‘Not our first pandemic’: drag queen, 90, who stayed onstage during Covid
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.
From running a “rough’n’ready dyke bar in skid row” in the 1970s, where his earrings were stuck on with duct tape, to losing friends and staff to HIV/Aids in the 1980s and 90s. To 2016, when Guinness named him a world record holder and a Darcelle documentary won a regional Emmy.
And despite the 2020 pandemic bringing high risks for the elderly, Cole, who turns 91 in November, 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 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.”
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 color, to seek help because of healthcare discrimination.”
In March last year more than 100 LGBT+ organisations warned of the greater risks of Covid-19. Weeks later, Garry Bowie, head of Los Angeles-based HIV/Aids non-profit, Being Alive, who was diagnosed with HIV in 1983, was among the first gay activists to die from coronavirus. He was 59.
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.
Frederick Schjang, who runs fitness classes for older LGBT+ people in New York, lost work overnight when gyms closed.
The 63-year-old, who arrived from the US Virgin Islands as a child, said: “This is not our first pandemic. I knew it would be psychologically difficult for men and women my age. But I was not going to be a victim; I was going to soar.”
Days before lockdown, he bought his first laptop, learned to use it and launched Zoom classes that became a “lifeline” to many.
He also hosted an online festival with 2,000 attendees and started outdoor classes in African and Asian American neighbourhoods.
“I’ve got a new career in my 60s. It’s wonderful,” he said, “and I also wanted to give back.”
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, particularly his supportive family and great-granddaughter who spots “grandad” in photos of Darcelle.
This weekend 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.”