offers space for them to hang out, play video games and be with their peers. Every year, the center holds a prom for queer kids; they can dress as they like and bring a date of whatever gender they prefer. Jacobs was among a couple of dozen attendees at the first one in 2014. Around 200 kids attended the most recent one.
The work of the center could not be more urgent. According to the Trevor Project, a mental health and suicide prevention organization focused on L.G.B.T.Q. youth, 47 percent of Alabama’s queer kids seriously considered suicide in the past year, and 20 percent of transgender kids attempted suicide.
“For young people who feel that Alabama doesn’t have spaces like this, for them to be able to walk into a place like this and feel they deserve it — that is always a joy,” Jacobs said.
I found another answer at the TAKE Resource Center, an organization in Birmingham’s East Lake neighborhood supporting transgender people of color. It was started by a transgender woman, Daroneshia Duncan-Boyd, who felt that too many trans people were suffering from poverty, homelessness and violence. She built TAKE in the mold of queer mutual aid organizations throughout history, with the knowledge that a hostile society would do little to save them.
“We started TAKE with sex-work dollars and unemployment checks,” Duncan-Boyd told me with a chuckle. Now the organization operates an emergency shelter, life-skills classes, legal clinics and a drop-in center.
“Other organizations provide surface-level services, but we get down into the nitty-gritty,” said Logan Boyd, a transgender man who works at the center. He moved to Alabama in 2017, and the following year he and Duncan-Boyd married. They are now trying to have a baby, a head-spinning but enticing prospect for Boyd.
“We’re trying to change the image of what the American dream can be,” he said. “I’ll have to wrap my head around being a pregnant man, I guess.”
Reimagining what life could be for transgender people in the South is central to TAKE’s mission. But first, it must attend to the most basic, urgent needs. I met one of TAKE’s clients, a 41-year-old trans woman named Marcy Allen. In November she had found herself penniless and homeless on the streets of southern Alabama after a string of bad luck.
“It was getting colder, so I needed somewhere indoors to sleep,” Allen told me. “I was doing things I didn’t want to do to pay for hotel rooms.”
News of her plight made its way to Duncan-Boyd, who leaped into action.
“The next thing I know, I am on a bus headed here,” Allen said. She told me she had been living in the group’s emergency shelter and was looking for a job. She had already made an appointment at the local gender clinic to begin her long-sought medical transition.
“March 4,” she said. “I have been on bootleg hormones, and now I can finally get the real thing.”
She attended a legal workshop to begin the process of changing her name. She said Marcy was a temporary name, a place holder. Now she is known as Elizabeth Danielle Marceille Allen.
“It suits me, don’t you think?” she asked, with a flick of her blond hair.
On my last night in Birmingham, I was invited to a party by the Magic City Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. They are a charitable organization that raises money for mostly queer causes. The Sisters have their roots in a raucous and raunchy group of queer activists in San Francisco who dressed in nuns’ habits and behaved outrageously.
Birmingham’s Sisters throw elaborate parties every year, and this one, the Fire and Ice Red Dress Party, was to raise money for the Gender Health Clinic in Birmingham, which provides care for transgender and nonbinary people. They also give out awards to people who have done great service to the queer community.
“The Sisters promulgate universal joy and expiate stigmatic guilt,” the group’s leader, or abbess, Robert King Dodge, told me, decked out in a dazzling red frock and a bejeweled top hat.
It was held at an Arts and Crafts mansion in a fancy part of Birmingham, and all the grandees of the local gay community turned out in force. I thought about that carefree Birmingham night in 2017 and how different things felt now. Everyone I talked to was worried — about the terrible laws that would oppress queer people and the hateful message that sends to queer kids. They all thanked me for coming to Alabama to write about what’s happening.
As the award ceremony wound down, I was surprised to hear my name over the loudspeaker. King Dodge beckoned me up, a wrapped gift in his hand.
“Open it,” he urged.
It was a framed certificate naming me an honorary Sister of Perpetual Indulgence in the house of the Magic City Sisters of Birmingham.
I didn’t quite know what to say. My eyes filled with tears as I looked around the room, filled with people who were proud of all our community has accomplished but terrified of the gathering threats.
“Thank you,” I said. “It’s an honor to be your sister.”
I am so fortunate to have lived in a time and place that permitted me to live my whole adult life out and to be proud of being a lesbian. Increased visibility was supposed to make queer people more recognizable and accepted, and there is no question that it did. But I now wonder if, for some, the sheer volume and range of people coming out have had the opposite effect: making it seem that queer people are omnipresent and a threat.
I get it. When people who are alien to you tell you that deep down, they are just like you, it saves you from having to confront how you might actually be like them. How you might envy their freedom, the strength of their communities. As any decent psychoanalyst will tell you: The flip side of fear is desire.
As I left Birmingham the next morning, I thought about the extraordinary people I had met and the fights they were waging for the lives of queer people in their communities. I knew that this era’s slogan, that wan tautology “Love is love,” was no match for resurgent bigots reclaiming hateful chants about AIDS ridding the world of the homosexual scourge. We need to reach into our past as well and remember the time we chanted, “Silence equals death.” And an old favorite, a mantra for all time: “We’re here. We’re queer. Get used to it.”
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