Lessons I learned from drag queens as a child

Divine would posthumously serve as the main inspiration behind Disney's Ursula in 'The Little Mermaid.'

Divine would posthumously serve as the main inspiration behind Disney's Ursula in 'The Little Mermaid.' 'Pink Flamingoes'

There has been a lot of freaking out lately over libraries hosting drag queen story hour for kids. Will this turn them gay? Will they start worshipping Satan? Will children head to bars seeking queens, and instead end up trying alcohol only wake up the next day with bookie debt and a face tattoo?

Answer to all of this: No.

Decades ago, when I was a mere kid, drag queens like Divine and RuPaul were right up there on my list of beloved personalities along with the Muppets, Cheetara from Thundercats, and She-Ra.

My mom is a very mild-mannered lady from Columbus, Ohio. She is, however, a huge fan of camp and the films of John Waters. That meant I grew up watching Polyester, Hairspray, and Cry Baby as much as I did things like Ghostbusters, Care Bears: The Movie, and Transylvania 5-6000 (look it up, but don’t try to watch it).

Looking back, I realize now that not only did drag queens like Divine entertain me, but they also taught me a few very important lessons. Here are a few below:

Drag is a performance, just like any other character in a movie or onstage

For a small child, reaching a point where you understand this is no small feat. Hell, many grown ups still struggle with this concept daily. Divine was an iconic drag persona, but she also showed up in movie roles and at press events out of drag. Soon I understood that a man putting on makeup to play someone’s mom was basically the same thing as putting on a suit (and putting a little less makeup on) to play a TV station manager.

That said, being able to comprehend that I was watching someone act didn’t mean that I couldn’t connect with the humanity of that performance, and use that to understand things in the real world. Divine often played mothers, and she played them with such a gentle sadness and motherly love that I would something think, “Oh god! Is that how my mom feels when I’m mean?” Yes, a drag queen helped me empathize with my mom.

Be yourself and you’ll find your family

In 1988’s Hairspray, Tracy Turnblad doesn’t change a thing about herself (other than her hair) after making a splash on the Corny Collins Dance Show. She’s “pleasantly plump,” and from a blue-collar family on a budget, but that doesn’t stop her from looking fabulous, landing a hot (and kind) boyfriend, and winning the hearts of audiences. Doing so not only strengthens her friendship with her BFF, Penny, but it also opens up a new world for her, meeting and befriending talented yet overlooked black musicians and personalities in her neighborhood like Motormouth Maybelle. Being herself allows her to discover new things that give her a purpose, like using her influence to become a Civil Rights advocate. Goals, right?

Support the people you love and stand up for what’s right

John Waters films are filled with people discovering who they are while surrounded by gentle and supportive freaks. When Tracy Turnblad has her television debut, her mother, played by Divine, beams with pride. She continues to do so as Tracy faces death threats for standing up against segregation. Sure, you might make enemies. But in the end, people who fight against equality and kindness are garbage people. With the support of friends and family, people get shit done.

Smoking is not glamorous or attractive

Thanks, John Waters and Divine, for featuring lots of characters who smoke but always making it look like the grossest/most miserable thing ever. I didn’t need any encouragement not to start, but I can’t help but wonder if this had an impact on me as well. No iron lung for me, thanks.