Not our first pandemic … Ruth Coker Burks … A Guide to the word “Queer”


‘Not our first pandemic’: drag queen, 90, who stayed onstage during Covid

Darcelle XV, officially the world’s oldest drag queen at 90, is part of an LGBT generation that lived through HIV/Aids. David Raven, better known by the stage name Maisie Trollette, is the UK’s oldest drag queen – a mere 88 in August.

Darcelle XV, known as the ‘unofficial welcome wagon to Portland, Oregon’, will perform to a full audience for the first time in over a year. Photograph: PRESS

You haven’t lived until you’ve put a dollar bill into the G-string of a 90-year-old drag queen dressed as a cowboy in butt-less, leather chaps. That’s the motto of Darcelle XV, the world’s oldest working female impersonator, known as the “unofficial welcome wagon to Portland, Oregon”.

With her towering wigs, hand-sewn outfits and flamboyant persona modelled on “a B-list French actress from the 1950s”, thousands have flocked to her cabaret club for over 50 years.

Born in Portland in 1930, Walter Cole was a “slick-haired man with horn-rimmed glasses, married with children” before he put on a dress aged 39, sparking a career in the rainbow spotlight.

Walter ran a “rough’n’ready dyke bar in skid row” in the 1970s, where his earrings were stuck on with duct tape, and lost friends and staff to HIV/Aids in the 1980s and 90s. In 2016, Guinness named him a world record holder and a Darcelle documentary won a regional Emmy.

Despite the 2020 pandemic bringing high risks for the elderly, he still performs two shows a week. “When we reopened in July (last year) it was a nightmare,” he said.

“You could only have 20 people, and I stood behind screens, making it harder dealing with hecklers. The good news was I made 19 new costumes in lockdown … and have a rhinestone-covered walker.”

By 2030 it is estimated there will be 7 million LGBT+ people over 50 in the US. Photograph: Davids’ Adventures Photos / Getty Images

By 2030 there will be an estimated 7 million LGBT+ people aged 50+ in the US, up from 2.7 million in 2010, according to the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. But Cole is part of a “vanishing generation” of seniors who have so far survived two pandemics, after more than 700,000 people died of HIV/Aids related illnesses in America since the 1980s.

“Covid hit this community hard,” said Dr Karen Fredriksen Goldsen, director of Aging with Pride, the first national US, longitudinal study of LGBT+ communities, started in 2010.

She added: “There’s a lot of unresolved historical trauma … and huge health disparities from decades of systemic discrimination, including poorer physical, mental and economic health than heterosexuals, with higher rates of depression and diabetes, and lower access to health insurance and pensions.

As they age, generations who didn’t think they would live to be old often struggle with care due to an increased likelihood of living alone and ostracism from relatives, being four times less likely to have children, and a reliance on friends or “chosen family”, who may be suffering too.”

Dr Fredriksen Goldsen added: “There’s also sometimes a reluctance, especially in transgender and communities of colour, to seek help because of healthcare discrimination.”

But there are rays of optimism.

Organisations like Sage, a senior LGBT+ programme in 22 states, and HealthyGen Center in Washington, sprang into action, setting up food drops, pairing isolated members with younger friends for phone calls, and distributing tablets to keep them connected.

There have also been individual victories demonstrating the group’s reputation for survival and grassroots activism.

Michael Adams, CEO of Sage, called LGBT+ seniors a “vanishing generation with tremendous resilience and generosity of spirit”, and urged younger members to fulfil their “profound moral obligation” to look after them.

He said: “If it wasn’t for their sacrifices we wouldn’t exist as people with legal rights. We owe them everything. They’re our heroes.”

Back in Portland, Cole counts his blessings as he performs to a full audience for the first time in over a year.

Is he nervous? “Darcelle isn’t scared of anything,” he said. “She saved my life. Years ago, I apologised to my children, if I hurt them (when I came out), but I had to, or I would have died. Now we are one big family. So, Covid won’t make me retire. I have a world title to defend … and 12 years of battery left in my pacemaker.”

Ruth Coker Burks

In 1984, when Burks was 25 and a young mother living in Arkansas, she would often visit a hospital to care for a friend who had cancer.

During one visit, she noticed the nurses would draw straws, afraid to go into one room, its door sealed by a big red bag. She asked why and the nurses told her the patient had Gay-Related Immune Deficiency (GRID), later known as AIDS.

