One could not avoid reading this story from the Los Angeles Times with this headline: “Great Read: A Drag Queen’s Final Tribute to the Grandmother Who Love and Accepted Him.”
It’s about events in New Mexico, a state where I lived 20 years ago. I was not in gorgeous Santa Fe, but in the northwestern corner of the state that was New Mexico’s industrial quarter with a chunk of Navajo reservation thrown in. Everyone in this part of the world knew Santa Fe was pretty left-wing and up there with Taos insofar as being favorite haunts for starving artists and rich Californians. Which is why it’s a bit surprising to read that a drag queen found disapproval there. The piece starts:
From under his black veil, sweat trickled down Paul Valdez's face.
On the long walk to the casket in the towering Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi, dozens of pairs of drifting eyes found him and bored in. To his left, through the veil's spider web of nylon gauze, he could feel the spite in his aunt's voice.
"At your own grandmother's funeral," she hissed. "Dressed like a girl."… Framed in a tight bustle and trimmed with black crepe, the dress Valdez designed was inspired by Victorian mourning garments. He pressed the dress' black cravat close to his throat and felt himself sway for a moment before his grandmother's coffin.
Valdez is a drag queen and a gay man. Neither really has a lot to do with the other, he says, but in Santa Fe, both are identities that have earned him as little attention as the city can possibly bestow.
And so we read this fascinating story about a woman who grew up in Mexico, then immigrated here to start a wedding dress shop in Santa Fe; how Valdez, her grandson, took over the shop as she grew older and how her last request was for him to show up in drag at her funeral. Specifically: A Victorian mourning dress covered with a gauzy black veil. Here she was, the most conservative member of her extended family, but she loved and accepted her gay grandson.
So why do I have issues with this story? For starters, I don't think there's a whiff of anti-gay feeling in Santa Fe.
Now I’m not debating the writer's appraisal of the religious beliefs in that part of the world. Catholicism in New Mexico seems frozen in time; its height reached several centuries ago when the region’s iconic chapels and cathedrals were built, then filled with retablos (devotional paintings on wood or tin) and bultos (wooden sculptures of saints). And maybe the old Catholic families have not bought into the new sexual mores. But the city itself is the epitome of blue-state America.
And the style the author uses is graceful and so readable. What bothered me was the implication that anyone objecting to the drag queen wearing a dress to his grandmother’s funeral is both a bigot and a hater. The journalism key here: The reporter makes Valdez appear so human, so likeable, so sympathetic, there is no need to present another point of view.
At some point before or during the funeral, Valdez tries to hug the priest, but the priest puts up his hands as if pushing back. (If you were that priest, what if a man in a black crepe dress tried to hug you?) In the article, Valdez is the normal person; everyone else is a creepy sideshow.
Am I the only one who feels manipulated by reading this?
Soon after the June 26 U.S. Supreme Court ruling legalizing gay marriage in all 50 states, I read several articles that talked of strategies employed by gay advocates in reaching their goal. A very successful one was to humanize their story so that opponents would not see a movement but instead see innocent couples who just wish to love each other. So I do smell a bit of Kellerism there; that is, on culture wars issues, there’s only one POV worth sympathy or coverage. You know, #LoveWins, right?
Sometimes I look at the comments section with a news piece to see if anyone else shares my perceptions.
In this case, one person objected to the piece, saying, "I hope more of this is not coming. Doesn't anyone have any shame anymore?" I wouldn't word my reservations quite that way, but the response by another was a bit chilling: "Well, like it or not, more IS coming and you'll have to accept. Then your outdated beliefs will be put sorely to the test!"
So here we have a drag queen attending a funeral for his grandmother in the town's cathedral. This is where the culture war is being waged. If reporters are smart, they are picking up on such undercurrents. They should be listening for two kinds of people; those who've been shut out and are now in the inner circle of news coverage and those who feel depictions of right and wrong in the media are changing by the day. They seem to be recording the viewpoint of the former group well enough. I'm hoping they are willing to produce equally good writing that tells the story of the latter.