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Filmmaker Marguerite Arnold finds uncommon family values in the life of a D.C. drag queen.
It’s time someone stood up—again—and told straight people exactly what “drag” is. “The public personas we all put on are drags,” says Marguerite Arnold, a D.C.-based filmmaker and 32-year-old straight woman. “Drag is, in some ways, a defense. In our society, it means dressing up as a woman. In the process, you are creating an alternative, identifying as someone else; it’s a way of communicating. Drag is what you want it to be.”
With her feature-length documentary There’s No Place Like Home, Arnold drags a 32-year-old architect-cum-queen and his Cleaver-like nuclear family to the D.C.’s 9th annual Reel Affirmations Film Festival, onto the Internet, into the homes of gays and their families, and around the film-festival circuit. It may seem as though the drag phenomenon would be too odd for the average American filmgoer—like, say, a 50-something career military man and father of two named John Young Jr. But surprisingly, in this case, it’s not: When John Young Jr.’s own son, John Young III, the subject of Arnold’s documentary, became one of D.C.’s best-known drag queens, it wasn’t long before drag shows turned into a Young family affair.
Arnold has been a documentary filmmaker for eight years. She’s also the owner of a video production firm, Dama Productions, and founder of Studio 650, D.C.’s only digital screening facility for independent film. She aspires to great things at Sundance, Cannes, and the Oscars, but she made Home for more than professional reasons. “Fourteen years ago, in high school, one of my best friends, who is gay, came out to his parents,” she says. “When they disowned him, he tried to commit suicide. Since then, I’ve been very sensitive to the issues surrounding family and homosexuality, and I’m aware of the fact that there’s still a long way to go in terms of tolerance.”
Arnold was online in an AOL writers’ chat room when she met Donna Duggan-Young. “I was chatting with a woman who said her son, John, was a drag queen, and that the whole family participated in his drag pageants,” Arnold says. “I couldn’t believe his family would be so supportive
Arnold quickly discovered that John’s life was camera-ready for the ultimate gay-straight crossover film: He had named his drag-queen persona “Donna Galore,” after his mom, who took him dress-shopping. He swapped bustiers with his sister, and his father helped him build sets for his pageants. Within a day after she found out about this family’s life, she and John Young III had talked on the phone, and the drag star had agreed to let her make the movie.
John Young III is not a transvestite. He is not a transsexual. And he does not want to be a woman. But he dresses up as the stunning Donna Galore three or four times a year. “I’m certainly not the most talented drag queen out there,” he says. “But I try to infuse it with a certain measure of irony and humor.”
Still, John the younger isn’t sure he can define “drag” himself. “There are aspects of what it is to be a woman in our society that I find really appealing. Donna [Galore] is a total costume for me—an armor. I would never get on a stage in front of 2,500 people dressed like this,” he says, gesturing to his T-shirt and jeans. “I certainly don’t want to be a woman, but there are certain things that a woman can do that men can’t that I find alluring. Women have a wider range in which to express themselves. As a boy, I was named after my dad, so as a girl, I should be named after my mom. That’s why I had to create Donna. I had to have an outlet for my mother’s influence.”
In August 1997, Arnold began toting a camera and a one-person crew to the Young residence in Woodbridge. The filmmaker’s omnipresence at the Youngs’ house—and her commitment to speak on camera only when absolutely necessary—allowed her to achieve fly-on-the-wall status. Home, as a result, comes off as cinema verite.
“The straight audience members who have seen the film say they wish their families were as accepting as John’s,” says Arnold. “Tolerance begins at home. While a drag pageant may be a little untraditional, it’s no different from going to your kid’s soccer game.”
Interspersed with shots of young John strutting down a catwalk lip-synching show tunes are interviews and real-life scenes: the senior Youngs talking about their son’s sexuality over the kitchen table, Donna Duggan-Young zipping John III into his dress, John III wig-shopping with fellow queen Shuga Magnolia, and younger sister Michael (named after the man who saved her father’s life in Vietnam) giving last-minute makeup tips. Michael’s interview serves as a kind of narration, providing answers to the film’s unspoken questions, such as How did this family get to be so freaking cool?
First off, Donna Duggan-Young ain’t no Donna Reed: She works for a construction company, named her daughter Michael, and takes her son dress shopping. “If the kid was a jockey, I’d be at the races,” she says in Home of her presence at the pageants. Later, she asks John III “if it would be too Donna Reed-ish if we wore matching dresses.” The irony is not lost on a sequin-clad John when he puts his stamp of approval on his mother’s evening gown: “I wouldn’t be ashamed to be seen with you,” he says.
The Young parents share their feelings about John’s coming out, along with their home-cooked recipe for tolerance. “I don’t think we ever realized that there was anything exceptional about the way we were living our lives or raising our children,” Mom explains. “I think that parents who have a hard time with [their children’s homosexuality] are dealing with their own issues, what they perceive as embarrassment. It’s a hard thing to put that aside and look at how that’s affecting your child. I’m not saying I don’t have any problems, but the problems I had to work through were the fears that I have for John in terms of the society we live in.”
Arnold juxtaposes John III showing off trophies from drag pageants with his father showing off trophies from his 26-year career in the Army. The elder John Young attended the Citadel, fought in Korea and Vietnam, worked at the Pentagon, and has seen his son perform “Daddy’s Little Girl” in a pink baby-T and ruffled panties.
It’s no surprise that the elder Youngs have become poster parents for the gay community, and the initial swell of recognition does not faze the modest, soft-spoken father. “I wouldn’t say that I was a role model. There are certain things that you can control and certain things you can’t. If I could make my son straight, I would, just because I think being gay will make his life more difficult. Having said that, I would like to let him know that I am going to provide him the support that is his due from me as a parent. He is my son; he is of me; I can do nothing less than love and support him.”
The film “really just touches on one aspect of John’s life,” says Donna
Duggan-Young, who is thinking of wearing a tux to the film’s premiere at the Lincoln Theatre Oct. 21. “We are all so much more than our sexuality; it’s not the sum total of a person.”
Arnold is working with national gay-rights groups to distribute Home. The filmmaker’s straight acquaintances often ask why she wants to be associated with a “gay film.”
“We all go through a coming-out process,” Arnold remarks. “It’s called growing up. It’s all about accepting yourself and deciding how much of your real inner self you’re going to share with the world.”
Despite its universal theme of protecting your own, Home could come to be seen as controversial even within the gay community, where drag remains an item of dispute. Some feminist lesbians oppose drag because of its portrayal of women, and some gay men oppose drag because it perpetuates stereotypes of gay men. For example, in the film, the younger John talks about the “backlash against drag with this…hypermasculinity that’s sort of taking over the drag community.” Can’t a guy just put on a dress without everyone making such a big deal about it?
“I think a business suit is drag,” says Arnold. “You’re presenting an image to a world. Most men are uncomfortable wearing ‘macho’ clothing. A lot of women say that they feel like they’re putting on a costume when they get dressed every morning. The kind of drag John participates in is pure camp.”
“I think the way the film presents me is that I’m just anybody in some respects, and I’m not exactly a role model,” says John Young III. “It’s important to get the message out that we’re just like a normal family. We could just be anybody’s next-door neighbors.”CP
There’s No Place Like Home screens as part of the Reel Affirmations film festival Thursday, Oct. 21, at 9:15 p.m. at the Lincoln Theatre. Admission is $8.