YesYou haven’t lived until you put a dollar bill in the thong of a 90-year-old drag queen dressed as a cowboy with no-butt leather leggings. It’s the motto of Darcelle XV, the world’s oldest working imitator, known as the “Unofficial Welcome Wagon in Portland, Oregon.”
With her towering wigs, hand-sewn outfits and flamboyant “1950s B-list French actress” character, thousands of people have flocked to her cabaret club for over 50 years.
Born in Portland in 1930, Walter Cole was a “smooth-haired man with tortoiseshell-rimmed glasses, married with children” before putting on a dress at 39, sparking a career in the rainbow spotlight. -sky.
From running a “rough dyke bar in a row of slips” in the 1970s, where her earrings were stuck with duct tape, to losing friends and staff to HIV / AIDS in the 1980s and 90s. Until 2016, when Guinness named him the world record holder and a documentary by Darcelle won a regional Emmy.
And despite the 2020 pandemic which carries high risks for the elderly, Cole, who turns 91 in November, still puts on 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 was standing behind screens, which made it harder to deal with rowdies. The good news is, I made 19 new costumes while in lockdown… and I have a walker covered in rhinestones.
By 2030, there will be around 7 million LGBT + people aged 50 and over in the United States, up from 2.7 million in 2010, according to the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. But Cole is part of an “endangered generation” of old people who have so far survived. of them pandemics, after more than 700,000 people have died from HIV / AIDS-related illnesses in America since the 1980s.
“Covid has hit this community hard,” said Dr Karen Fredriksen Goldsen, director of Aging with Pride, the first US national longitudinal study of LGBT + communities, launched in 2010.
She added: “There are a lot of unresolved historical traumas… and huge health disparities due to decades of systemic discrimination.
Including poorer physical, mental and economic health than heterosexuals, with higher rates of depression and diabetes, and less access to health insurance and pensions.
As they age, generations who did not think they would live to old age often struggle with care due to an increased likelihood of living alone and ostracism from parents, being four times less likely to have children, and a dependence on friends or “chosen family”, which may also be suffering.
Dr Fredriksen Goldsen added: “There is also sometimes reluctance, especially among transgender people and communities of color, to seek help due to discrimination in healthcare. “
In March of last year, more than 100 LGBT + organizations warned of the increased risks of Covid-19. Weeks later, Garry Bowie, director of Being Alive, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit, who was diagnosed with HIV in 1983, was among the first gay activists to die of the coronavirus. He was 59 years old.
But there are glimmers of optimism.
Organizations like Sage, an LGBT + program for seniors in 22 states, and HealthyGen Center in Washington, have jumped into action, setting up supplies, matching lone members with younger friends for phone calls, and handing out tablets to them. keep connected.
There were also individual victories demonstrating the group’s reputation for survival and popular activism.
Frederick Schjang, who runs fitness classes for LGBT + seniors in New York City, lost his job overnight when gyms closed.
The 63-year-old, who arrived as a child from the US Virgin Islands, 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 the lockdown, he bought his first laptop, learned how to use it, and started Zoom classes that have become a “lifeline” for many.
He also organized an online festival with 2,000 participants and started outdoor classes in African American and Asian neighborhoods.
“I have a new career in my sixties. It’s wonderful, ”he said,“ and I wanted to give back as well. “
Michael Adams, CEO of Sage, called LGBT + older people a “dying generation with extraordinary resilience and generosity of spirit,” and urged younger members to fulfill their “deep moral obligation” to care. of them.
He said: “Without their sacrifices, we would not exist as people with legal rights. We owe them everything. They are our heroes.
Back in Portland, Cole counts his blessings, especially his supportive family and his great-granddaughter who sees “Grandpa” in Darcelle’s photos.
This weekend, he performs in front of a full audience for the first time in over a year.
Is he nervous?
“Darcelle is not afraid of whatever, ” he said.
“She saved my life. Years ago I apologized to my kids if I hurt them [when I came out], but I had to do it, otherwise I would be dead. Now we are a big family. So Covid will not make me retire. I have a world title to defend… and 12 years of battery life in my pacemaker.