The Warhol social scene of 1970s New York was a source of intrigue for many — gay or straight, free-spirited or unadventurous — because human beings are inherently curious. The primal desire to delve into the unknown is one of the central aspects of gender-bending, whether you’re the cross-dresser venturing on stage for the first time or the curious bystander who wants to understand this evolution of popular culture. Think about the first time you heard Lou Reed croon the opening lyrics of “Walk on the Wild Side,” his 1972 hit that made legendary drag queen and Warhol Factory star Holly Woodlawn famous. “Plucked her eyebrows on the way/Shaved her legs and then he was a she … ” If you were too young to comprehend the lyrics then, didn’t you at least want to understand them?
This was the intrigue I felt while chatting with Penelope Lord, the 2008 Queen of Gay Fiesta, about dressing in drag, competitive pageants, and the friendship and solidarity that defines San Antonio’s LGBT community. Lord met me in less-glamorous guise than usual on this day — a baby-faced 24-year-old with a radiant smile in a red Budweiser baseball cap. Lord began competing in drag a few years ago when she was approached by some showgirls in Dallas. She’s stayed the course because she likes the attention. “Even as a child I used to watch old movies with Bette Davis and Liza Minelli,” says Lord. “They were these old-school divas, and it just gave me that sense of belonging. I feel like them sometimes, sitting in front of the mirror with the makeup and everything.”
Lord was ecstatic when she won the crown this year, and says it felt great to be the glamorous girl who revs up the crowd. There were six contestants in this year’s competition, judged on club wear, evening wear, question and answer, and talent. “That bar was so crowded,” said Lord, speaking of Silver Dollar Saloon where the finals were held on September 14. “Oh my God, I was so nervous. I actually had to drink three double cherry vodka sours before I got on stage because I was such a nervous wreck.” The win gave Lord the opportunity to reign as the 2008 Queen of Gay Fiesta, an event which celebrated its 25th Anniversary last Sunday at Sunken Gardens.
I’d heard from a friend that some drag queens elect a “daughter” to train and carry on the family name, and Lord confirmed that interesting tidbit. Though she doesn’t have any drag daughters herself, Penelope is part of the Lord family, a line that is known for doing a variety of charity events and fundraisers. “In order to get into a certain family, they have to see something in you that would represent them,” said Lord. “I’ve kind of changed up the name, because they’ve never had a Lord who dances, and I’m a dancer.”
Norelle Roberts, a friend of Lord’s, joined us and said that she was approached to join the Roberts family when one of the showgirls saw her out in drag and liked her style. “The Roberts are known for being very glamorous, very out there, kind and loving, but entertaining like crazy,” said Lord. “What I like about them is they’re very courteous, but very, very good on stage.”
But Lord’s reason for entering the drag competition runs much deeper than the customary glitz and glamour. The charming, friendly young man told me that he discovered he is HIV-
positive just two months ago, and decided to continue competing to donate his winnings to various charity organizations. He says activism has given him a reason to keep fighting for a cure and has pushed him to educate others about prevention. Lord says dressing in drag for charity allows him to get people’s attention with the entertainment, and then use it as a platform to talk to them about issues like risky behavior, STDs, and prevention. “These aren’t shows to get a crown or a sash,” Lord says. “I don’t get the money personally — it goes to organizations that help people. It’s important that I get through to them, gay or straight, because this could happen to anybody.”
Lord says she wants to be that activist who’s still in drag at 50, hauling in the crowds to donate and help the cause. “The way I’m looking at it, I’m not sorry, I’m blessed,” she said. “Now I can empathize with other people. It sucks to see these beautiful human beings just give up because they think there’s no hope. I want to give them that hope.” •