Monday, May 16, 2022

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Joe's Neighborhood

The drag queen and us


“Everyone does drag. Each one of us in our everyday life puts on a costume and does a performance piece as whoever it is we are.” – Joe Fraioli.

The Garden Nightclub was just beginning to fill as folks got off work on this weekday night. T-shirts, a sprinkling of suits, dress shirts and jeans. Drinks are quietly ordered, people sink comfortably into chairs, conversation is a low murmur. An exhale at the end of a long day.

Eventually, a long-legged woman in a purple skirt, sequined top and spiky heels comes on stage to loud cheers. She’s clearly running the show. The Master of Ceremonies. Domita Sanchez is her drag queen name.

Warm, engaging, sultry and in command, Domita begins her patter with the audience. Laughter, gentle kidding, she walks into the crowd with microphone in hand. Of course, we are the first table, and I’m the first person she engages.

“Are you a bear?” she says to me.

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“I don’t know, what’s a bear?” I respond. The crowd laughs.

“Perhaps you’re a polar bear.” She points to my salt-and-pepper beard. Laughter again.

And before long, I’m up on stage with Domita, drinking a shot of something called “Fireball” and singing with her the Disney classic, “The Bare Necessities.”

How did this happen?

Sandra Gay O’Connor is the reason. No, not the former United States Supreme Court Justice, but Joe Fraioli. You know, the lawyer. Smart. Warm. Funny. Fighting the good fight. Joe Fraioli, aka Sandra Gay O’Connor. Drag queen.

“I was more flamboyant in high school, but for almost a decade after that I tried to assimilate into being a straight person who happened to be gay. I sort of rejected the gay community. It was very arrogant of me.”

Joe explained all this to me the next day over a cup of coffee.

“I told myself, I’m going to become a civil rights advocate. I’m going to go to law school. I’m going to work for the ACLU. I’m going to be a civil rights lawyer. That’s how I’m going to contribute. I’m going to fight for any marginalized group. I will then be fulfilled. That will be enough to advance the rights of gay people. That is enough to be a part of the community.”

It wasn’t enough. Joe felt alone, isolated and depressed.

“At the end of the day, I was just a lawyer. If anything, I felt even more put in a box. The ACLU does amazing things, but it has to work within the system. And that does work to create change. But I was still not satisfied.”

Ah, but then a door opened when some friends introduced him to drag queen shows.

“I started seeing how talented these people are and how confident they are. Not in an arrogant way. How extremely sure of themselves that being in drag made them. Why are they so confident? Drag allowed them to be funny, to push social barriers, to be themselves, but in a way that is totally not themselves. Drag is a subversive form of art. It is about challenging societal norms. It lets you do that while showcasing things about you, your talents, your humor. It is a way to get all that out. I was enamored with it.”

Joe reached out to Domita Sanchez. And a few weeks later, Sandra Gay O’Conner was born.

“Pushing boundaries and eliminating boundaries is a goal of drag. You can identify as one thing and have a degree of attraction to other things. That is one thing straight people, especially men, do not understand. It’s why you end up with a strict Republican in an airport knocking feet with the person in the stall next to him.”

Ah, so that explains my vertigo at being a straight man watching a gay man dressed as an over-the-top woman and thinking how nice she looks. Go figure.

So, Joe, aren’t you worried about being judged harshly for being a drag queen?

“Listen, we all know what it’s like to be ostracized from a group, to be hated for nothing more than who we are. We all want to be liked. We all want to like others. In the end, we all have a strong capacity to be compassionate. I used to be too judgmental. For me, I’m working on not doing that.”

Coffee break over. Joe Fraioli — aka Sandra Gay O’Conner — goes back to work.

And me? I sit with my coffee, a pastry and a tune that won’t get out of my head.

“Look for the bare necessities, the simple bare necessities, forget about your worries and your strife…” ♦

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