On a repeat visit, and seeing the big red bag on the door, Burks decided to disregard the warnings and sneaked into the room. In the bed was a skeletal young man, who told her he wanted to see his mother before he died. She left the room and told the nurses, who said, “Honey, his mother’s not coming. He’s been here six weeks. Nobody’s coming”. Burks called his mother anyway, who refused to come visit her son, who she described as a “sinner” and already dead to her, and that she wouldn’t even claim his body when he died. “I went back in his room and when I walked in, he said, “Oh, momma. I knew you’d come”, and then he lifted his hand. And what was I going to do? So I took his hand. I said, “I’m here, honey. I’m here”, Burks later recounted. She pulled a chair to his bedside, talked to him, and held his hand until he died 13 hours later.

After finally finding a funeral home that would take his body, and paying for the cremation out of her own savings, Burks buried his ashes on her family’s large plot in Files Cemetery.

After this first encounter, Burks cared for other patients who needed her help. She would take them to appointments, obtain medications, apply for assistance, and even kept supplies of AIDS medications on hand, as some pharmacies would not carry them.

In addition to her work with AIDS patients, Burks also handed out safe sex kits in known cruising spots.

Due to her work, Burks and her daughter were shunned by their local community, and on two occasions crosses were burned in her yard by the Ku Klux Klan.

Burks work soon became well known in the city and she received financial assistance from gay bars, “They would twirl up a drag show on Saturday night and here’d come the money. That’s how we’d buy medicine, that’s how we’d pay rent. If it hadn’t been for the drag queens, I don’t know what we would have done”, she said.

Over the next 30 years (with assistance from her daughter) Burks cared for over 1,000 people and buried more than 40 on her family’s plot (most of whom were gay men whose families would not claim their ashes). For this, she has been nicknamed the ‘Cemetery Angel’.

“Someday, I’d love to get a monument that says: This is what happened. In 1984, it started. They just kept coming and coming. And they knew they would be remembered, loved, and taken care of, and that someone would say a kind word over them when they died”.

Listen here.

A Guide to the word “Queer”

There are many different labels and acronyms which are used to describe the wonderfully diverse LGBT+ communities. Some might choose to extend the acronym to LGBTQIA+, and there are other acronyms which are even longer.

Another word you might have heard used to describe the community, however, is the word queer.

Often, the ‘Q’ in LGBTQ+ stands for queer (however sometimes it can also mean ‘questioning’), and many younger members of the community identify with the term as a way of describing themselves. Others, however, remember the word’s history as a slur, and prefer not to use it.

Here’s a short history of the word, and how it came to be reclaimed …

The origins of the term

The Oxford English Dictionary first notes the use of the word as meaning ‘strange’ or ‘peculiar’ as early as 1513, and in some cases it is still used, removed from any reference to sexuality or gender, to mean this today.

But it wasn’t until the 1890s that the word became associated with homosexuality, with the first recorded use being from John Sholto Douglas, the Marquis of Queensbury, whose son Francis was rumoured to be having an affair with another man.

Douglas described the other man, Archibald Primrose, as a ‘snob queer’, and the word’s usage as a slur was born.

After the 1890s the term began to be used scornfully to describe gay or effeminate men, lesbian or manly women, and probably transgender people who didn’t neatly conform to expectations about who a woman or man should be.

Reclamation of the term

In the late 1960s, however, the Stonewall riots took place, and the Gay Rights movement began. Many participants in the movement started using the word, which was still being used as an insult, to describe themselves in a stark act of defiance.

The AIDs crisis in the 1980s and 90s provided more reason for activists to group together under the umbrella of the term, and even more recently, movements like the fight for marriage equality have kept its usage alive.

The word queer today

Today, many people in the LGBT+ community like the word because of its ambiguity and versatility. Whereas the acronym uses a ‘+’ symbol to define the identities of anyone who isn’t Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual or Transgender, the word queer doesn’t denote a specific identity.

Queer Eye (Photo: NBC / Getty)

Online bookstore Queer Lit and television shows like Queer Eye have brought the term into the mainstream, and it is now seen by many as an effective way of describing their identity. When we see this term queer used by the community and for the community, it’s unambiguously positive usually; the context is clear and we know how people are using it and why they’re using it. On the other hand, when it’s used by members who are outside the community, it’s more difficult to tell.

However, as some people still view the term negatively, at Out In The City we have chosen to use LGBT+ as an all-encompassing ‘umbrella’ term.

What do you think?

One thought on “Not our first pandemic … Ruth Coker Burks … A Guide to the word “Queer”

  1. I like the word Queer, although I generally describe myself as Lesbian. I like the ambiguity and the fact that it allows for allies to be included even if they are not L, G, B or T.


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