Proper 6(C): Southerners, Jesus, and Drag Queens
By: The Rev. Anna Tew
One of my favorite television shows on God’s green earth is RuPaul’s Drag Race. If you’re not familiar with it, you might have heard about other shows like it: Project Runway and America’s Next Top Model come to mind. The basic premise is the same in all three: they are reality shows that pit contestants against one another in a contest of creativity and performance, and they have to complete challenges in order to win. One person is eliminated each week until one winner remains. As the pressure mounts, emotions run high. This is especially true of Drag Race, because emotional honesty, though often punctuated by humor, is so valued in the drag community. Full disclosure: I didn’t become interested in Drag Race just for the spectacle of watching drag queens compete. I became interested in it because so many of my friends are drag queens. And I’ve learned quite a bit from them.
There’s something about transgressing gender taboos, or about being LGBTQ in general, that makes a person less likely to hide their feelings. After hiding for so long, not being emotionally authentic no longer seems to be a valid choice. Everything—especially emotions—is laid out on the table and dealt with (hopefully) in a healthy way.
Though, like on Drag Race, this often results in conflict, passive-aggression is cut down and relationships can actually get a lot healthier and more authentic. Queens typically do not have to wonder what their fellow queens are thinking or how they feel. Emotional guesswork is cut out in favor of bluntness. This requires them to have thick skins, but it also improves their performances tremendously.
“Sorry, honey, that wig looks dry and busted.”
It’s risky, and ultimately, it’s honesty and openness rooted in concern and love.
It takes great love to drop all pretense and take a risk.
My male friends who are drag performers are the ones that I can most certainly count on to be honest with me. I know, above all things, that they will not lie to preserve my feelings. They won’t lie and tell me that they’re not upset with me when they are. They love me too much to do that. They give me honesty and openness rooted in love, even when it’s risky. Drag queens take “respectability” and throw it out the window in favor of honesty and authenticity, and I could not love them more for it.
Perhaps I love them so because I was raised a white Southerner, in a culture where what other people think is valued almost above all else. Approval from others is so essential to the self-worth of individuals that it’s considered impolite to be too blunt, or to have another person catch on to what are, at times, your true negative feelings. Stepping outside of accepted norms is incredibly difficult. Big displays of emotion are always looked down upon. You also find yourself wondering what others are actually thinking of you; sometimes people refuse to say anything negative, but their faces say it all. I know this kind of thing isn’t unique to Southern small town life, but it’s always seemed so strong to me there.
In today’s Gospel lesson, we have a character who is completely lacking in common decency. She busts up into Jesus’ nice dinner at the home of a Pharisee, unannounced, and proceeds to touch and anoint Jesus’ feet. She also starts to kiss his feet and does it for so long that it gets awkward. Then the polite, respectable host has quite a negative reaction. He says to himself, “If [Jesus] were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.” He assumes that Jesus doesn’t know, because if he did, he’d have a little more decency and make her stop. Of course, he’s too polite to say anything out loud, but I bet his face said it all.
For his part, Jesus knows exactly “what kind of woman” this is — in fact, I dare say, that’s kind of the point.
He knows that this woman who has been publicly shamed and labeled a sinner, and who has come to him at the house of religious leader, sitting at his feet, loving him, and weeping over him doesn’t care about respectability. When you’ve been ostracized, “respectability” loses its appeal. He also knows that once you are seen and loved, you never want to hide again.
Respectability is for the Pharisees—those whom society has already deemed “respectable.” Respectability is for the privileged—those who have not been told they are indecent or shameful. When you have been told that who you are is shameful—that you are a sinner—respectability is no longer within your reach.
When I was in seminary, I had the joy of serving as the intern at St. Mark United Methodist Church on Peachtree Street in Atlanta. St. Mark sits in the center of Midtown, which in the 1980s and 1990s became home to a large segment of Atlanta’s gay male population. St. Mark at the time was a tiny and dying church. Every year, the Pride parade marched by the church. The Baptist church across the street, feeling threatened by such shows of “indecency,” hired guards to stand in front of their church.
St. Mark, however, decided to offer hospitality instead. During one parade, in the heat of June in Atlanta, the elderly ladies of St. Mark offered cups of cold water to the thirsty marchers with a simple message: “You are welcome here.”
One by one, the young gay men who had moved into Midtown came to check it out—to see if this welcome was real. They found that it was. Visitor after visitor came, and many stayed. The dying church became a booming one. As the years passed, these young gay men would eventually drive the church van on Sunday mornings to pick up the elderly ladies who could no longer drive themselves to church.
St. Mark on Sunday mornings today is a beautiful place filled with every kind of family. One of my favorite parts of being there was hearing them sing. They sing beautifully, and loudly. They sing like people who were kept away, like the woman in Luke, for so long that they have to pour out their gratitude at being welcomed.
Jesus accepts the woman in Luke just as she is. She does not confess, and yet he forgives, perhaps more for the benefit of the Pharisees than the woman herself. She already knows that she is forgiven and loved. Meanwhile, those who have always been seen as respectable and rule-following are left with their mouths hanging open. They could not possibly understand the freedom of her openness met with his love.
Jesus tries to explain: the one who has been forgiven much, loves much.
It takes great love to drop all pretense and take a risk.
And the ones who have been welcomed after being kept out sing the loudest.
Blessed be those, like this nameless woman, who so know that they are loved and worthy that they drop all pretense, for they are, in fact, so loved. We all have a lot to learn from them.
The Rev. Anna Tew is a 30-year-old Lutheran pastor serving Our Savior’s Lutheran Church in South Hadley, Massachusetts. She was born and raised a Southerner and is known for her frequent use of the word “y’all” despite living in New England. She received her Master of Divinity from the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in 2011 and served as a United Methodist pastor in Montgomery, Alabama, for two years before becoming a Lutheran. In her spare time, she enjoys being outdoors, reading theology (yes really), and keeping up with politics and pop culture (especially music).